Plextor drive boosts security, capacity

When CD-RW drive speeds reached 52X, the race cooled--until now. Plextor's PlexWriter Premium CD-R/RW drive, released this week, offers the first promising innovations seen in a while.

In addition to hitting maximum write speeds of 52X for CD-R and 32X for CD-RW, the US$129 internal IDE drive offers four features that make it stand out in an otherwise-crowded market: 1GB disc capacity, security, quiet operation, and diagnostics.

CD-RW on Steroids

Unlike ordinary CD-RW drives that can fit up to 700MB on a standard disc, the PlexWriter Premium packs up to 1GB of data on a CD. This is achieved using Plextor's GigaRec feature, which "uses a brute-force approach to push more data into the same space" on a disc, says Howard Wing, Plextor's vice president of sales and marketing.

This technology differs from previously announced schemes for cramming more data on a CD, namely Sony's Double Density discs and Calimetrics' MultiLevel technology. Neither format got off the ground, in part because each required proprietary media in order to achieve the higher capacities. Furthermore, those discs were not backward-compatible with other drives.

"There's an important distinction between this and the MultiLevel technology," says Wolfgang Schlichting, research director of removable storage at IDC. "There's no additional hardware cost or media cost involved. If there's no additional hardware or media required, I think users will be interested in using it."

Instead of reinventing the wheel, Plextor is controlling the drive's laser to burn deeper pits of data onto an ordinary CD.

"We had such a satisfactory margin in how we burn a disc using the drive that we were able to increase the bit density from 20 to 40 percent above the standard CD disc. That yields roughly a gigabyte of storage on a 700MB disc," Wing says.

Setting a Standard?

Of course, doing so violates the Orange Book specification, the standard that defines rewritable CDs, first announced in 1990.

"We acknowledge that this is well beyond the Orange Book specification," Wing says. "But we've tested [data integrity] extensively with the Premium. Plextor has always been relatively conservative; we've always towed the line. But we've realized that the users don't really care, and we've had a lot of good feedback from a number of camps that the increased capacity is of interest. Users want one drive that can give them approximately 1GB of capacity using a standard CD."

Schlichting downplays the fact that the drive goes outside the Orange Book standard. "Today you can be more precise," when it comes to buring data, he notes. "That's also why they went from 650MB to 700MB in terms of CD-RW capacity, because there are things you can tweak so you're close enough to the spec that compatibility is achieved."

A benefit of using standard CDs is that any drive that reads CDs should be able to read a disc that's burned using GigaRec, says Wing. "We've tested the disc with several drives. As long as the drive is a quality drive, the disc will work."

"But," Wing adds, "it's not necessarily foolproof that every CD [drive] out there will be able to read this disc."

In order to take advantage of the additional capacity, you must use Plextor's proprietary PlexTools software; at this time, popular burning packages such as Ahead Nero Burning ROM and Roxio's Easy CD and DVD Creator don't support GigaRec, or any of the other interesting features found on the PlexWriter Premium.

Password Protection

Concerned about your data falling into the wrong hands? The PlexWriter Premium's SecuRec feature makes it possible to password-protect CDs.

"In the corporate world, there's definitely some need to protect data that's stored on CDs. More and more professionals want to back up and save data while on the road," Schlichting says.

In some instances, he says, "the thief may not be able to get into the laptop, but could get the data from the backup CD in the same bag, for example."

The SecuRec feature stems from customer interest, according to Wing. "We don't encrypt the data, but we do provide a mechanism to password-protect a disc. Under current convention, anybody can pick up a CD and read its contents. With SecurRec, that's impossible to do. We put a password-protection scheme in the ID string of the disc, which contains all of the intelligence and basic lead-in [information] of the disc itself. If the drive cannot read the [ID string], then it can't by definition read that data."

There are three methods of protection, continues Wing. "You can protect a disc to a specific Premium drive. You can protect a disc to all similar [Premium] models. Or you can protect the disc to Plextor drives only." If you don't have a Plextor drive, you'll need to download a reader from Plextor's Web site and have the password in order to view a protected disc.

The Premium's other new features include a silent mode, which lets users adjust the speed of the drive to minimize the noise it generates, and Q-Check, which lets users test a CD to determine the number of C1 and C2 errors, track errors, focus errors, and jitter errors on the disc.

Wing agrees that, so long as a disc works, most users won't necessarily care about the quality of the burn. "As a user, if I were to burn a disc and the disc had no problems, I would be satisfied with it," he says. "But if I had a way to evaluate it from its written-quality perspective, I might be inclined to try it."

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