In preparing for StorageReview.com's first-ever CD-ROM Roundup article, we obtained nine of the fastest currently available CD-ROM drives for evaluation, five ATAPI and four SCSI. We debated the merits of including all in the same article, or splitting the ATAPI and SCSI models, as we do with hard drives. In the end, we chose to keep the two interfaces separate. As is the case with hard drives, SCSI CD-ROM drives are largely intended for a different customer-base than ATAPI models. They are generally priced higher than their ATAPI counterparts and are more often used in a business/office environment where connectivity and reputation for reliability are more desired. ATAPI units are generally much less expensive and are more often used in name-brand systems as well as by typical home computer users. It was a toss-up as to which we'd publish first. Since the ATAPI units are generally more popular with the masses, we will start with them and follow with a SCSI Roundup article shortly.
As many of you may already know, optical drives generally come in two flavors of spindle motor spin rate: Constant Angular Velocity (CAV), and Constant Linear Velocity (CLV). In a nutshell, CAV drives spin at a constant rate. Because the inner tracks of a CD are much smaller than the outer tracks, a CAV drive will have slower read rates at the inside of a CD than at the outer edge. CLV drives, however, vary the spindle motor's RPM according to where on the CD the information is being read. The motor will speed up at the inner tracks and slow down at the outer tracks. This creates a linear read rate across the CD. Most of today's CD-ROM drives are CAV. However, under certain conditions a CAV reader may operate in a CLV-fashion. For example, many drives will read CD-RW media or extract digital audio at CLV. This could be for compatibility, error-correction, or performance reasons. We will specify when CAV units revert to CLV. Finally, it should be mentioned that there is what is called P-CAV. This is partial constant angular velocity. This is when a drive starts reading a CD in a CAV-fashion at the inner tracks, then when it reaches a specified speed, reverts to CLV for the remainder of the CD.
Since the days of 1X, CD-ROM drives have been capable of playing audio CD's. However, in order for the audio tracks to be heard (ignoring any front headphone jacks ), one must use an audio cable to connect the drive to the sound card. As sound card technology has improved, analog audio has begun to share the stage with digital audio. Sound cards such as the SoundBlaster Live! now have inputs for digital as well as analog CD audio. To those who own such sound cards, it is important information to know which optical drives support digital audio connections.
In order to save article space and avoid boring many of our readers, we will link each drive's model number below to the manufacturer's spec sheet, rather than regurgitate pages of information here. Occasionally (as in the Creative unit below) a drive manufacturer will have no info on a tested drive on their site. We apologize for not being able to provide links to spec sheets for these units.
Now, on to the contenders!