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Is it time to upgrade your upgrades?

Is it time to upgrade your upgrades?

If you've already installed a CD-RW drive - congratulations! You've installed one of the most cost-effective data storage devices on the market. But, if it's been more than 18 months or so since you paid your money, made your choice and took screwdriver in hand to install it, maybe it's time to repeat the process.

Why should you "upgrade your upgrade?" In the case of a CD-RW drive, there are several reasons:

    Improved Speed
    Improved Reliability
    CD Music Enhancements
    Combo Drive Options
    Dual Drive Disc Copying

CD-RW drives are usually specified thus:

R - W - C

Where R stands for the CD-R maximum write speed, W stands for the CD-RW rewrite speed, and C stands for the maximum CD-ROM read speed. The x equals the 74-minute read rate used to read a standard music CD (which for playback must be read at 1x normal speed).

My first CD-R drive didn't even support CD-RW media. It was a 2x-6x drive, which I recently replaced with a 12x-10x-32x drive. What did I gain from "upgrading my upgrade" - and what will you gain?

Improved Speed

Today, 12x (CD-R write speed) drives are commonplace and even faster 16x or 20x drives are available. How does this speed compare to your existing CD-RW drive?

If you have an older drive, chances are it is a 4x or maybe even a 2x drive. In practical terms the following table shows the differences in speed when filling both 650MB (74-minute) or 700MB (80-minute) discs.

Time to record a full capacity CD:

Drive Speed 650MB
1x 74.0 80.0
2x 37.0 40.0
4x 18.5 20.0
6x 12.3 13.3
8x 9.3 10.0
10x 7.4 8.0
12x 6.2 6.7
16x 4.6 5.0
20x 3.7 4.0

The above figures are approximations, and may vary from unit to unit. However, they clearly indicate that you're spending way too much time watching your CD-RW drive burning CD-R's if your unit is a 4X or slower. From these figures you can see that going from a 2x to a 12x or faster drive will save more than a half-hour every time you burn a full CD! With a faster drive you'll probably find you'll back up information a lot more often because it takes a lot less time. This alone made the change worthwhile.

While the comparison above focused on CD-R burn speeds, today's CD-RW drives are significantly faster in other categories as well:

Typical CD read speeds are now 24X to 32X, up from 6X to 16X on slower drives

Typical CD-RW rewrite is now 4X to as much as 10X (when faster CD-RW media is used), up from just 2X on slower drives.


There's nothing more frustrating when burning a CD-R than watching a buffer underrun take place, destroying the contents of your CD-R media. Buffer underruns take place when your CD-RW drive runs out of data to transfer to the media. Since CD-R data is written in a continuous spiral from the center of the disc to the outside, any break in data flow ruins the media. Chances are you've experienced a lot of buffer underruns with an older drive, resulting in a lot of wasted time and media.

Ironically, the chances of a buffer underrun can drop with faster drives! This might seem contradictory, but here are the reasons why faster drives can be more reliable:

    Support for Ultra-DMA (UDMA) transfers; UDMA transfers enable faster data flow from RAM to the drive to help reduce the chances of a buffer underrun.

    Larger data buffers in the drive; many of today's 8x and faster drives have on-board buffers of 2MB to as much as 8MB. These data buffers hold the data received from your computer and feed it to the drive as requested to help reduce the chances of a buffer underrun.

    Intelligent buffer-underrun technology which can safely pause the write process when the buffer runs out of data. This features prevents buffer underruns. Sanyo's BurnProof and Ricoh's JustLink technologies are found on increasing numbers of mid-range and high-end drives from different manufacturers.

CD Music Enhancements

In addition to improvements in speed and reliability, today's drives typically offer support for high-speed Digital Audio Extraction (DAE). DAE allows you to convert CD tracks from your favorite CD's into WAV or MP3 files with a clean, fast digital-to-digital conversion. Some drives can read CD audio tracks for ripping at 32X or faster speeds.

Other features to look for include:

    Integrated system backup software
    CD-mastering software which supports data and music CD's
    CD-RW media support

Save a Drive Bay with Combo CD-RW/DVD Drives

If you need a DVD drive for desktop trips to the movies as well as a faster CD-RW drive, consider the growing numbers of combo drives which feature both CD-RW and DVD capabilities. While the fastest of these drives perform CD-R writing at just 8x, this is still a significant boost from older drives, and will save you a drive bay if you are short of space.

Install Two Drives for Faster and Easier CD Copying

When making backups of important data or music discs, it can be extremely helpful to have two drives. This is because using two drives can make disc to disc copies go twice as fast as with a single drive. Copying using two drives is faster because the data from the source can be directly written to the destination without first having to be stored as an image on the hard disk.

Even if your current drive is pretty fast at reading CDs, I still often recommend getting a newer, faster CD-RW drive for burning. Many people have older CD-ROM, CD-R or CD-RW drives that can read at speeds of 12x or more. When combined with a new drive that can do 12x or faster CD-R burning you now have the ability to put an original source disc in the reader, a blank destination disc in the new CD-RW drive, and then blast a copy at up to 12x or faster speeds. This means you can copy a complete data or music CD in usually 6 minutes or less.

I feel much more secure when I have my expensive program and music CDs backed up before using them. What I normally do is make a backup immediately after purchasing, then put the original away for safekeeping and use the copy for installation or use. That way if it gets scratched or damaged, I can simply make another backup. Two drives makes creating these backups much faster and easier.


An upgrader's job is never done, especially when the upgrade you are contemplating can save you significant amounts of time and money, bring you more enjoyment of digital music, and keep your data safer. With a wide range of 8x to 20x drives available for between $120 and $200, significantly faster, safer, and more versatile CD-RW storage is within your grasp.

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