CD-RW drives hit 40X -- but where are discs?

With the emergence of fast new CD-RW (CD-rewritable) drives, you can burn CD-RW discs at a full 12X speed, and CD-Rs (CD-recordables) at a stunningly fast rate of up to 40X--sort of. The drive can write that fast; finding the proper discs is another matter.

The simple and unpleasant fact is that while 40X drives have been commercially available since early this year, stores still aren't selling CD-R discs rated at 40X, or CD-RWs rated at 12X. At the end of last week, the OfficeMax Web site was selling 14 separate versions of CD-R media. The fasted were rated 32X. Calls to five San Francisco Bay Area office supply stores produced no 40X media.

If you've got a fast drive, you don't want to ignore your discs' rated speed. The faster a drive writes, the less time the laser has to burn each pit, says Katherine Cochrane, industry analyst and publisher of The CD Information Center. If the media isn't made for shorter burn times, some pits may not burn properly, producing errors that can cause reading problems for some drives.

You can probably get away with discs rated a little slower than the drive. Cochrane guesses that "it probably doesn't make much difference between 12X and 16X, [but] it will between 12X and 40X." Cochrane was unwilling to guess about the performance of 32X discs in 40X drives, but some vendors are endorsing the practice. TDK representatives say the company's 32X media is certified to perform at 40X in its own 40X-rated drives.

Rich Martino, TDK's product manager for optical media, says he isn't sure TDK's discs would be reliable with other companies' 40X-rated drives, however. Vendors note that CD-RW media generally needs to be carefully matched to the speed rating of the drive to achieve consistent performance results. PC World's own tests supported this, successfully using 32X media on a 40X drive from the same vendor.

So why isn't anyone selling 40X CD-Rs? According to Martino, it's "just an issue of timing.... Everyone has stock of discs and packaging. We want to try to use up all that we have." TDK hopes to release 40X CD-Rs commercially by the end of April.

In search of media

Verbatim, meanwhile, is already sending out the discs to drive vendors and other special customers. But Verbatim's 40X discs aren't likely to be in stores until late May or early June, according to the vendor.

The drives themselves often come bundled with appropriately rated discs. And at least one drive vendor, Plextor, is selling 40X discs on its Web site.

While 40X CD-R discs should be in stores within a few weeks, 12X CD-RWs will take longer to be released in quantity. There is currently no industry-wide specification for 12X CD-RW drives and media, and disc manufacturers are reluctant to claim compatibility with an undefined standard. They are concerned that their discs might prove incompatible with certain drives, or worse, with a future specification. Mark Bechnault, a Yamaha CD-RW Product Manager, doesn't think that's likely.

"I won't say it's impossible, but I'm 99 percent sure the future media will work with today's drives," Bechnault says.

TDK, meanwhile, is in the odd position of selling 12X drives but not 12X media. As with the CD-Rs, Martino says he expects TDK's 10X CD-RW discs to record just fine at 12X on the company's own drives (and PC World's tests again bear out this claim). But this time, more than backlogged inventory is staying TDK's hands.

"Until the standard is changed to include 12X, we don't want to change our packaging [because it] may not be 100 percent compatible in all [12X] drives," Martino says.

Until then, improvise

You can always record at a slower speed. The cautious user may choose to take this approach until sufficient certified media is available.

Most CD writing software will suggest a recording speed and offer you the option to change it to safely match your media. Many 40X drives even drop their maximum record speed automatically to accommodate the capabilities of the disc.

You don't buy a 40X drive to make 32X recordings, of course. But for a while, at least, you may have to be patient. As Cochrane points out, "Making bad recordings at a high speed is still a waste of time."

Melissa Perenson and Rex Farrance of PCWorld.com contributed to this report.

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