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Digital Research DRCDROM56

  July 30, 2000 Author: Tim Zakharov  

Introduction

As CD-ROM speeds continue to increase, we are finding that traditional reading technologies are approaching apparent limits. CAV (constant angular velocity) reading technology dominates today's CD-ROM drives, yet the very nature of the technology imposes a performance ceiling. CAV readers work by maintaining a constant RPM (revolutions per minute) no matter what portion of the disc is being read. This means that in order to increase a drive's X rating, the RPM must be increased. Mechanical limitations in current technology have maxed out today's CAV readers at 56X. This equates to spin rates in the neighborhood of 12,000 RPM! Compare this to hard disk drive technology and we find that only Seagate's 15,000 RPM drive spins at a faster rate. Yet the engineering involved in making a sturdy, reliable hard drive far outshines what goes into a $70 CD-ROM drive. How much faster can CAV CD-ROM drives get and still maintain their dirt-cheap pricing?

We now examine one of today's fastest-rated CAV readers, Digital Research's 56X CD-ROM drive. According to the box, the model number is DRCDROM56. However, upon examining the drive, we found reference to the drive being made by a Chinese company, Top Glory Electronics, with a model number of BCD G621D. Further complicating matters is the drive's designation by our testbed's system bios and Windows 98's System Properties as "CD-ROM Drive/G6D." The bios revision of this drive is reported as 1.30.

We visited the website of Digital Research in order to glean some more information on this unit, but it appears the site has not been updated yet to include this drive. Our only source for the drive's specifications was the box it came in. Missing from the specs is the rated access time. What we do know is the drive includes a 128 kb buffer, "high speed data extraction" (more on this in our DAE section), and "anti-shock audio", which purports to keep CD audio playing smoothly in the event the drive is rattled. We chose not to test this out of concern for damaging either the drive or any other components in our testbed. This drive is readily available at Best Buy and other computer and office superstores for about $70. Finally, the drive is protected with a standard 1-year warranty.

Physically, the drive is of a non-standard size. The length from front to back is a full 1 3/16 inches shorter than the typical optical drive. This actually creates more room for cabling and airflow in most system cases. Another oddity on this drive is an unlabeled jumper block adjacent to the molex power connector. We emailed Digital Research tech support to ask about these and other issues, but as of today (one week after emailing), we've received no response.

Its environmental characteristics can be quite obtrusive. This is by far the loudest optical drive we've tested so far. With 12,000 RPM operation, noise levels approach unbearable for my ears. On the other hand, the drive barely gets warm to the touch even after extensive stress testing.

Let's now examine how this drive performs.

For an overview on methodology, click here.

CD-ROM Performance Results

Low-Level Measurements

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In our low-level measures, the Digital Research pulls in some pretty impressive access times. Although we don't know what this drive is rated at, looking at our measured figures, we would hypothesize in the 70-75ms range. Only Toshiba's and Creative's units have been measured faster, and not by much.

Moving to transfer rates, we find the 56X-rated Digital Research to be underachieving at the outer tracks. Our measured average of 8017 kb/sec comes out to just over 53X, about 5% slower than advertised and 4% faster than Creative's 52X. However, its minimum read speed of 3920 kb/sec is at an impressive 26X, 6% faster than Creative's 52X unit. Comparing rated speeds though, the Digital Research should be almost 8% faster than the Creative, but with 4-6% measured differences, it can't quite reach its specifications. Nonetheless, the Digital Research reaches transfer rate territories second only to Kenwood's True-X drives in our tests, and easily the best we've seen so far in a CAV reader.

With such high transfer rates and competitive access times, the Digital Research stands poised to grab our all-time CD-ROM Winmark 99 score. Can it do it? Let's find out.

CD-ROM Winmark 99

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Unfortunately, the DRCDROM56 could not take advantage of its speedy access times and transfer rates in our application-level Winmark test. It lags behind the Toshiba, our fastest Winmark performer, by 12%. Even Pioneer's 40X-rated DVD-115 edges it by 2%. Given its 76.2 ms access time, this is a rather disappointing result. Just as we attributed the DVD-115's surprisingly high Winmark results to good firmware programming, we are left to wonder if Digital Research could've done a better job with their 56X's firmware programming.

For those who may suspect manufacturer benchmark tuning, as has been suggested many times with ZD's aging hard disk Winmark tests, we provide you with our file and disc copy tests. Let's now explore how the Digital Research does in our two home-brewed benchmarks.

File and Disc Copy

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Our file copy test is basically a sequential transfer rate test. Copying a single 635 MB file from our CDTach98 test disc to our hard drive's test partition gives no opportunity for random accesses to come into play. Additionally, the large size of the file (98% of the disc's maximum capacity) ensures that our results factor in both minimum and maximum STRs.

Examining our File Copy table of results, we see the Digital Research only 5.5 seconds behind all-time leader Kenwood. Compared to Creative's 52X drive, the DRCDROM56 completes the test 6.3 seconds faster.

Our disc copy test, however, does allow random accesses into the mix. With 3063 files nested into multiple folders spanning a total of 619 MB, swift random accesses will definitely help with faster copies. Take a look back at our ATAPI CD-ROM Roundup to see how slow random accesses crippled Mitsumi's 48X drive in our disc copy test.

Looking at how the Digital Research performs in our disc copy test, we again see a 2nd place finish, again behind only Kenwood's 72X. This time, however, the DRCDROM56 is more significantly behind the 72X brute-by a good 23%. It leads Creative's 52X drive by only 3%, barely significant. Still, the Digital Research performs extremely well in both of our copy tests, contrary to what our Winmark scores might suggest. For example, the Digital Research is over 5% faster than Pioneer's DVD-115, compared to the Pioneer's slight advantage in the Winmarks.

Next we examine how the Digital Research 56X performs in our digital audio extraction tests.

Digital Audio Extraction

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Quite disappointingly, the DRCDROM56 performs as a 7X CLV audio extractor despite claims of "high-speed data extraction" on the packaging. This means the drive likely won't be able to feed an 8X writer fast enough to burn audio CDs on the fly. If you plan on using this drive to extract audio, you are better off extracting to a hard disk image, then burning the image from your hard drive. Most hard drives can easily handle sustained transfer rates of 1200-1800 kb/sec necessary to burn at 8X-12X speeds, so with the DRCDROM56, this might be your best choice when duplicating audio CDs.

When examining the quality of extraction, however, CDSpeed99 reports perfect extraction results, as well as support for accurate streaming (though the slow rate of extraction suggests that accurate streaming may not be helping matters much). In verifying extraction quality, we listened to selected .wav files of songs extracted with CDDAE99 and could hear no defects when compared to the originals.

As we come closer to concluding our examination of the Digital Research 56X, let's take a look at how the drive reads our test CD-R and CD-RW media.

CD-R Media Compatibility and Performance

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With our test CD-R disc (TDK Certified Plus), the Digital Research continues its stellar reading ability, surpassing its pressed CD reads by 2% at the inner tracks, while equaling its 53X pressed CD reads at the outer tracks. This keeps the DRCDROM56 in 2nd place behind Kenwood's 72X reader in our comparisons.

CD-RW Media Compatibility and Performance

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When testing with our Verbatim CD-RW media, we were pleasantly surprised to see some of the best CD-RW read speeds we've yet recorded. Essentially, it is a 16X-32X CAV reader, though if you split hairs, it ends up in 3rd place behind Creative's 52X and Pioneer's DVD-115.

Conclusion

The Digital Research 56X presents an interesting comparison with our current CD-ROM leader, the Kenwood 72X. For about $30 less, you get a CD-ROM drive with application-level performance very close to the Kenwood; it edges the Kenwood in the CD-ROM Winmark by 4%, but loses significant ground in the copy tests. Then there is a trade-off: The DRCDROM56 has no compatibility issues with CD-RWs and in fact is one of the speediest at reading said media; yet it vastly underperforms the Kenwood in digital audio extraction rates. And lastly, the Digital Research is the loudest optical drive we've yet tested (bordering on unbearable), while the Kenwood is the quietest.

While the comparison is close, we feel the Kenwood remains the best ATAPI CD-ROM drive today. The bottom line is that the Kenwood is the faster drive overall in our application-level pressed CD tests. In addition, we view audio extraction speeds to be more important than CD-RW readability at this time. As more burners hit the shelves with faster RW writing speeds, CD-RWs may gain in popularity (there are still compatibility issues pending with upcoming faster-rated CD-RW media) and their readability will become a more important factor. But today, CD-R media readability is more vital due to lower cost and faster writing speeds, and the Kenwood is fastest in our tests. The noise issue is not normally such a heavily weighted factor, but with a 56X CAV reader, rpms reach such high states that noise levels become significantly bothersome. We wonder how much faster CAV technology can get before rpms become a limiting factor.

The Digital Research does, however become an intriguing choice for those on a budget, or those looking only for a simple reader. We feel it does deserve an honorable mention in this regard.


Digital Research DRCDROM56
Estimated Price: $70
Specifications


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