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Plasmon CDR 4220 Recordable Compact Disc

Plasmon is a specialist manufacturing and marketing company, concentrating largely on optical disk based data storage, which is an increasingly important sector of the computer data storage industry. Optical disks and recordable compact disc (CD-R) recorders are made in Plasmon's UK factory, at its headquarters near Cambridge. This is also the company's software development centre and the group's European sales base, which supports Plasmon's offices in Munich and Paris. Since 1994, Plasmon have been manufacturing a CD-R drive based on a Philips mechanism, and have recently announced a 'price crash' on their double-speed recording CDR4220 model which is supplied complete with Incatsystems fullfeatured mastering software for Mac and Windows at a retail price of just 875, with the internal version of this priced at 825. The Incatsystems software usually retails for around 800 on its own, and is for professional (not 'lite' or cut-down) authoring which allows wide flexibility in creating CD's in a variety of formats. The supplied software package includes Easy CD Pro (Multimedia edition) for Windows 3.x, Easy CD Pro for Windows '95 and NT (32 bit application), and Easy CD Pro for the Apple Mac. [It is worth noting here that the Multimedia version will run on Windows '95 as a 16 bit application.] You can use the Easy CD-Pro software to create ISO 9660 format, HFS format for Macintosh, CD-DA, and mixed mode (data + audio) discs. You can write discs on the fly from a virtual image rather than by creating a real ISO 9660 image first. This works well if all your source files are on fast hard disk drives which can deliver the data steadily and speedily to the CD recorder. In practice, this means hard disks with an average access time of 19 milliseconds or less, and with a transfer rate of 600 kilobytes per second or better. With Macintosh-based systems (which all feature built-in SCSI interfaces to connect to the CD-Recorder) you will need a Quadra 700 or faster to be able to write virtual images on-the-fly and use 2x speed, although you can still usually write an ISO 9660 image at 1x speed with slower systems. PC-users will be pleased to know that the Incatsystems software runs happily with a low cost, simple PIO (Programmed I/0) SCSI card on a PC, and can record data 'on the fly' without first having to create the CD image on a local hard drive. Due to the way in which CD-R works, data must be kept streaming at a constant data rate, or the disc is rendered unusable. It is in this area that software plays a key role in minimising these risks, as well as aiming to provide a cost effective solution. On the drive side, probably the most important factor is that the internal data buffer is at least 1 MB which can sustain up to 3 seconds of data interruption at dual speed recording. The poor-quality software supplied with some systems usually dictates a minimum system specification for the PC that includes 16MB of memory, a special audio/visual hard drive, and an expensive Bus Mastering SCSI adapter card. A conventional PC system usually has 8MB RAM, a reasonably fast hard drive (on an IDE interface), and no SCSI - and can be used with the Plasmon recorder in this low-cost configuration.

The CDR4220 drive itself is available either as an external unit or as a half height internally-mounted device. As an external unit, the recorder measures 22.9 cm high by 6.4 cm wide with a depth of 32.4 cm, and weighs 4kg, while the internal unit measures 14.6 cm wide, 4.13 cm high and is 20.3 cm deep, and weighs only 1.3kg - so it is quite small and compact. Key features and benefits include doublespeed recording of discs in as little as 30 minutes, in addition to quad speed CDROM drive operation. The unit's built-in laser calibration ensures the integrity of the recorded data each time a CD-R disc is loaded and the drive has a fast SCSI-2 Interface which allows large quantities of data to be processed at high speeds. You can playback audio CDs or interactive CD-ROMs which feature audio, using the line outputs or via the headphone socket and you can write information in a range of formats such as CD-ROM, XA, and CD-I , depending on the software you are using. A CD is basically a medium on which to store information, so files can be recorded to CD in the Macintoshs native file format - the Hierarchical File System, normally abbreviated as HFS. The ISO 9660 format, on the other hand, is supported by all computer platforms, so ISO discs are ideal for sharing data among different platforms. Using Easy CD-Pro, you can create a virtual ISO disc image in the main program window and write it on-the-fly to CD. Alternatively, you can write your virtual image to hard disk as a real ISO 9660 image, and then record this to CD at any future time. You can also record any ISO 9660 image created by another program to CD and you can copy an ISO 9660 track from any SCSI device (including a CD-ROM drive) connected to your PC. Whatever information you have stored as a file on any other storage medium can also be stored as a file on an ISO 9660 or HFS CD-ROM, as whether the file contains pictures, text, sound or whatever doesnt matter as far as the file format is concerned - its all just 1s and 0s. CDs were originally designed to hold audio and are often rated in terms of how much audio they can hold. As far as computer data is concerned, a 21 minute disc can hold 184 Mb, a 63-minute disc can hold 553 Mb, and a 74-minute disc can hold 650 Mb of data. One thing to watch out for when you are working out how much data you can fit on a CDROM is that a small amount of space (maybe 300 kB or so) is needed to hold additional disc directories and other information and to account for the fact that data is held in 2048-byte blocks. This means that a file will occupy a space equal to the closest higher multiple of 2048 bytes - so the files will actually occupy a little more space than you might expect. In Action Making a copy of an HFS disk is the most common option to use for backing up your Macintosh files. It could not really be much simpler - you just select Write CD from the CD Menu, use the Source to Write dialog box which appears to select the HFS volume option, and hit OK.

Source To Write dialog

Another dialog box opens to let you select the actual HFS volume you want to write.

Select HFS Volume dialog

OKing this brings up the Write CD dialog box, where you choose the Mode 1 and CD-ROM options, and check the Finalize disc box - unless you are writing a multi-session disc. You can hit the Test button if you want to make sure that your system can pass the data quickly enough to the CD-Recorders cache

memory, then click on the Write button and sit back for half an hour or so while the disc is written.

Write CD dialog

Jargon-buster In case you were wondering, a volume is a Macintosh jargon for a hard disk partition. Any hard disk drive can be partitioned into one or more of these volumes, although the internal drive on most Macs normally only contains one partition - so you see just one hard disk icon on your desktop for this. If you are using large external hard drives, there are various reasons why you might wish to create smaller partitions on the same drive, which would all show up on the desktop as separate icons. Older versions of the Macintosh system software will not recognize partitions larger than 2 Gb, so you would have to make two 2 Gb partitions with one of these to be able to access all the space on your drive. Other reasons might be to keep your data and your applications separated onto different partitions - or to create a partition of just 650 Mb to prepare your data before burning to CD-ROM. If you want to make a hybrid CD-ROM which can be read by both Mac and PC you will need to write two separate sessions, one containing a Mac HFS volume, and one containing an ISO 9660 volume. These are completely separate and files cannot be shared between them, so you will just see the HFS volume on a Mac and the ISO 9660 volume on a PC. A mixed mode disc, on the other hand, contains HFS or ISO9660 data in the first track and audio (CD-DA) data in one or more subsequent tracks. Mixed mode CDs are created using the Cue Sheet. This is a list of tracks which will be written to disc in a single writing operation, all

within the same session. You write an HFS track on the disc first, making sure to deselect the Close Session As option in the Write CD dialog box. Next you write the AIFF tracks to the same disc by building and writing a Cue Sheet for the audio tracks. This time you make sure that the Close Session As, Audio (2352), CD ROM and Finalize Disc options are selected before you write the disc. All pretty straightforward stuff here! Mixed mode discs can be used to create multimedia applications with sound that can be played back from any CD-ROM drive through headphones or external loudspeakers, rather than through the computers internal sound circuitry. The music tracks can also be played on home-stereos, after skipping the first (data) track. In a mixed mode application, sound is accessed by commands which instruct the CD-ROM player to play the desired bit of sound and the authoring program which you use to create your multimedia application is where you set this up. If you are making CD-ROM discs for PCs or other platforms you will need to make a virtual image to create disc images in the ISO 9660 logical format. A virtual image is essentially a database file showing where files are stored on a hard disk and where they will be recorded on a CD. You build a virtual image in the main program window, using Get Files/Folders from the Edit menu to add your files and folders. When you do this you are not actually copying the files or folders themselves, but simply creating a database containing information about where the files are actually stored. This takes time to create initially, but the time required depends on the number of files rather than on the total size in bytes of the final disc. When the virtual image is complete, you can use it to write on-thefly (transfering data from files anywhere on any connected disk drives as they are needed) to CD.

Virtual Image screenshot

To write a virtual image on-the-fly, you can simply keep the virtual disc image open in the main window and choose Write CD from the CD menu. The Source to Write CD dialog opens, and you choose Virtual CD and click OK. You will first be prompted to fill in the Volume Descriptors (including a copyright notice, volume name, operating system type, and so forth) and to globally change the dates of all the files on the CD if you wish, then the Write CD dialog opens where you select the appropriate options before hitting OK to write your disc. It is always advisable to test the system first if you are writing on-the-fly, as it is very possible that you may encounter situations where your disk drives are not able to keep the data flowing steadily to the CD- recorder in these circumstances. Alternatively, you can write the image to hard disk as a real ISO 9660 image (containing the actual data) which can later be recorded to CD. To create a real ISO disc image, once you have saved your virtual image to disk, you simply select the Write ISO Image to Hard Disk command, choose the volume and folder where you wish to save it, and give it a name. In this case you will need 650 Mb of free space on a hard disk to record the disc image onto. To write this

real disc image to CD, you just choose ISO Image Already On HD as your source in the Write CD dialog box and hit OK. The advantage of using a virtual image over a real ISO 9660 image is that this takes up very little extra space on your hard disk - typically less than 600 kB for up to 10,000 files. Of course, being able to record on-the-fly from a virtual image means that you do not need a hard disk twice the size of your final application in order to record a CD. The disadvantage is that you may only be able to achieve 1x writing speed, depending on your computer configuration, and you run the risk of some interruption to the flow of data to the CD-ROM while the software retrieves it from whichever disk drive it is stored on and directs it via the SCSI bus to the CD-Recorder. The advantage of using a real disc image is that all the data is in one continuous file - so the system does not have to work too hard to transfer this to CD-R, thus improving reliability and allowing the use of the faster writing speeds. CD-ROM performance can be greatly improved by careful positioning of the files on disc to minimize seek time (the time that the CD-ROMs read head spends moving from point-to-point on the disc while seeking a piece of data). When an application makes a request to access a file, the operating system first opens the directory on the disc to get the files address, then goes to that address to get the file. Consequently, you should place each directory (folder) onto the CD immediately preceding the files it contains, so that the read head has the minimum distance to travel to access the file after reading its location from the directory file. If you are creating new folders for your virtual CD image, you should create these folders one at a time, then add its files, then create the next folder and add its files, and so on. This way you will have all the files positioned on CD immediately after their directories. Also, you should regard 40 files per directory as a working maximum, so an entire directory will fit in cache memory - thus improving performance. I tried the system out on two different computers - a Quadra 950 and a PowerMac 8100/80. Unfortunately, the Plasmon CD-Recorder would not work properly with my Quadra 950, and would lock up the computer after the first 496 blocks of data were written to the CD - resulting in a ruined disc. I never got to the bottom of this, despite trying everything I could think of, including turning off all inessential system extensions, installing new system software, and so forth. On the other hand, everything worked just fine on my PowerMac 8100/80. Overall, the software is pretty straightforward to use, although I feel that ASTARTEs popular Toast CD-ROM Pro software has the edge. For instance, to create HFS discs with Toast, I normally create a 650 Mb partition on one of my 4 Gb A/V drives, and copy just the files I want onto this. Conveniently, Toast will even let you create a temporary partition on your hard disk drive - which saves you having to use your disk formatting software to re-partition one of your larger drives. I then select this volume using Toast and burn it to CD-ROM. This way I can be sure that I am transferring my files from just one fast hard drive which does not thermally recalibrate while writing to disc, and which is not fragmented in any way. After initially ruining a couple of disks by trying to burn

the data from slower non-A/V drives, with source files held on different disk drives, I quickly learnt the benefits of taking this extra step to ensure success. Of course, with any CD-R system, you have to bear in mind that recording of discs also includes the data preparation time - which in some cases can take hours! So, at least you have the option to record on-the-fly with the Plasmon system, which can save the time it would take you to prepare a disc image or to copy all the data to a separate 650 Mb drive partition. Another problem I encountered with Easy CD Pro using the Plasmon CD-Recorder is that it would only recognize actual hard disk drives as acceptable volumes to burn CDs from - it wouldnt recognize a 650 Mb partition on my 4 Gb drive, for instance. So, yes, it is true that you can sometimes get away with writing data on-the-fly to CD-ROM from different source disks, but my advice is to go more carefully and prepare the files on a newly-partitioned 650 Mb drive whenever possible. All-in-all, the CDR 4220 performed well as a CD-Recorder, and played back discs perfectly - while I had some reservations about the Mac software supplied for review. At the asking price, the system represents excellent value for money, and will let you create most of the different types of discs you might wish make although for making CD-Audio discs you will probably find it wise to invest in additional software from ASTARTE or Digidesign. Technical Issues Those of you thinking of buying one of these systems will need to consider exactly what use you will put it to. The playback capability means that you get a useful CD-ROM drive to use with your Mac or whatever, but I am really talking about what CDs or CD-ROMs you will want to burn with the system. If you are thinking primarily of creating CD-Audio discs, then you will be much better off using ASTARTEs Toast CD-DA software rather than the Easy CD Pro software supplied. Of course if you are really serious about your audio you will probably also want to be using Digidesigns MasterList CD software in conjunction with a Digidesign audio card. You will need to check with ASTARTE and Digidesign to make sure that you are buying versions of their software which are compatible with the Plasmon 4220 - because older versions definitely will not recognize the Plasmon drive! On the other hand, maybe you are thinking of using the recorder to back up your computer data onto CD-ROM. I have burnt several disks containing backups of my Pro Tools sessions, for instance, as 650 Mb is a handy amount of storage space to use for these. Nevertheless, I am planning to buy an Exabyte drive for backing up my work-in-progress from the Mac/Pro Tools, as the tapes will hold much more data than a CD-ROM, cost around the same price as a CD-R disc, and can be overwritten if you want to update files. When I have finished off a project, I may well archive the completed project onto CD-R, although removable opticals offer an alternative solution here. I asked Stewart Vane-Tempest from Plasmon for his thoughts on the subject, and we ended up discussing the pros and cons of using CD-R for backups in some depth:

CD-Recordable is widely promoted as the universal storage solution for the future, but at what cost? Is it a true computer data peripheral? What is the hidden agenda? Is the technology moving in the right direction? CD Recorders do offer excellent opportunities, but in the right applications. The technology should be promoted as part of a solution, not just sold for technological reasons. Single technology vendors all too often expand the true purpose of a particular product, usually taking it into areas where alternative solutions may well be more appropriate. Plasmon also sell optical removable drives for data backup, for instance. CD-R is not in essence a data peripheral, certainly not at the secondary storage level where random access recording at a sector level is desirable for performance reasons. However, for any area that requires the distribution of data in a common format, CD excels. Discs may be read on a very wide variety of computer platforms, and its use is not just restricted to the computer industry. The data may be in the form of audio or video as well. It is up to the imagination as to where it can fit within the boundaries of its technical limitations. It is a sequential device, not file level, and imposes constraints which are rarely explained. Manufacturers are introducing new writing techniques such as 'packet writing' to try and overcome some of these limitations, but these techniques usually render discs incompatible with existing CD-ROM drives. There is talk of CD-Erasable (CD-E) being available next year (1996), but all indications suggest that this will also be a sequential type device, so making it inappropriate for secondary data storage. Also, the low reflectivity CD-E media is incompatible with existing CD-ROM drives. In fact, for far less capital outlay one can purchase a 650 MB optical read/write drive that also reads CD-ROMs which is usually more appropriate as a data solution anyway! Well he would say that, wouldnt he! Plasmon also sell exactly this type of drive (the PD2000), and I have been using one myself for the last couple of months. This is useful as a CD-ROM playback machine, and when you want to back up data to a random access 650 Mb removable optical disk you just pop one of these in the disk tray instead of the CD-ROM - which is very handy! But what about the media - the blank CD-R discs themselves? For instance, I have heard reports of finalized discs which will not read on particular machines, or which cannot be used to press discs from - due to unacceptably-high error rates. Vane-Tempest had the last word on this, which he managed to turn into yet another reason why CD-R should be regarded as a distribution rather than a storage medium: CD-R does not verify data in real time, but requires a read pass once the entire session has been recorded. Any errors require a new disc to be written. Obviously, drive/media compatibility plays an important role. Today's supply channels are flooded with media from many vendors, including unbranded media usually advertised at very low cost, but at what price? There are two basic types of CD-R media - Cyanine (discs look a blue/green colour) and Pthalocyanine (discs look gold/yellow). Both operate in a similar manner where

the active dye layer, when written to, allows a reflective layer to resonate light. It is usually accepted that Pthalocyanine offers a more rugged material as it is less prone to decay from UV light. Data is encoded for writing to a disc by 'mark length' and the written length of the data 'bit' is key to the retrieval of data. The drives must be tuned to write this pulse across a wide variety of conditions, which include the media properties and also the recording speed (IX, 2X or 4X). As is usual, a compromise has to be reached between these limits and it is no surprise to find that 2X recording offers the best result. For instance, a recent report from America conducted by Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) also indicates that there are wide differences, especially between 1X and 4X recording. All-in-all, it is of key importance to use media with a name behind it which ensures that a manufacturer is available should there be any issues to sort out, and you should also use whichever media is recommended by the particular drive manufacturer. Remembering that CD-Recorders do not verify data in real time, and that the media plays a key role, backup or archiving of data should be left to conventional storage devices - while CD-R should be used for its excellent capabilities as a data distribution medium. The New CDR4240 Stop Press!!! Just announced is the new Plasmon 'third-generation' CD-R, priced at just 540, which includes multilingual professional mastering software, multimedia, audio and video software, plus backup utilities. The CDR4240, with a seek time of 220 milliseconds, will read discs significantly faster than the previous generation drives, and will now operate in read mode as a standard CD-ROM drive, rather than requiring special 'driver' software with Windows systems although Mac systems do still require a specific driver. Although it is classed as a 'Quad-speed' reader, the maximum write speed is still 2x. This is fast enough for most users, and many professional users say that a 2x writing speed results in much lower block-error rates than 4x. What's so good about this drive is that it is the first drive that can set the laser recording levels to exactly the level required by the media! So you always know that the drive is recording at the best possible level onto the disc, and this gives you a higher level of confidence that the data can be read by both the recorder itself and the wide variety of other CD-ROM drives which may be required to read the disc. The 1 Mb buffer is not the largest that you could wish for, but does provide a couple of seconds of leeway in case of any delays in streaming the data from the hard drives to the CD-R. Another improvement is that the drive will support 'packet writing'. This alleviates the possibility of buffer underruns by allowing blocks of data matched to the size of the drive's buffer to be written to disc - so that the data is kept constantly flowing onto the CD-R. Despite previous misgivings about the use of CD-R as a backup medium, especially as compact discs are not protected like optical disks or tape cassettes, Plasmon now tentatively endorse the use of CD-R for backup, and provide EasyCD Backup software for Windows-users, along with the Easy CD-Pro mastering

software which runs on Windows 95 & NT as well as on the Mac. Mac-users should check out whether Retrospect backup software will support the Plasmon drive, as Retrospect has become somthing of a standard on the Macintosh platform for backup and archiving. Nevertheless, if you are considering using CD-R for your backups, you should keep in mind that it would be pretty unreasonable of you to expect the same level of performance from a CD-R disc costing around 7 as you would expect from the much more expensive 650 Mb optical cartridge disks! Those of you interested in CD-Audio mastering will be pleased to hear that Plasmon are planning to offer future bundles with professional audio software for the PC platform which will support Disc-at Once and P-W subcodes. They also intend to release a Mac version bundling the drive with ASTARTE's popular Toast CD-ROM Pro and/or Toast CD-DA software within the next 6 weeks or so. If you would like to use Digidesign's MasterList CD you will have to check with Digidesign if their software is compatible with this new drive. Mike Collins 1996