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Toshiba SD-M1401

  August 29, 2000 Author: Tim Zakharov  
Special thanks to* for providing the evaluation unit.

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


It seems as if Toshiba has been manufacturing optical storage for as long as they've been around. Founded in 1985, Toshiba's Storage Device Division has always had a strong foothold in the OEM market when it comes to CD-ROM drives. In addition, they pioneered the DVD-ROM standard back in 1997. Doesn't seem so long ago, does it? Yet only three years later, we've gone from infancy to 10X and beyond. A bit disturbing, however is the fact that 3 years has not been enough time to replace the CD-ROM. That day may never come...

Today we look at what is currently the fastest SCSI DVD-ROM drive available, Toshiba's SD-M1401. Right now, its only direct competition is another 10X SCSI unit, Pioneer's DVD-304S. Expect a review of this model shortly. In the meantime, we will compare this drive to the most appropriate units currently in our database. These include the three DVD-ROM units we've tested so far, as well as a pair of 40X SCSI CD-ROMs. As our optical database expands, comparisons will become more appropriate.

Before moving into the specifications, it should be noted that because this drive is still wet behind the ears, Toshiba has not yet had a chance to update their site. We've already spoken with someone from Toshiba who's stated that there may be revisions to their current SD-M1401 spec sheet. In our search of their site, we've found conflicting reports on the drive's buffer size. Their main spec sheet rates it at 128kb, while elsewhere we've seen it posted as 256kb. Toshiba's ATAPI DVD-ROMs have mostly been rated at 256kb, as have been their SCSI CD-ROMs. This leads us to believe that the SD-M1401 should perhaps be correctly rated at 256kb. Right now, though, only Toshiba knows. We will officially report what is currently on their website: 128kb.

Another conflicting specification is the drive's access time. Rated at 85ms everywhere we've seen, we in fact measured it to 75ms. In our conversation with the Toshiba tech, he emphasized that revisions may need to be made to specs. Again, we will report access times as they currently show on Toshiba's site: 85ms. Rounding out the specs is a standard 1-year warranty. Our test unit came with firmware revision 1007 and a check of Toshiba's site found no updates. The back of the unit showed only a standard 4-pin analog CD audio-out.

Acoustically, we were truly impressed. The SD-M1401 is easily the quietest 40X drive we've ever encountered. It's quieter than some 32X drives we've experienced. Also impressive is how cool this drive runs-even after extensive stress testing the drive was barely warm to the touch. Kudos to Toshiba's engineers!

Finally, we've seen this drive priced as low as $133 around the net, but typical prices will be closer to $150 until availability increases. For comparison, Pioneer's ATAPI DVD-115 was typically around $150 when we reviewed it on July 17th, but in a little over a month, it's already dropped to about $120.

Let's see how this drive performs!

For an overview on methodology, click here.

CD-ROM Performance Results

Low-Level Measurements

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As a 40X CD-ROM reader, the SD-M1401 transfers at nearly 41X at the outer edge of our pressed CD media. Its 20X minimum transfer rate at the inner tracks is also right in line with the other 40X readers we've tested. In actuality, it's the slowest of the 40X readers in our comparison graph, but differences of 2-10% won't be noticeable in real-world usage.

However, when we examine the Toshiba's access times, we see it wallop the competition. The closest competitor, another unit from Toshiba, clocks in a full 6ms slower than the SD-M1401. In fact, this Toshiba measures in at 10ms faster than its own rating, as we alluded to in the Intro.

As our regular readers now know, high CD-ROM Winmarks typically correlate well with low measured access times. With some of the fastest access times we've seen in any CD reader, we expect high Winmark scores to follow. Let's see what happens.

CD-ROM Winmark 99

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Despite measured access times below 75ms, the SD-M1401 could only manage a Winmark score of 1323. This places it 17% behind Pioneer's DVD-115. Even Pioneer's 32X DVD-303S finishes 2% ahead of the Toshiba.

A closer inspection of the four test trials reveals that our test unit had difficulty reading three of our discs (with an average score of 1217), while posting an outstanding 1640 with the fourth disc. Situations like these are why we run the Winmark tests on four separate CDs. Not all CDs are pressed equally and not all drives are capable of reading a variety of CDs with consistency.

While the CD-ROM Winmark measures application-level performance from a scripted set of programs, we also run our test units through a pair of home-brewed tests. Follow along as we examine how the SD-M1401 does in our File and Disc Copy tests.

File and Disc Copy

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In our file copy test, we time how long it takes to copy a 634MB file from our CDTach98 disc to the designated test partition of our testbed's hard drive. Given the purely sequential nature of this test, we expect results to correlate most closely to our low level STR measures; drives that perform well in STR tend to do well in this test, while drives that have problems in our STR measures will most likely perform poorly in this test.

Indeed, we see that the SD-M1401 performs most closely with Plextor's 40X, a drive that is the Toshiba's equal in our low level STR tests. In our comparison, only Pioneer's DVD-115 (which actually measured at faster-than-rated 44X max STRs) was faster, completing the test 15 seconds sooner, or about 10% quicker.

In contrast, the disc copy test factors random access into the mix. We time how long it takes to copy a 619MB disc filled with a variety of small files in multiple folders to our hard drive's test partition.

We see the SD-M1401 perhaps underperforming a bit here. With 74.9ms measured access times, we'd expect the drive to perform better than Toshiba's 6401B, which could only manage an average access time of 80.9ms. Perhaps the 6401B's 4% advantage in STRs plays a role, though we are nitpicking, given the overall closeness in performance.

Digital Audio Extraction

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Toshiba optical drives have traditionally been middling to poor performers in digital audio extraction since we've begun optical testing here at The two Toshiba CD-ROMs we've tested thus far have been 6.8X-14.5X CAV extractors (insufficient for 8X on-the-fly burning), while their 6X DVD unit extracted at 4X-6X P-CAV speeds.

Things seem to have improved somewhat with the SD-M1401. We now see 9X CLV extraction rates (incidentally, also counter to Toshiba's spec sheets), which will most likely be able to feed an 8X burner without resorting to first imaging the CD-DA to hard disk. The bad news, at least according to CDSpeed99, is this Toshiba follows the SD-M1212 in failing to provide accurate streaming. Because audio data is interleaved on CD-DAs, it is more difficult to precisely position the drive's head when seeking audio discs. Drives which support accurate streaming in hardware can do this more quickly and precisely, while drives which don't need to rely more on the extraction software, slowing things down.

As far as DVD-ROM drives go, the Pioneer DVD-303S is still the faster audio extractor, despite being previous generation. Pioneer's latest DVD-115 is even faster still, but may have some quality issues, as detailed in our review of the drive.

When double-checking the drive's extraction performance with CDDAE99, we found that the 9X rates held pretty consistently, no matter which track # we were extracting. Single-session extracting also held at 9X. As far as sound quality, we could find no audible differences between the source and the extracted .wav files. CDDAE99 agreed, with zero differences reported between source and extraction.

As we near the end of our CD-ROM performance analysis, we now move on to media compatibility. Let's see how our test unit handles CD-Rs and -RWs.

CD-R Media Compatibility and Performance

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The SD-M1401 had no problems with our TDK test CD-R, reading it at full speed without difficulties. Performance was 20X at the inner tracks, reaching 41X by the outer edge.

Beginning with this drive, we have begun informal testing with 80 minute CD-R media. We are pleased to report that the SD-M1401 was able to detect and read an Imation 80 minute disc, copying its entire 701MB of contents to our test partition without incident.

CD-RW Media Compatibility and Performance

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With our Verbatim CD-RW media, read speeds were reduced to 10X-20X CAV, identical to Toshiba's other DVD drive in our comparison. Though compatibility is more important than performance with CD-RWs, the extra speed the Plextor and Pioneers provide in this area is a nice bonus. We'd like to see Toshiba step up in this area for those who do a lot of CD-RW reading.

As we expanded our testing of CD-R media, so did we do so with CD-RWs. We now have Sony and Memorex-branded 4X rewritable media to test for compatibility as well. The verdict? The SD-M1401 read these other two brands with no problems and at nearly identical speeds to the Verbatim.

Now that we have finished all aspects of CD-ROM performance, it's time to switch gears and examine how our test unit performs as a DVD reader.

DVD-ROM Performance Results

Low-Level Measurements

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Unlike Pioneer's DVD-115, which conked out well below its rated 16X in our measures, we see the SD-M1401 come very close to its 10X rating, with a maximum DVD read speed of 9.64X at the outer edge of our test DVD. Minimum read speeds measure in at 4.38X. As many of you may now know, DVD movies play back at 1X speeds, so the extra speed offered in today's DVD-ROM drives is only useful when reading data DVDs. Unfortunately, though, there are very few software titles offered on DVD, and pundits have begun lamenting the demise of the format as a replacement for the CD-ROM. Nevertheless, there are those out there with DVD-based software apps who crave all the read speeds they can get their hands on. Members of our Discussion Forums have been quick to point out the scarcity of SCSI DVD-ROM drives; for them, offerings such as the SD-M1401 and Pioneer's DVD-304S will be welcomed with open arms.

DVDSpeed99 CPU utilization at 1X measures out at 9% for our test unit. This compares to 6% for Pioneer's ATAPI DVD-115 and 7% for Toshiba's ATAPI SD-M1212. Perhaps the overhead incurred in the SCSI protocol keeps this drive a bit higher than the ATAPI units we've tested so far. Regardless, 9% is still quite low. We find no reason for concern.

Subjective Playback Observations

In movie playback, scenes were smooth and very crisp looking on our 21" Sony monitor. The "Morpheus/Neo Matchup" in The Matrix never skipped a beat, even during the most heated action. In Twister, chapter 2 played back smooth as glass as the crop duster passed above the SUV speeding through the spanning wheat fields.


Toshiba's latest SCSI DVD-ROM is a very solid performer overall. CD speeds are right in line with other 40X units we've tested, and it turns in DVD scores second only to Pioneer's 16X ATAPI drive in our (admittedly young) database. We like that Toshiba is improving their digital audio extraction speeds, but these days, 12X minimum DAE should be standard. We hope to see Toshiba work towards this and add support for accurate streaming. For those who are concerned with noise, the Toshiba is by far the quietest 40X drive we've yet tested.

On the down side, the wide variation in Winmark scores across our four test CDs made us a bit edgy. Most units we test manage very similar scores across the four discs, but the Toshiba's scores deviated by nearly 17%.

Finally, we were happy to see DVD speeds approach the drive's 10X rating. Those who own software apps on DVD will be pleased to know they are getting full advertised speeds with this drive.

There's really no glaring weakness in the SD-M1401. Even its $150 sticker price is pretty reasonable considering the SCSI interface and 10X DVD speeds. For those who already have SCSI-based systems and are looking for a good DVD-ROM, the SD-M1401 will make a fine addition.


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