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CD-R/RW On the Go

Compact, lightweight portable CD-ROM drives that operate on the notebook’s or their own battery power and connect using a standard PCMCIA interface have been available for years. So why haven’t we had portable CD-R/RW drives?

CD-R/RW On the Go

Hugh Bennett
EMedia Professional, April 1999

The growing popularity of mobile computing, coupled with the decreasing size and increasing power of notebook PCs, have created a revolution in the way people work. Notebooks are no longer just portable supplements, but full-blown desktop replacement systems. Thus their users increasingly expect PC portables to offer the same capabilities of data distribution, backup, and archiving that desktop users take for granted. So it only makes good sense that notebooks have access to the same peripherals as desktop systems at any time in any place.

Which, in essence, means one thing: they need CD-R. In recent years, users have increasingly turned to CD-R and CD-RW drives to fill their insatiable need for removable storage, data distribution, archiving, backup, and personal audio solutions. But while CD-R/RW opportunities and options abound for desktop users, PC and Mac notebook owners wanting to record CDs are treated like second-class citizens. Compact, lightweight portable CD-ROM drives that operate on the notebook’s or their own battery power and connect using a standard PCMCIA interface have been available for years. So why haven’t we had portable CD-R/RW drives?

The Importance of Being Optical
Beyond their general popularity in the PC community, CD-R and CD-RW drives are particularly attractive to portable environments because of some innate advantages of optical formats over magnetic storage media. A perfect illustration of the importance of being optical is the need for air travelers to be guaranteed that all of their data will be intact when they arrive at their destination. Unlike magnetic storage media, CD-R and CD-RW discs are not affected by magnetic fields and are extremely durable, so they offer excellent data security when on the road or in the air.

In comparison to Zip, LS-120, and competing removable storage solutions, CD-R has a huge edge in read compatibility. The readability of CD-R discs in nearly all CD-ROM and DVD-ROM drives is a powerful feature for desktops and notebooks alike.

The good news is the vendor community finally seems to be discovering the large and untapped market for portable CD-R/RW drives. Manufacturers including Hewlett-Packard, Sony, MicroSolutions, and newcomer Kyushu Matsushita Electric (KME) are rumored to be working on external portable recorders specifically designed for notebook computers. If everything goes according to plan, the new one-pound slim-line drives will look much like personal CD players and use power from notebook or internal batteries with appropriate interfaces such as PCMCIA Type II, SCSI, USB, or IEEE 1394.

Technical Hurdles
Among several factors that have contributed to portable CD-R/RW’s delayed availability are legitimate technical challenges. Traditionally, the physical obstacles for any portable computing device have been heat, weight, power, and size. But, as we well know, there are few problems that can’t be conquered by large investments of money which, unfortunately, will be reflected in the cost of the product–ultimately the greatest limiting factor in bringing anything to market.

While CD-ROM read lasers use less than 1mw of power, single-speed recording requires 4 to 8 milliwatts (mw) of power, 2X recording 8 to 10mw, and 4X recording 10 to 12mw per writing pulse. Dissipating the heat such lasers generate in the confined space of a portable recorder without the benefit of a fan is no small challenge.

Size and weight also present interesting hurdles for portable CD-R/RW drives. New and more specialized components are required. For example, many portable CD-ROM drives, years in the making, benefit from technology not available to CD-R/RW drives, such as laser couplers which incorporate all of the components of an optical pickup (except for the objective lens) into an extremely tiny and lightweight package. And recorders require additional electronics not found in CD-ROM drives. Since market conditions have dictated that desktop rather than portable recorders be the manufacturers’ focus of the manufacturers, and massive price reductions have not otherwise been necessary, it’s no wonder that the integration and miniaturization of encoder/decoders, laser drivers, ASICs, and required chip sets (necessary for portable recorders) have proceeded at a slow pace.

Notebook owners appreciate the convenience of computing on the go and are accustomed to paying higher prices than their desktop counterparts for the same product. And since high-speed writing is not critical to the portable market, 2X recorders are most likely to emerge first. Price tolerance has its limits, and as long as manufacturers keep portable CD-R/RW prices under $400, they should find a very warm reception.

But just as with portable CD-ROM, the internal notebook CD-R/RW drive will prove the ultimate in portable recordability. Of course, this means condensing the recorder further to an industry-standard slim-line 5.25-inch, 12.7mm form factor and attendant technological leaps. With Gateway, HP, Compaq, IBM, and Dell all enjoying great success selling CD-R/RW drives in their desktop systems, it’s only a matter of time before they force their OEM suppliers to do whatever is necessary to commit fully to the portable market.

Hugh Bennett, editor-in-chief of Hugh’s News, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems, a reseller, systems integrator and industry consultant based in London, Ontario, Canada. Hugh is author of The Authoritative Blu-ray Disc (BD) FAQ and The Authoritative HD DVD FAQ, available on Hugh’s News, as well as Understanding Recordable & Rewritable DVD and Understanding CD-R & CD-RW, published by the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA).

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