Over the past year or so, DVD-ROMs and CD-RWs have been battling it out for the right to occupy that precious free 5 ¼" bay that resides in nearly every manufactured PC. While IBM-compatible PCs have largely adopted the CD-RW standard, a few PCs, as well as many of Apple Computer's products, have stuck it out with the DVD-ROM. Such manufacturer choices have, in the eyes of some industry analysts, come dangerously close to tolling the death knell for DVD-ROM drives. For more on DVD as "a desktop dud," take a look at this article over at ZDNet.
Some optical manufacturers have taken it upon themselves to ask the question, "Why should I have to choose between DVD and CD-RW?" Companies such as Ricoh Corporation and Toshiba have already tried their hand at what has now been coined the "combo drive," in effect combining the two technologies into a single drive. The first generations of these combo drives, however, have been less than spectacular, often providing sub-par performance in both arenas. Recently, though, Ricoh announced the specs of their latest combo drive, the MP9120A. Like many hardware enthusiasts, I snorted my derision upon looking down the impressive list of performance specs, while at the same time holding out hope that maybe, just maybe, this baby would put out like she claimed she could.
The reason combo drives have traditionally had such a steep hill to climb has to do with the mechanics involved with combining the two technologies. Because two laser diodes need to share one lens and pickup, issues of weight and balance need to be addressed. Too much or improperly balanced weight on the pickup will bog down access times, yet in order to properly maintain the refractive properties of both lasers, placement of both diodes on the pickup may compromise these issues of weight and balance. As you can see, it can be a tightrope act getting these drives to perform well. We'd like to extend our thanks to Jim Tetrault at Ricoh for helping with some of the more challenging technical issues.
Just what are the specs? Let's first start off with a burner like Plextor's 12/10/32A,including Ricoh's own version of buffer underrun prevention technology, JustLink. Next, add an 8X DVD-ROM drive (not the fastest, but still very respectable) and top it all off with speedy 100ms access times (unheard of in any previous CD-RW drive) and 32X max digital audio extraction (akin to Plextor's legendary 40X Max CD-ROM). Impressed yet?
Topping off the vital stats are a 2 meg buffer (like the Plextor, a bit scant here because it's got buffer underrun prevention tech to make up for it), a digital line-out along with the standard analog out, and your standard 1-year warranty. Our evaluation unit came with firmware revision 1.05, which we updated to the latest revision, 1.10, prior to testing. To see Ricoh's official spec sheet, click here.
Going one better on Sanyo's first generation of buffer underrun technology (BURN-Proof--licenced to many optical drive manufacturers), Ricoh invented their own and called it JustLink. JustLink does basically the same thing as BURN-Proof, but leaves only a 2 micrometer gap when the drive is forced to pause, instead of 40 micrometers, like BURN-Proof does. For today's burners, though, that doesn't mean a whole lot, as any gap under 100 micrometers will usually be "fixed" through error correction, so both technologies are far enough under the limits to avoid read issues. The issue becomes convoluted when one starts increasing write speeds without modifying the technology. According to Ricoh's JustLink white paper, doubling the write speed without modifying the technology would also double the gap size, so a theoretical 24X burner with first-generation BURN-Proof would create 80 micrometer gaps when the drive is forced to pause mid-burn. This gets dangerously close to the limits of error correction. Realistically, though, the pace of technology virtually guarantees that by the time burn speeds reach 24X, Sanyo will have revised their technology to decrease the gap size appropriately.
As far as heat and noise, the MP9120A is pretty typical of a 32X max drive. Heat levels were fairly low in almost all cases. Only when repeatedly burning discs did we notice that media came out of the drive warm to the touch, though we've noticed this in every burner we've tested. It has to do with the nature of write and rewrite technology and most likely cannot be totally eliminated as the technology now stands. Noise levels, though, (seeks in particular) were surprisingly high for a 32X unit. We're not sure if it's related to the unique nature of this drive or not, but disc accesses were quite audible, to the point of nearly becoming irritating subjectively. Fortunately, the seeks are audible only during high speed random reading, not during writing or DVD movie playback. Since we doubt most users of this drive will be using it as their main CD reader (most folks should already have readers faster than 32X), this should not be much of an issue.
Now that we've explored the theoretical, let's see if these lofty specs hold up under our strict testing procedures.