In 1986, some of the brightest minds at Apple Computer came together to conceive a new standard in digital connections. Within a year, the first specification was completed and FireWire--Apple's trademarked name for the technology--was born. This new interface protocol, as published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), was named IEEE 1394, the 1394th specification of the institution. The public's first view of this new technology came at 1995's COMDEX trade show, where the 1394 Trade Association publicly declared IEEE 1394 support.
IEEE 1394 (henceforth referred to as FireWire, as it rolls off the tongue a bit easier) is a high-performance serial bus technology that provides a digital signal--the primary reason for the technology's prominence in digital video capture and editing. Today's digital video camcorders offer FireWire ports for just such purposes. Other devices offered with FireWire connectivity include hard disk drives, digital still cameras, scanners, and of course, optical drives like Sony's Spressa CRX1600L. Because FireWire is hot-pluggable, devices can be added and removed without powering the system down. Current speed limits for the interface are at 400 megabits per second (50 megabytes per second), with up to 63 devices able to be linked together. Like USB, FireWire is a multiplatform technology, so both controllers and peripherals can be used in various operating systems, provided there is driver support.
Sony's new CRX1600L is the first 12/8/32 i.LINK (Sony's trademarked name for the IEEE 1394 interface) CD-RW to market. In order to test the CRX1600L, we needed a FireWire adaptor. Orange Micro over in Anaheim, California was gracious enough to provide one for us. Their OrangeLink FireWire 1394 PCI card includes two 6-pin external ports, a six foot 6-pin to 4-pin cable, driver support for Mac OS 8.6/9.0 and Win98SE/2000, and "Limited Edition" versions of Adobe Premiere for the Mac and Ulead VideoStudio for Windows, all for a manufacturer's price of $69. For further information, click here to see the OrangeLink FireWire 1394 PCI product page.
Examining Sony's external i.LINK CRX1600L gives an immediate impression of a standard internal drive housed in an external enclosure. The enclosure is of a solid, substantial feel, with rubber feet to soften any vibrations and keep the drive from wandering around on the desk during full-rpm use. The back includes the power supply connector, two FireWire ports, RCA-style audio outputs, and a cooling fan. While the enclosure is a blue/gray color, the drive face and rubber feet are black.
Our earlier impression was confirmed when we got into Win98SE: all applications that identify the drive's internal model number show it as CRX160E-the same model of the internal ATAPI model we recently reviewed. As such, nearly all specifications are identical to the CRX160E. These include a 4 MB buffer, 150 ms access time and 1-year warranty. Since the drive is external, the only audio outputs are RCA-style. We found the CRX1600L online using our price comparator for an average price of $354. For full specs, click here.
Within the drive's System Properties entry, there is no DMA checkbox. Apparently, DMA transfers are handled internally by the bus-mastering PCI FireWire adaptor. Installation was very simple and the "hot-pluggability" worked as advertised, though one must follow the hot-plug rules of the operating system. I was scolded by Win98SE for turning the drive off without first stopping it via the "Unplug or Eject Hardware" icon in the system tray.
Why would one want an external drive, along with the added cost that comes with it? There are pragmatic as well as aesthetic reasons. On the practical side, some systems have no room for internal expansion. Also, there are users out there uncomfortable with cracking open a computer case. For those who might otherwise have to bend under their desk or even go to another room to access their system, having a drive within arm's reach on the desk can be an undeniable convenience. Finally, some folks may just want to take advantage of those IEEE 1394 ports built into their computer, keeping SCSI and ATAPI controllers free for other devices. On the aesthetic side, the CRX1600L might be considered an attractive, artistic showpiece on one's desk. It does take up a 7.5" x 10.1" footprint of desk space, but Sony says the drives are designed to be stackable, so if you need more than one, go vertical. The style and color go well with newer Macintosh systems, in particular. Whatever the reason, there is a market out there for external CD-RWs. Combine that with the increasing popularity of FireWire products, and we feel investigation is warranted.
Let's see how this drive performs!