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Cdroms : Does X Really Matter ?

56X, 48X, 12X, what do all these X's mean? When it comes to CD-ROM drives these mysterious "X" numbers mean transfer rate. 1X is usually considered as 150 kilobytes per second as defined way back in the early 1980's when CD players were just hitting the market. Not that designer's thought that these little jewels would ever be used to store data, but that was to come later, in the 1990s.

Just a few short years ago, 2X CD-ROM drives were all the rage because you could not only play your beloved audio CDs in them, but you could transfer data at a rate of 2X, or 2 x 150KB/sec, which equals a whopping 300 KB/sec! Now, CD-ROMs boast scorching speeds of 56X, in the case of the Afreey, which is also sold as MagicSpin in stores like Office Max.

But something has dramatically changed since those 2X wonders, namely speed ratings. When the first drives claimed "2X", the manufacturers meant that they could transfer data at that speed all day, with any readable disc. Nowadays, speed ratings have to be taken with a grain of salt-or possibly a whole bag full.

When drives began to exceed the 8X specification, 1200KB/sec., manufacturers had nowhere left to go speed wise. The CLV technology had reached its limit. What's CLV you say? Constant Linear Velocity means that the rate of data transfer stays the same and the rpm spindle speed varies as needed. The other major breed of technology is called CAV or Constant Angular Velocity. CAV means that the data rate can vary and the rpm spindle speed stays the same. If life after 8X drives was going to be promising, CAV technology was going to have to be incorporated into these cool little boxes that formerly only played audio CDs.

Drives with specifications like 12X minimum and 24X maximum began to appear in retail markets. This caused a great deal of confusion. Was a 24X "max" drive faster than a 16X drive (without the "max" on the box)? The range of 12 to 24 X usually meant that, on the inner tracks, the drive read data at the minimum speed, and on the outer tracks, the drive read at the maximum speed.

Suddenly, minimum and maximum designations have vanished. Of the four drives tested here, not one had any minimum transfer rate specification posted on the boxes. So now how are we poor consumers supposed to contrast and compare drives in order to make an educated decision? As this review will show, we can't! No longer do those "X" numbers hold any discernable meaning. Sorry folks, you'll just have to come to Target PC for all the latest tests and reviews to find out what's good and what's bad.

Testing,procedures and descriptions

I had been searching high and low for a good solid CD testing program for years and while it's not perfect, Erik's CDSpeed is the best I've found to date. Visit his site at http://come.to /cdspeed for details and send in your data so he can update his database.

The only requirement to obtain accurate (and repeatable) test data is a motherboard that is UDMA 2 compliant and, of course, good test CDs. I used several custom burned Maxell and TDK brand CDs without any labels stuck to the top to possibly unbalance the fast spinning drives.


Well, what can I say? All the drives are of the IDE 5 1/4 inch type and all look approximately the same. The exception was the Acer.It was at least 50% heavier than any other drive and it had one of those flimsy flip-up doors that go "splunk" when media is loaded.I wonder what happens when I stick my finger in there? The Acer was also the only drive to have digital volume up and down buttons. These buttons are a pain to use and I think that's why everyone else has gone back to the good-old potentiometer volume control.Not exactly high-tech, but easier to use.


Here they are for all to see! I hope the format is readable. The scores are in the "X" format, HA! For example, the data transfer rate for the Mitsumi 40X drive in the fast read column is 29.9X or 29.9 times 150KB/sec. The speeds should be read as averages not absolutes. All the drives reviewed had a minimum and maximum transfer rate for the tests. The results are just the respective average of the total range. Notice that there are two categories for data and audio transfer rates. This is due to totally random performance variations. The very same CD that read at full tilt boogie speed in one drive would run at a slower, more limited speed in another drive and vice-versa.

And it's that inconsistency that really rubs me the wrong way. The only drive that was perfectly consistent in reading any audio or data disc was the Mitsumi 40X-the oldest one! The audio transfer rates are perfectly consistent for every player, but not the data transfer rate. The Acer, with firmware revision 50FT, dropped to nearly one-fourth of its fast read speed. Only approximately one third of my repertoire would read at a decent speed. The rest would run at the paltry rate of 7.9X.




The Future

Just when we all though socket-7 was dead, here comes AMD breathing new life into the aging format-for another two years. 10K RPM CD-ROMs are a reality, with 15K being currently perfected. (The Afreey 56X with firmware revision 12 reached 15K rpm speeds.) Since player only type drives are the most commonly sold units, especially in the sub-$500 computer category, I see no reason that the technology shouldn't push forward. Who knows? In the next two years, we could have True 200X technology, 20 laser beam read heads and 35K rpm spindle speeds. The biggest challenge will be to make those drives quiet.

Final Points

For sometime now, I've been a loyal Mitsumi buyer and now I have proof. Overall, the Mitsumi drives read very consistently with audio and data. The real loser here is the Acer, which I'm told also sells these drives under the AOpen name. Initially, when I took the Acer out of the box, it was running firmware revision 50DT and audio discs wouldn't even play without skipping let alone do digital audio extraction (DAE) properly. After flashing the firmware to 50FT, I could then perform all the data and audio tests without any hitches. The Afreey drive has suffered many a bashing of late, with people saying that it won't read their CDs at all. I've tested two versions of this drive, differing only in firmware revision. The MagicSpin with revision 10 and an Afreey OEM drive with revision 12. Both drives operated exactly the same.

Judging by the numbers, the Afreey 56X (also known as the MagicSpin 56X) is the overall winner. If you're the type of person who needs a DAE player for your 8X writer, then this drive is for you. It easily rips audio far beyond the required 8X minimum rate.

For those who don't care for high speed DAE, the relatively older Mitsumi 40X is the way to go. It read all my discs all full speed no matter what and that saves time when loading your favorite game for the umpteenth time.

William Yaple
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