CD-R engineers must have spent the last few years feeling like they were being barked at by an auctioneer, pushing hard for ever-faster drives to satisfy users' seemingly insatiable thirst for quicker burns. As the economic and engineering laws of diminishing returns converge, though, it looks like the auction's just about over.
"Sure, it's possible that someone might put out a 52X [CD-R write speed] drive, but the question is why," says Bob DeMoulin, marketing manager of Sony's disc storage and peripherals division. "You can already burn a full CD in under 3 minutes at 48X, so what's the point?" As CD-R drives get faster, they get more sensitive to media imperfections, he adds, meaning that it's not worth the effort or cost to create drives that burn much faster.
Heather Barger, marketing director for CyClone, agrees, though she said CyClone will continue to support higher drives as manufacturers produce them. "Price points beyond 48X would be quite high for the consumer marketplace when first introduced," she says, though she admits that CyClone and others thought the same thing when 40X drives hit the market, and external FireWire 40X drives are now available in the $175-$185 price range. "I think higher-speed recording drives would probably have more to do with compatibility and standards issues," she says.
Add user safety to that list, says Howard Wing, vice president of sales and marketing for Plextor. 48X writers already spin at around 9,600 RPM, and as they approach 10,000RPM, they run the risk not only of disc failures, but of discs shattering and the pieces hurtling out of the drive. "When you combine faster spin rates with disc imperfections, you bring up real user safety concerns," he says. "We've got footage of discs flying out of drives at about 200MPH."
Even the 48X drives entering the market in the third and fourth quarters of this year exhibit modifications designed to keep discs—and their users—safe. Plextor's 48X/24X/48X drive, announced in August, features both SpeedRead software that allows users to set the maximum spin rate and enclosure modifications such as a thickened base assembly designed to keep discs in the drive in the event they shatter, Wing says. Manufacturers can't prevent discs from shattering, but they can at least keep them inside the enclosure if it happens, he says.
Plextor and Sony say they'll stop at 48X, and Yamaha has indicated their 44X CRW-F1 drive—which in its telling introductory hype emphasized not speed, but other enhancements like laser-labeling and specialized audio mastering—might be the fastest they'll release. Sony's DeMoulin says that, even setting the issue of speed aside, producing CD-R drives just isn't that profitable any more. Like many companies, Sony stopped manufacturing their own drives long ago; Lite-on now produces them for Sony, EZQuest, and others. "CD-R drives are a commodity now; there's no money in it," DeMoulin says. "It's like buying wheat or pork bellies."
So where do companies like Sony and Plextor go from here? Will they go the way of Hewlett-Packard, who once sold more CD recorders than anyone, but announced 18 months ago that they were moving on to DVD+RW, and getting out of the CD-R game entirely? DeMoulin says that while Sony will be putting more of their resources into DVD drives, they won't abandon CD drive development altogether. Rather, they'll focus on slim, portable CD/DVD combo drives like the CRX85A/A1, which currently boasts 20X CD-R burning and 8X CD-RW recording. "You'll be seeing more Discman-styled, battery-powered drives coming from Sony and other vendors," DeMoulin says.
Plextor also will explore more external USB 2.0 and FireWire solutions with an emphasis on portable player/recorder speed and performance, Wing says. The other engineering horizon ripe for further exploration is CD-RW speeds, he says, pointing to Plextor's new 24X CD-RW speed (the Yamaha CRW-F1 already offers 24X CD-RW burns). "More and more people are becoming concerned with backing up their personal data, and we need to get to the point where it's fast and easy for them to use CD-RW for daily backups," he says.
The CD speed war might not be over after all, but it's certainly moved to another front. -Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen