Storage options and CD-R drive

October 05, 1998|By Mike Himowitz

Computers are so complex today that the once simple job of backing up your hard drive has become a nightmare.

First, you have to figure out what to back up - then you have to find a storage device that holds enough data to do the job without requiring you to baby-sit for six hours while you switch disks or tapes.

That issue was on the mind of a reader who wondered whether it would be a good idea to buy a recordable CD drive to back up his computer.

He figured that a CD-R drive - which not only reads CDs but also records them - could replace his current CD-ROM, eliminating the need for an additional backup gadget. It would provide decent capacity (650 megabytes per disc), and even if he could use a CD only one time, they're cheap enough that the cost of backing up his hard drive every week or two would be well within the limits of his wallet.

While the argument looks good at first glance, and a CD-R drive can be a useful tool, I don't think buying one primarily as a backup device is a good way to spend your money. However, if you have some other reason to record compact discs on your computer, it's a good way to get the most out of a considerable investment.

If you didn't know you could record compact discs on your computer, you're probably not alone. In fact, the term CD-ROM - which we use to describe the drives that come with most computers - stands for compact disc read-only memory. That means standard CD-ROM drives can read compact discs but can't write data to them. It's a one-way street.

Drives that can write CDs have been around for years, but until recently, they were too expensive for everyday use and required an extremely fast computer to make them work. That's because the entire CD had to be written at one time, and any glitch or slowdown in the data stream could spoil the job.

Of course, yesterday's powerhouse is today's $800 bargain computer, and virtually every PC on the market these days has enough speed to do the job. CD recording technology has also become less expensive and more flexible. Today's recordable (CD-R) drives can now write data to a single CD at different times, a feature called multi-session capability. So you can back up one set of files today, another set next week, and so on until the disc is full.

The newest drives, known as CD-RWs, eliminate the last great disadvantage of compact discs. They use new type of CD that can be rewritten and used again, like a regular magnetic disk.

Even with these improvements, CD recording technology has never really caught on with consumers. CD-RW drives are still a bit pricey, ranging from $325 to $1,000 or so, depending on speed and other features. While blank recordable CDs run $1.50 to $3.00 apiece, depending on quantity, rewritable CDs are much more expensive at $20 to $30 a pop.

Recording a CD is still relatively slow compared to magnetic drives, and the whole process takes a bit more geeking around than most people are willing to put up with.

Still, there are good reasons to install a recordable CD drive. Let's say you're in a business with branch offices that need regular updates of price lists, catalogs and technical or financial databases. With a CD-R drive, you can knock off as many copies as you like without much stress and stick them in the mail - a lot cheaper and less daunting proposition than setting up a wide-area network.

Recordable drives are also popular with college students who use them to duplicate music CDs (often illegally) or record "mixes" of songs from different albums.

But for backup purposes, you can do a lot better with other media - especially considering the CD's limit of 650 megabytes.

If you want to back up your entire hard drive at once, eight-gigabyte tape drives are available for as little as $250. If you're willing to settle for a little less capacity but a lot more flexibility, consider Syquest's new $200 Sparq drive, which hooks up to your printer port and stores one gigabyte of data on removable disks that cost $30 to $40 apiece. An added benefit: The Sparq is almost as fast as a hard drive.

For users who are content to back up their data files only, the popular Iomega Zip drive costs about $100 and stores 100 megabaytes on disks that cost $15 to $20 apiece. With 13 million of these drives in use, Zip disks have also become popular for transferring data from one computer to another.

If you really need a CD drive with recording capability, you might as well use it for backup purposes, too. But if you're strictly looking for backup, there are better choices.

Pub Date: 10/05/98

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