Creative Labs CD5230E - Firmware revision 1.01:
Creative Labs' entry into our roundup is their top-of-the-line 52X CAV unit, sporting an 80ms access time, 128kb buffer, and a standard 1-year warranty. A bit of an enigma, the 52X unit is not even listed on Creative Labs' website (48X is the highest speed drive they list), hence we cannot link you to any specifications. Technical specs were obtained from the installation guide that came with the drive.
Although one of our speediest performers overall, the CD5230E was also one of the loudest. At full-RPM, the drive was clearly audible not only over all other testbed system sounds, but over the sounds of my personal system next to it as well as an audio CD playing at moderate levels. You'll need to crank up your PC speakers to completely drown out the sounds this drive makes when it's in high gear. Fortunately its heat levels do not come near matching its sound levels. The drive does become a bit warm to the touch after continuous extended use, but well within normal ranges. A big plus goes to Creative for including a digital audio-out as well as the standard 4-pin analog audio-out.
Delta OIP-CD4800A - Firmware revision 3.30:
A Taiwan-based company, Delta Electronics was founded in 1971 and produces primarily in the OEM segment. Their second-fastest current CD-ROM drive at 48X (they also have a 52X unit we were unable to attain), this CAV CD-ROM reader is the least expensive of this roundup, while turning out some of the highest levels of performance. Its access time is rated at 85ms, with a 128kb buffer and a standard 1-year warranty.
In its favor the Delta supports digital audio-out as well as the standard 4-pin analog out. Unfortunately, however, it takes after the Creative unit in sound levels, matching it at full-RPM, whine-for-whine. Heat levels were moderate and entirely acceptable.
Kenwood UCR-421 - Firmware revision 217G:
Kenwood Corporation's fastest True-X drive, the 72X uses Zen Research's now legendary 7-beam pickup to split the read laser into multiple beams, allowing the drive to read 7 tracks in parallel for somewhat P-CAV 72X performance across the majority of the disc. An added benefit of this read method is a drastically reduced RPM, leading to much quieter operation. Kenwood specifies an access time of <100ms (which our drive could not duplicate), with a beefy 2048kb buffer and a standard 1-year warranty.
Despite the Kenwood's quiet levels, there was a noticeable shaking during operation, which was isolated to random accesses. This caused the entire testbed case to shake (not quite visibly, but definitely noticeable by placing your hand anywhere on the system case) during drive operation. Any drive defects were ruled out when I noticed the same phenomenon in Kenwood's 52X SCSI unit (reviewed in our upcoming SCSI roundup). Considering this occurs during random access testing but not sequential transfer testing, this seems to be somehow related to how smoothly their head actuator mechanism tracks along the rails as it changes directions when seeking.
On the heat side of things, the 72X can get very warm during extended use. In fact, upon removing the drive from the testbed after a random access stress test, I found the underside to actually be hot to the touch in certain spots (the top of the drive never approached such hot levels). Because CD-ROM drives are seldom, if ever stressed as extensively and consistently as the access time loop I run the drives through when checking for noise and heat levels, it is highly unlikely that heat would ever be a concern during normal usage.
While the 72X has what looks like a digital audio-out next to the standard analog out, it is not functional. Kenwood does not advertise digital audio-out, so no harm, no foul.
Mitsumi CRMC-FX4820T - Firmware revision D03A:
From Mitsumi Corporation comes the CRMC-FX4820T, currently their fastest CD-ROM drive at 48X CAV. Featuring an access time of 75ms, a 128kb buffer and a standard 1-year warranty, the Mitsumi appears on the surface to be a contender. Unfortunately, we encountered serious problems with our test unit, to the best of our knowledge isolated to the drive's head assembly. Any test we threw at the unit that involved random accesses caused the drive to either fail completely or perform extremely poorly. However, all tests involving sequential transfers yielded very competitive performance. Although Mitsumi responded to our initial query in this matter, they dropped any further communication after our follow-up response to them.
Like the Creative and Delta units, the Mitsumi's sound levels during full-RPM were extremely high. It was the coolest-running unit of the roundup, however, staying cool to the touch even during extended use. Finally, it should be noted that the Mitsumi has a functional digital audio-out connector.
Toshiba XM-6702B - Firmware revision 1005:
Longtime CD-ROM manufacturer Toshiba enters the fray with their CAV 48X drive. The 6702B's access time is specified at a speedy 78ms, with a 128kb buffer and a standard 1-year warranty.
An interesting contrast to the other 48X+ CAV units, the Toshiba's noise levels were relatively quiet. Only the Kenwood was stealthier. Also impressive were its heat levels. However, like the Kenwood, the Toshiba had what looked like a digital audio-out connector that did not work. Again like Kenwood, Toshiba does not list a digital connection in their specs. In my personal experience with Toshiba's DVD-ROM drives, however, the digital connections worked properly despite not being mentioned in the spec sheets. This leads me to wonder if the 6702B has a digital audio-out that is defective, or is purposely non-functional. Either way, Toshiba is safe from scrutiny thanks to some prudent spec-sheet writing.