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Is Multi CD-R Too Late for the Party?

NEC and TEAC have fused Phase-Change Dual (PD) and CD-Recordable into a single hybrid device called Multi CD-R or CD-R Plus. A veritable Swiss Army Knife of optical storage, this new drive can read and rewrite PD media, read CD-ROMs at 20X CAV, and record CDs at double speed.

Is Multi CD-R Too Late for the Party?

Hugh Bennett
EMedia Professional, July 1998

Product marketing is a lot like evolution. Just as nature continually creates and adapts species in an attempt to hit upon the right formula for survival, so manufacturers constantly generate and adjust products, looking for ones that will thrive in the marketplace.

The latest evolutionary twist comes courtesy of NEC and TEAC, who have fused Phase-Change Dual (PD) and CD-Recordable into a single hybrid device called Multi CD-R or CD-R Plus. A veritable Swiss Army Knife of optical storage, this new drive can read and rewrite PD media, read CD-ROMs at 20X CAV, and record CDs at double speed.

PD was first introduced in 1995 and is supported by an alliance of companies including Matsushita Electric, NEC, TEAC, Teijin, Plasmon, Asahi Chemical, 3M/Imation, and Toray. PD discs are the same physical size as CDs, employ a phase-change recording technique, store up to 650MB of data, and come sealed in rigid plastic cartridges to protect them from dust, fingerprints, and scratches. As with CD-ReWritable, information is written and rewritten to a PD disc by using a focused laser beam to selectively heat a phase-change recording layer, creating a pattern of highly reflective crystalline regions and low reflective amorphous areas. PD is also a Direct Overwrite (DOW) system, so new information can be recorded directly over previously written data by using higher-power laser pulses (among the regular writing pulses) to melt any crystallized areas that need to be changed back to their original amorphous state. Since PD discs are the same size as CDs and operate using the same laser wavelength, PD drives are by nature multifunction and can not only read and write PD media, but read CD-ROMs as well.

A number of PD products have emerged over the years, including jukebox libraries and slimline portables. IBM and Compaq have even incorporated PD drives into a few of their PCs. In the marketplace, however, with $35-apiece proprietary media that can only be read by like devices, PD has sold only about 700,000 units worldwide-and little of that in North America. In contrast, CD-R, which offers extremely low media cost and near-universal interchange with CD and DVD devices, is predicted to sell up to 4.5 million drives in 1998, and it shows little sign of slowing down.

With DVD-RAM and other high-capacity rewritable formats just around the bend, the future is bleak for PD in its current form. Thus it’s hoped that adding CD-R to the package will be just what the doctor ordered to boost sales. And, if viewed from the other side, adding PD function to a CD recorder may provide a significant point of differentiation from the wash of other available recorders and CD-RW drives. The idea of mating PD and CD-R is really nothing new. Soon after PD was announced, some industry observers counseled that the technology by itself would never gain wide acceptance, but a PD/CD-R combination product could do well by providing a system for low-cost data interchange and audio applications, as well as give a reasonable option for personal file backup. Just as CD-RW drives won’t sell without CD-R, so PD drives will languish without CD-R. Regrettably, such ideas were generally considered heresy, so a combination product (known as PD-R in the back rooms) existed only as an underground project within some of the PD participant companies.

In many ways, PD is a superior solution to CD-RW. If Multi CD-R drives had come to market a couple of years earlier, it’s likely that they would have been extremely successful in giving CD-RW a run for its money. As it stands, however, the current release of Multi CD-R is really too little, too late from a few companies who really don’t have the market presence to make much of a difference.

That’s not to say that Multi CD-R shouldn’t be seriously considered as an alternative when shopping for a CD-RW drive. In addition to having performance and media life similar to CD-RW’s, some of PD’s strengths include greater formatted capacity (650 versus 493MB), better rewritability (500,000 versus 1,000 overwrites), a protective cartridge, and no incompatibilities between different packet-writing implementations. It really doesn’t matter that PD discs can’t be read by the installed base of CD-ROM drives, since most drives are just as incapable of reading CD-RW discs. In both cases, CD-R provides the ideal vehicle for data interchange.

It’s also interesting to note that although CD-RW is often promoted as a bridge medium, PD currently offers a better migration path to DVD. This is due to the fact that while MultiRead DVD-ROM and rewritable drives can read CD-RW discs, they cannot write them. With CD-RW, compatibility is only a one-way street. Contrast this with PD-Panasonic’s MultiRead DVD-RAM drive not only reads, but also rewrites PD discs so that data can be carried back to the installed base of Multi CD-R and PD hardware.

But enough said in support of Multi CD-R (or CD-R Plus or whatever it’s called). PD’s merits aside, I don’t think there’s really any doubt that Multi CD-R will amount to little more than a curiosity. It doesn’t, however, deserve to be dismissed or ridiculed as a bad idea. For as much as evolution is a process of natural selection, it is also one of timing and luck, which with PD just about says it all.

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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