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Sony Spressa CRX1600L

  December 20, 2000 Author: Tim Zakharov  
We'd like to thank Sony Electronics for providing our evaluation unit and Orange Micro for providing the IEEE 1394 PCI adaptor.


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!

For an overview on methodology, click here.

CD-ROM Performance Results

Low-Level Measurements

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As expected, the CRX1600L yielded nearly identical performance to its ATAPI brother in our low-level measures. In fact, both sequential transfer rates (STR) and access times were a hair faster than the CRX160E. Again, access times were considerably faster than spec, while STRs were right on the money.

It's worth noting in the interface burst measures that the conversion from ATAPI to IEEE 1394 appears to incur a bit of overhead. Maximum burst rates are limited to the drive's STR maximum of 4.8 MB/sec, 14% slower than the pure ATAPI interface on the CRX160E. Also, there is a quantifiable increase in CPU utilization according to CD Winbench 99. While the 3.7% figure we measured in our testing is still quite low in absolute terms, it does show a hit of almost 25% over the CRX160E.

CD-ROM Winmark 99

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The CRX1600L averages 1068 in our Winmark test, less than 2% faster than the CRX160E. As in our original analysis of the CRX160E, we are disappointed at this score. The CD-ROM Winmark test generally favors quick access times, which both Sonys have. Yet, other drives with equal STR and slower measured access times yield performance on par with, or in some cases, slightly better than the Sonys.

File and Disc Copy

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So far in our read tests, the CRX1600L has fared slightly better than the CRX160E in most areas. Though the difference is insignificant, the external Sony again edges its brother. In the sequential File Copy test, the CRX1600L clocks in 1% faster. This puts it in 2nd place in our comparison, 1% behind the Plextor 12/10/32 SCSI.

Likewise, in the Disc Copy test, the CRX1600L again edges its brother. They share last place in our comparison. The external Sony is 10% slower than the category-leading Ricoh.

Digital Audio Extraction

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Continuing its trend of consistent, but insignificant leads over the CRX160E, the CRX1600L shows itself to be a 12X CLV audio extractor like its ATAPI twin. Both drives are at the slower end of the scale when compared to the competition.

Fortunately, our tests show excellent extraction quality for the Sony. CDSpeed99 gives it a perfect 10 and our informal ripping and listening of .wav files with CDDAE99 confirms this. However, the competition has equally excellent quality, leaving the Sony trailing overall. Those who demand quick DAE would be advised to look elsewhere.

CD-R Media Compatibility and Performance

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The CRX1600L had no issues with reading CD-R media in our tests. Read speeds were equal to its pressed CD performance and there were no compatibility issues with our Imation 80-minute test disc.

CD-RW Media Compatibility and Performance

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The Sony's CD-RW read speeds a comparatively sedate 10X-20X CAV. No issues were encountered reading from Verbatim, Memorex, or Sony 4X media, nor with TDK high speed (4X-10X) media.

Now that formal examination of read capabilities is complete, let's see how the CRX1600L does in our burn tests.

Write/ReWrite Tests

CD-R Based Duplication

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Surprisingly, we found that the CRX1600L imaged our test CD-DA 6% faster than the CRX160E in Adaptec Easy CD Creator. The burn portion of this test was much closer, though, with the CRX160E enjoying an insignificant 1.5% lead. Total audio CD duplication time for the CRX1600L was 13:38, the fastest we've yet seen by a small margin.

In our data CD duplication test, the CRX1600L again edged its brother and the rest of the competition with a total duplication time of 10:05. Results are close enough, though, to be a wash-though the CRX1600L is the fastest CD duplicator we've yet seen with CD-R media, it's unlikely you will notice the few percent difference.

CD-RW Based Duplication

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As with the CRX160E, the external Sony took the cake by a small margin in imaging our data CD, but lost its lead during the burn portion due to its 8X rewrite maximum. In the end, the 10X rewriters completed our duplication test about 15% faster than the 8X Sonys. Burners capable of rewriting at 10X offer significant speed increases to those who use CD-RW media a lot.

CD-R Based Stress Tests

Initially, we wondered if the ATAPI-to-IEEE 1394 interface converter on the CRX1600L would have any effect on performance. One area this would show is our stress tests. However, our tests showed excellent performance here, equal to the pure ATAPI CRX160E. The Unreal Tournament stress test passed at 12X, while the CRX1600L could burn at up to 4X speeds without creating coasters during the CPUmark99 stress test. This equals the best we've seen for a burner without any buffer underrun prevention technology. The lack of this technology, though, means you'll have to baby your burns if you do a lot of heavy multitasking (basic multitasking, like web-browsing and office apps, shouldn't require such caution). That means manually setting the burn speed to a slower speed (say, 4X) in your CD premastering software. The other option, of course, is to burn at 12X and ease up on the multi-tasking until the burn is complete.

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DirectCD Formatting

A full format of high-speed media in DirectCD took less than 16 minutes. This was slightly slower than the CRX160E, but still one of the fastest times we've seen. Subsequent quick formats were completed in just over 18 seconds, again one of the quickest scores we've seen.

DirectCD Packet-Writing Performance

Again, the CRX1600L delivers nearly identical performance to the CRX160E. Its average copy time of 3:27 puts it significantly back of the 10X rewriters in our comparison. The Ricoh MP9120A continues to be the fastest DirectCD rewriter we've tested by far.

DirectCD CD-RW Erasing

Finally, Sony's CRX1600L pulls in an average erase time of 36 seconds using DirectCD's CD-RW Eraser utility.


When we tested the internal ATAPI Sony not too far back, we remarked at how cool and quiet the unit ran. Indeed, the CRX160E remains one of the quietest drives we've tested. This external model, while not annoyingly loud, is definitely a step up from the internal. The obvious factors are that noise and vibration from the external unit are transferred to the wood desk it is sitting on, creating some amplification. Still, we feel the full-rpm hum of this drive is not as well muted as on the internal model. The cooling fan on the back of the drive also contributes to drive noise; in our opinion it was noticeable but unobtrusive. On the heat side of things, the drive's enclosure makes it difficult for us get a good feel for how hot the physical drive gets. For what it's worth, the enclosure never felt much warmer than room temperature, and the fan on the back always seemed to be expelling cool air-a sign that there's not much heat inside.

The retail accoutrements included with the CRX1600L are much the same as what comes with the CRX160E. In addition to the Windows-based software, though, the CRX1600L also includes Macintosh software. The Mac suite includes Describe CD Creation, Retrospect Express backup/imaging software, and Mixman Studio. The PC software is identical to what we described in the CRX160E review. In short, the CD Extreme premastering software gets the job done, but we feel the software interface takes a bit getting used to; abCD, the included packet-writing software, is not compatible with Windows 2000, so we could not examine it; Retrospect Express provides a means for incremental or complete backup and imaging of your hard drive to CD-R; Mixman Studio allows you to experiment and play with your music files, but only works in Win95/98; and Liquid Audio. For further details on the software, click here and select the "Bundled Software" menu option.

We were very impressed with the drive manual. It is thick and filled with useful information on the history and function of IEEE 1394, as well as details on the drive, its setup, and specifications. However, that's the only printed manual you get. The included software is documented only online, within each program's help menu. Lastly, there is a nice foldout quick setup guide that makes it easy for beginners to install the drive.

Because this is the only external CD-RW we've tested so far, we're forced to compare its performance to internal models and let the intangibles stand on their own merits. The strength of the CRX1600L is definitely in duplicating to CD-R. It's the fastest we've yet tested in this category, though not by a significant amount. Its 8X rewrite speed, though, puts it at a distinct disadvantage compared to the 10X competition, and the packet-writing software only works with Win9x, so you're out of luck if you're an NT/Win2k user and have packet-writing needs. Digital audio extraction is limited to 12X CLV, putting it behind even older drives like Teac's CD-R58S. Finally, its read speeds are average compared to other 32X burners.

Overall, we find Sony's CRX1600L to be an acceptable, but not outstanding performer that may be just the ticket for those looking to exploit their IEEE 1394 interface, provided the previously mentioned caveats do not affect you.


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