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Ricoh MP9120A CDRW/DVD

  November 2, 2000 Author: Tim Zakharov  
Thanks to Ricoh Corporation for providing the evaluation unit.


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.

For an overview on methodology, click here.

CD-ROM Performance Results

Low-Level Measurements

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Winbench 99's sequential transfer rate test shows Ricoh's combo drive to be a 16X reader at the inner tracks, while slightly overachieving at the outer edge of our test disc-33X. This is right in line with specs and a hair faster than either of the Plextor burners.

Ricoh's 100 ms access time specification for the MP9120A is the fastest we've seen for any type of burner, but our test sample blows its own spec out of the water with a measured average of 88 ms. This is better than some stand-alone CD readers and should yield good Winmark scores. Let's see if this holds true.

CD-ROM Winmark 99

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The MP9120A does indeed do well in the Winmark test with an excellent average of 1348. This virtually ties it with Pioneer's DVD-303S as the fastest 32X reader we've benched in the Winmark test. It's also over 20% faster than Plextor's 12/10/32A, another impressive feat.

File and Disc Copy

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Our file copy test in many ways is a sequential transfer rate test. When copying a single 635 MB file, random accesses, by definition, cannot occur. As we can see, the Ricoh completes this test in just under 03:18, which is right in line with most of the other 32X readers we've tested.

In the disc copy test, random accesses become relevant because of the many files of various sizes on our test disc. Here we see the MP9120A's excellent random access times come into play. The Ricoh completes the disc copy test in an average of 03:42, which, when compared to the other 32X readers we've tested, is second only to Toshiba's SD-M1212. The Toshiba likely wins because of its slightly better measured access times. Still, the Ricoh does very well as a 32X CD reader, especially considering it's also a writer, rewriter, and DVD reader.

Let's see if the Ricoh can keep up the pace in our digital audio extraction tests.

Digital Audio Extraction

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Ouch. And things were going so well. The Ricoh has serious problems keeping up with its 32X max audio extraction rating. Things start off fine with the first couple of tracks-beginning extraction rates are about 15X. But shortly thereafter, the drive hits bumps in the road and eventually drops to what appears to be fail-safe mode: 8.74X. Granted, our test CD-DA is not perfect, but we haven't seen any other drives choke on it to this extent. To see if there was a possible drive problem, we went through our audio CD collection, testing many more discs. We found a direct correlation: the more surface scratches, the greater likelihood that the audio extraction would drop significantly below ideal. Even our newest, cleanest CD-DAs could not be extracted at full speed consistently. Some runs would produce flawless extraction rate graphs, beginning at 15X and finishing at or close to 32X; but subsequent retries of the same disc would occasionally show drops in extraction speeds.

Apparently, the MP9120A in its current state is extremely picky about the quality of CD-DA surfaces it is trying to read from. At least, however, we found no issues with the quality of extraction. We listened to selections of tracks that were extracted at full speed, as well as tracks that were mid-slowdown in the extraction process, and could find no audible quality issues. CDSpeed99 and CDDAE99 confirmed our auditory findings: no errors were reported, extraction quality was given the highest rating, and accurate streaming support was detected. Just be prepared for the possibility of real-world extraction speeds in the neighborhood of 10X.

It appears that Ricoh places an extremely high priority on extraction quality, to the point that they'll sacrifice gobs of speed to maintain accurate DAE. Then again, it's possible that the engineering feats involved in making such a jack-of-all-trades drive posed limitations in this area. After all, we've seen plenty of optical drives yield fast and accurate DAE with less-than-perfect CD-DAs. At any rate, based on our tests we consider DAE speed (not quality) to be a weakness in this drive.

CD-R Media Compatibility and Performance

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Fortunately, the MP9120A returns to top form in our media compatibility and performance tests. Our CD-R read tests show full compatibility with our 74-minute TDK 12X and 80-minute Imation 12X media. In addition, performance with these media remained equal to pressed CD reads.

CD-RW Media Compatibility and Performance

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For our CD-RW read tests, we used Verbatim, Memorex and Sony 4X-rated media. All three brands showed full compatibility in read tests in addition to read performance equal to pressed CD reads. In fact, we measured random access times slightly better than we did with our pressed CD. Informal copying tests with a CD-RW copy of one of our pressed discs confirmed read performance equal to the pressed disc.

We are extremely impressed with the Ricoh's performance reading CD-Rs and CD-RWs. How does it do, though, when writing to said media? Follow along as we find out.

Write/ReWrite Tests

CD-R Based Duplication

Here we hit another little snag. The MP9120A, being such a new drive, is not yet fully compatible with Adaptec Easy CD Creator. We even applied Adaptec's new 4.02e update, but found that the CD Copier utility's version did not change like the rest of the Easy CD Creator applications (all other aspects of Easy CD worked normally with our Ricoh evaluation unit). CD Copier, however, is the crucial program we use for our duplication tests, so we were in a bit of a quandary. We decided to informally use Prassi PrimoCD Plus, the CD mastering software Ricoh bundles with the MP9120A. Because of the pure state of our optical testbed, though, I chose to install Prassi on my personal machine instead. While I was at it, I swapped in the testbed's P3 450 CPU to try and keep the playing field as level as possible.

The results were comparable to Plextor's 12/10/32A. However, because of the added variable of testing under Prassi instead of Adaptec, we don't feel comfortable proclaiming one a faster writer than the other. We can say with confidence, though, that the MP9120A does indeed write data and audio discs at 12X speeds (in the 6-7 minute range to burn a nearly full CD).

An unfortunate consequence to this Adaptec issue is that the MP9120A won't have duplication results available in our optical database. We regret having to do this, but we had no idea how much longer it would take for Adaptec to fix this problem. This should in no way be looked upon as an issue with the Ricoh, as it was fully functional with Prassi as well as NTI Technology's CD mastering software.

CD-RW Based Duplication

As in our CD-R based duplication tests, we were forced to use Prassi PrimoCD Plus for our CD-RW duplication tests. Again, results were comparable to Plextor's ATAPI drive at 10X. The burn portion of our duplication tests came in a bit under 8 minutes, right in line with the 10X spec.

CD-R Based Stress Tests

Easy CD Creator does support Ricoh's JustLink technology, so we were able to conduct our stress tests normally. Our first stress test, burning a folder while Unreal Tournament's intro flyby sequence loops, is turning out not to be such a tough test afterall. The Ricoh was able to burn at 12X easily, as did the two Plextors we recently tested.

It's our second stress test (burning a folder during Winbench 99's CPUmark99 test) that is bringing drives to their knees. As you may recall, Plextor's 12X SCSI burner could only complete this test at 2X. Plextor's 12/10/32A did manage to complete the test at 12X, but because its BURN-Proof technology kept kicking in during buffer underrun situations, speeds ended being the equivalent of about 4X. Granted, the technology does exactly what it's supposed to (prevents failed burns), so we can only be pleased with these results.

Ricoh's buffer underrun prevention technology does just as well as Sanyo's (the inventor of BURN-Proof). The MP9120A also passed our CPUmark99 stress test at 12X. Like the Plextor 12/10/32A, actual speeds with JustLink pauses factored in were about 4X. And Ricoh manages to do this with gaps of only 2 micrometers at 12X. The first generation BURN-Proof technology leaves 40 micrometer gaps during its pauses-still plenty small enough to be covered up by error correction, but less impressive-sounding on paper. It should be noted here that our quotes on BURN-Proof specs are based on Sanyo's white papers-it is entirely possible that optical drive manufacturers who use Sanyo's licensed technology are able to improve on it, though we have no way of confirming this presently.

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DirectCD Formatting

A full format of the included Ricoh-brand high speed CD-RW disc took only 16:23, over two minutes quicker than Plextor's 12/10/32A. Quick formats were also faster on the Ricoh by an average of 11 seconds, with an average quick format time of 23 seconds.

DirectCD Packet-Writing Performance

Ricoh's MP9120A again outraces Plextor's 12/10/32A, this time in our packet-writing tests. Using Windows Explorer, we timed how long it takes to copy a 195MB folder from our testbed's HDD to the included Ricoh high speed CD-RW. Average times of about 2:46 were 15 seconds, or about 9% faster than the Plextor.

DirectCD CD-RW Erasing

Ricoh finishes its DirectCD dominance over Plextor's best with average erase times of 23 seconds, nearly 50% faster than the 12/10/32A's 34 second average.

As we approach the conclusion of formal test reporting, we now look at the final piece of the puzzle: DVD-ROM performance.

DVD-ROM Performance Results

Low-Level Measurements

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As a DVD-ROM drive, the MP9120A performs close to specifications. Our measurements with DVDSpeed99 showed maximum transfer rates of 7.6X at the outer edge of the disc, very close to the 8X rating of this drive. Minimum transfer rates on the inner tracks were 3.4X, with an overall average speed of 5.7X across our test DVD.

CPU usage at 1X is comparable to other ATAPI DVD-ROMs we've tested. Ricoh's combo drive reported 8% usage; on the high end of the 6-8% range we've recorded on previously reviewed drives.

Subjective Playback Observations

We did hit one problem while watching a sampling of movies-The Matrix (a single-sided, dual-layer disc) would not play on the version of WinDVD packaged with the Ricoh, whereas all of our single-layer movies played just fine. Our investigations confirmed that this is a software problem and not an issue with the MP9120A: the older version of WinDVD installed on our optical testbed played The Matrix just fine with the Ricoh. Our Ricoh technical rep was kind enough to point us to an update to WinDVD 2000 on the web, but this patch did not fix the issue.

Movies looked great on our 21" Sony monitor playing through the Ricoh. Scenes from Twister and The Matrix (played on the older WinDVD version on our testbed), which are likely to tax some slower drives/systems, played smoothly on our P3-450 testbed. There were no issues with picture quality or performance that we could tell. In short, this amazing combo unit from Ricoh exceeds our expectations yet again.


Never before have such ambitious specs been announced in an optical drive: Not only must the MP9120A write at 12X, rewrite at 10X and read CDs at 32X max, but it must also read DVDs at 8X max. Top it off with 32X max DAE, buffer underrun prevention technology and access times of 100ms and eyebrows are bound to be raised. For our part, we were very skeptical that all would function as advertised. Much to our delight, though, the MP9120A did as advertised in nearly every situation. Only in digital audio extraction were we disappointed with its performance. If you require fast DAE, this drive is probably not for you.

The retail packaging of this drive is quite satisfactory as well, though not quite as impressive as Plextor's, which includes the Plextor Manager 2000 software suite. We found it odd, in particular, that Ricoh included mounting screws and an audio cable, but no IDE cable. Just about every ATAPI drive we've ever seen includes an IDE cable. Prassi's PrimoCD Plus is quite capable as a CD mastering software suite, but we don't like that abCD (the included packet-writing software) is only compatible with Win9x. Since my personal system uses Win2k, I could not test abCD out because of this limitation. The included DVD software, WinDVD 2000, has a very attractive interface, but would not read our dual-layer DVD, The Matrix. Hopefully InterVideo will address this problem shortly.

The Safe Buy Award

Simply put, this designation means we'd purchase this product without regret. Sure, there may be a slightly better, slightly faster, and/or slightly less-expensive model from a competitor, but you can't go wrong with this particular unit. This award is applicable, of course, to all units at the top of their class, but also applies to units that, though not quite best-of-class, provide a strong showing nonetheless. Finally, with online pricing varying between $315 and $340, the drive is about the same cost as Plextor's retail 12/4/32 SCSI burner. For the same price, you get faster rewrites, 8X DVD, buffer underrun prevention technology, and swifter access times (and therefore, CD read performance). What you don't get is an in-house developed software suite like Plextor provides, or the real-life DAE performance that Plextor is legendary for. Both drives are excellent for what they do, but we feel the Ricoh is the better value in this particular comparison. If you're in the market for a burner and DVD-ROM drive and your interface of choice is IDE, Ricoh's MP9120A is an excellent option.


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