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Plextor PX-W124TSi

  September 28, 2000 Author: Tim Zakharov  
Special thanks to Hypermicro.com* for providing the evaluation unit.

* Remember, mention StorageReview.com when ordering from HyperMicro and receive FREE shipping!


Introduction

Founded in 1990, Plextor Corporation has been developing and manufacturing SCSI optical products for many years (recently they've expanded into the ATAPI forum as well). During this time they have developed a reputation among many circles as the premiere manufacturer of CD-ROM, CD-R and CD-RW drives. Their latest SCSI burner, StorageReview.com's first CD-RW review, stands ready to be held up to our unflinching light of scrutiny. Such astounding reputation tends to bring forth skepticism from critics, and we at StorageReview.com are of no exception. Does Plextor's finest live up to expectations, or is their unparalleled reputation just a bunch of hype? Let's try and find out.

What does Plextor bring to the table? The PX-W124TSi writes at a maximum of 12X, rewrites at up to 4X, and reads CDs at 14X-32X CAV speeds according to Plextor's specifications. Plextor claims random accesses of 160ms and the drive features a 4MB buffer and a 1-year warranty including unlimited toll-free tech support. For full specifications, please click here. Our test unit was flashed to firmware revision 1.06 for testing. For those who've been hoping to exploit the digital CD input on their Soundblaster Live!, Plextor has built an SPDIF connector into the drive's jumper block. This non-standard implementation can be easily missed and we would've preferred to see it next to the analog audio out as most everyone else does it. While peeking at the jumper block, one will notice a cooling fan unit built into the back of the drive. Although we're not sure how useful this is, its presence may serve to calm owner concerns, as well as aid in keeping the unit cool. Finally, the 12/4/32 has a total of four front-panel LEDs! These show whether a disc is in the drive, when the disc is being read, when a disc is being written at low speed, and when a disc is being written at high speed. Getting beyond the drive itself, Plextor's retail package contains an enormous amount of amenities. Included are:

  • Plextor's own software suite, Plextor Manager 2000
  • Adaptec's Easy CD Creator and DirectCD CD-mastering and writing software
  • CD Res-Q imaging software
  • Full user manual of each of the above programs
  • One blank CD-R and one blank CD-RW disc
  • An accessory bag with extra jumpers and an emergency eject pin
  • Quick install guide and warranty registration card

Briefly, the Plextor Manager 2000 software suite consists of MVP 2000 (a fully-featured CD-DA and A/V player), DiscDupe 2000 (a bit-by-bit CD duplicator), and Audio Capture 2000 (CD audio extraction software). Also included in Plextor's software suite are enhanced Drive Properties, which add two additional tabs when selecting the properties section of your Plextor drive. We were particularly impressed with this, as information such as drive model, serial number, firmware, buffer, disc format, type and # of tracks, etc. become easily accessible. In addition, it is possible to manually set the drive's read speed and also to control the spindown time. The catch? It only works on Plextor drives. It should be noted that Plextor is the only optical drive manufacturer to make their own software suite in-house. We found PM2000 to be highly useful, though I had problems applying the latest 1.07 patch to my personal Win2k system (we don't install manufacturer-specific software into our optical testbed). I stuck with version 1.05 without issue and a Plextor engineer has been working diligently with me trying to duplicate what appears to be a very rare problem specific to some software and/or hardware configuration in my personal system.

Let's now see how the drive performs in our battery of read and write tests!

For an overview on methodology, click here.

CD-ROM Performance Results

Low-Level Measurements

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Plextor specifies CAV transfer rates of 14X-32X for pressed CDs. We measured speeds of 15X at the inner tracks and 33X at the outer tracks, right in line with expectations.

In our random access time tests, we recorded an average of 154.3ms, 4% better than what Plextor claims. Let's see how these low-level measures affect the Winmark results.

CD-ROM Winmark 99

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The Plextor's score of 935 is the 2nd worst Winmark score we've recorded. The only other 32X readers in our database are DVD-ROMs from Pioneer and Toshiba, both of which significantly outperform the 12/4/32 in this test. Keep in mind, though, the Plextor's access time is the slowest of the bunch, and the CD-ROM Winmark likes fast access times.

File and Disc Copy

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In our file copy test, we time how long it takes to copy a single 635MB file from CD-ROM to hard drive. By definition, a single file will not allow for random accessing, thereby testing sustained transfer rates exclusively. We see the 12/4/32 struggling a bit in this test, finishing significantly slower than even the two 32X readers in our database. Since the Plextor's lethargic access times cannot affect this score, our best guess for this is perhaps a conservative error correction algorithm in the drive's firmware or electronics. Our test disc does have some light scratches, and Plextor does tout their accurate read performance, so perhaps the drive sacrifices a bit of speed in favor of accuracy. Remember, this drive's reading abilities will likely be used for creating images of data and audio discs more so than for running applications.

Our test unit actually performs slightly better in the disc copy test than in the file copy test. Considering the amount of random accesses that occur in this test (there are 3063 files in a multitude of folders), we are quite surprised. Perhaps this gets back to what we just discussed. The disc we use for this test is in excellent condition, with nary a scratch visible on the surface. At the very least, this is food for thought.

Digital Audio Extraction

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Our DAE tests show a minimum extraction rate of 9.5X at the inside tracks. By the outer edge of our test CD-DA, the 12/4/32 is extracting at just over 20X. Again, this is right in line with Plextor's 9X-20X specification.

If you are using this drive to extract digital audio, chances are you are extracting to your hard drive, and not directly to another burner (having more than one burner in a single system is a luxury most folks likely won't indulge in). This means that the average extraction rate of the drive takes precedence over the minimum, since you don't have to worry about feeding your burner at a minimum required rate. In this case, the 12/4/32 averages nearly 16X across our CD-DA, which places it in the upper third of all the optical drives in our database.

Our examination of the extraction quality did not turn up anything out of the ordinary. CDSpeed99 gave the drive a 10 rating, accurate streaming support was detected, and CDDAE99 also showed no extraction errors. The extraction rate graph was a smooth CAV shape, with no unexpected dips, and we could not hear any pops or clicks in a selection of extracted audio tracks played back through our Grado SR60s in .wav format. All in all, digital audio extraction appears to be one of this drive's strong suits.

CD-R Media Compatibility and Performance

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Our 12/4/32 test unit reads CD-Rs at the same speed it reads pressed CDs. It also has no problems reading our 80-minute test CD-R, copying all 701MB of data to our testbed's HDD without issue.

CD-RW Media Compatibility and Performance

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When it comes to CD-RW media, the Plextor slows down to 10X-22X CAV reads in our measures. Impressively, access times with our CD-RW stuck to 150ms, roughly the same as its pressed CD and CD-R access times.

Most drives tend to read CD-RWs slower than other media because of the reduced reflectivity the media offers, but we've seen instances of very high read speeds. A peek in our database shows the fastest units reaching 32X and higher. Plextor's 12/4/32 is closer to the middle of the pack with its 22X max speeds. We know Plextor has the technology to read CD-RWs at higher speeds (see the PX-40TSi results in our database), so we again wonder if a concern for highly accurate reads led them to throttle back here.

Now that we've completed our look at this drive's read performance, let's take a detailed examination of what consumers will really be buying this product for: Writing and rewriting.

Write/ReWrite Tests

CD-R Based Duplication

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Here we use Adaptec's CD Copier utility to image audio and data CDs to our testbed's hard drive, then burn the images back to CD-R at the test unit's highest-rated speed. We time each process, which includes the formation of the Table of Contents and Closing of the CD. The only part excluded from our times (rightfully so) is the process of physically swapping the source and destination discs out of the test unit.

Duplicating an audio CD involves extracting the audio from the source, imaging the tracks to our hard drive, then burning this image to the CD-R. The 12/4/32 averages almost 9:23 to image our 65-minute audio disc. The time it takes to burn the image back, however, is only 6:54, a testament to the 12X writing speeds (though not quite as fast as Plextor's claimed 6 minute figure for 650MB on their website). In all, it takes 16:16 to duplicate our CD-DA.

When duplicating our data CD, however, it takes only 3:17 to image our 619MB test CD. This is because simply reading data (14X-32X) is a much faster process than extracting digital audio (9X-20X). Because optical media is written and read from the inside of the disc outward, minimum read speeds are often emphasized more than maximum, as CDs are seldom filled completely to the outer edge. As we can see, the 12/4/32 takes an average of 7:12 to write our data CD image. This is quite comparable to the write speeds recorded for our audio CD above. In total, it took us 10:29 to duplicate our data CD.

CD-RW Based Duplication

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This test is identical to the CD-R based duplication test above, except we use CD-RW media. Also, we forgo the CD-DA portion and focus only on the data CD. We believe that end-users are much more likely to use CD-RW media with data than with CD audio. As we can see, the 12/4/32's 4X rewrite speeds severely limit the unit in this test. Where it took only 7:12 to burn our data CD at 12X, it takes over 19 minutes to rewrite the same data at 4X. This leaves us with a total duplication time of 22:20.

CD-R Based Stress Tests

Here's where we get to see what each unit is really made of. Our first test involves burning a 195MB folder from HDD to the test unit while Unreal Tournament (a popular first-person shooter) cycles through its introductory flyby loop. Be sure to see our updated Methodology section for details on how we test this. The 12/4/32 had no problems completing the burn at 12X for this test.

Our second, more severe stress test, involves burning the same 195MB folder while Ziff-Davis' Winbench99 CPUmark99 test runs. This test stresses not only the CPU, but all levels of memory subsystem as well. In effect, there are absolutely no system resources available to lend towards burning.

Indeed, we found out just how stressful this test is. Our 12/4/32 test unit encountered buffer underruns at 12X, 8X, and even 4X. At 12X and 8X, the drive's buffer dried up almost immediately, but at 4X, it took a minute or so for the buffer to finally give out. So we tried 2X. Here the drive had no problems burning. We noticed the buffer meter in Easy CD Creator never strayed below 90%. We are now eager to see how future burners fare in this grueling test.

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DirectCD Formatting

Those of us who use DirectCD's packet-writing abilities are painfully aware of how long it typically takes to format a blank disc into the UDF format. Subsequent formats of an already formatted disc, however, can be done much more quickly with the Quick Format option. We test these two processes with CD-RW media to give our readers an idea of how long they'll have to wait.

As we can see, the 12/4/32 takes a full 35 minutes to format a 4X CD-RW from a blank state to a DirectCD disc. Successive Quick formats, though, take only 57 seconds. As more burners arrive into our labs, we will get a better idea of how these figures compare.

DirectCD Packet-Writing Performance

In this test we time how long it takes to copy and paste a 195MB folder from our testbed's HDD to a freshly formatted DirectCD CD-RW. The Plextor 12/4/32 completed the copy in a little over 7 minutes. Looking at our CD-RW Duplication results and doing a little math, it appears that DirectCD copies incur a bit of overhead. The burning portion of our CD-RW duplication test averaged about 556kb/sec, while the drive burned at about 464kb/sec in our DirectCD test. That's roughly a 20% drop in burn speeds by choosing the convenience of packet-writing over standard duplication.

DirectCD CD-RW Erasing

Finally, we time how long it takes to return a DirectCD-formatted CD-RW to a blank state using the CD-RW Eraser utility included with DirectCD. There's nothing too fancy to report here-our 12/4/32 test unit completed the erase in just over one minute.

Conclusion

Being as it's our first burner review, we currently have nothing to compare Plextor's 12/4/32 SCSI unit to. However, based on its own merits, we found this drive to perform quite adequately. We encountered no serious issues and test results were more or less as expected.

Our main issue is with the drive's read speeds. We were fairly underwhelmed with its 32X read performance. In fact, we found that it significantly underperformed other 32X readers in our database. However, given the nature and intended use of this drive, we doubt many folks will be buying this to be their main CD-ROM reader. In this light, we do not place much emphasis on its sluggish application-level read speeds.

Writing and rewriting abilities are what this drive is all about. Performance was at or near expectations in all of our timed tests. We were also pleased with its performance in our Unreal Tournament stress test, but wonder how significant its seemingly poor performance in the CPUmark99 stress test is. We will find out as we get our hands on more of the competition.

When looking at the rather steep $330 (retail) street price of this drive, consideration must be given to the software package and amenities. Plextor includes just about everything you could possibly need to get started right out of the box, including latest versions of Adaptec's Easy CD Creator and DirectCD as well as their own Plextor Manager 2000 software suite. Still, we found similar offerings from other manufacturers for significantly less money, though no one but Plextor makes their own software suite. Consideration must also be given to the ethic behind the drive. Plextor frequently provides firmware and software updates on their website (in fact frustrating this reviewer as two retests were mandated by timely firmware update releases ), and the unlimited toll-free technical support included in the 1-year warranty is a nice touch, not to mention the four separate LED indicators informing you exactly what the drive is doing.

For those who own their own software and typically go for the OEM version of drives, other brands warrant consideration as well (we found typical bare drive pricing to be about $300 on www.pricewatch.com -quite steep). By passing up the retail amenities of this drive, you also forgo some of the value of the product. In short, we feel the effort Plextor places in the retail package is what makes it worth the extra money.


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