Sensible storage system comes at a price

Chris Walton

You have your Iomega Zip and Jaz drives, your Syquest SparQ drive and, of course, your floppy drives, but in my opinion if you need a high-capacity removable storage medium and drive, the best choice is the recordable CD.

All these drives work something like floppies: when you fill one up, you take it out and put another in.

All these drives have substantially more capacity than the 1.4 megabytes of a floppy disk, but the disks they use are also more expensive, between $50 and $800 each.

On the other hand, CDs can be had for as little as $6 for a whopping 650 megabytes of storage space. The data on the discs cannot be erased, which is great for archiving. Most importantly, everyone has a CD-Rom drive.

Send a courier over to a client's office with files on a Zip or Jaz or magneto-optical disk and you may find that they do not have the drive they need to read your disk.

When you think about the comparatively small drives found on most laptop computers and the convenience with which you can carry a whole pile of CDs, Hewlett-Packard's portable M820e CD-R is a sensible way to expand your storage space.

The drive connects via a Type I PC card and is about the size of a bulky portable CD player. Usually you expect portable equipment to be a step or two behind that which you can buy for a desktop machine, but with 20X read and 4X write, the HP is fairly average speed for a CD-RW.

The only non-portable thing about the M820e is the power source. While the unit is meant for the road, you must plug it into a wall socket to use it.

That may seem like a shortfall, but the only time I have ever recorded a bad CD happened when I bumped it rather heavily into my desk and jarred the drive. For that reason, I am not sure having a portable CD-R drive will work.

A battery-operated unit would only encourage people to use the CD-R drive in cars, on planes and other bumpy situations - all of which are not the ideal environments for CD recording.

What makes or breaks a CD recorder, however, is the software. The Adaptec's Direct CD, included with the HP, is the simplest I know. Drop a blank CD into the drive, go through a 10-second set-up and you are in business. Your CD works just as any other disk. You can save files to it, erase files or change files.

There are two small caveats: if you use Direct CD software and your regular $6 compact disc to create semi-rewritable CD-Roms (by contrast, true CD-RW-ready compact discs cost about $50 each), the disc will not be readable by most other CD-Rom drives, until you convert it to regular CD format. But once it is converted, you can no longer make changes or add any files to the disc.

Second, if you erase data, no storage space will be recovered. In other words, if you write 650 megabytes worth of files to the disc and then erase them all, your disc will be blank but full at the same time.

Direct CD is not as efficient as a regular hard drive, but at about $10 for 650 megabytes of storage space, who cares! You can waste two for about the same price as a McDonald's Big Mac, fries and a Coke.

The M820e sells for about $4,600. That is nearly twice what you would pay for an HP internal CD recorder for a desktop machine. While the price definitely detracts from the attractiveness of the CD-R, if you are going to store a lot of files from your notebook while you are on the road, the M820e might still make the most sense.

REVIEW PROS AND CONS Product: Hewlett-Packard's portable M820e CD recorder Price: $4,600 Pros: Fast, portable, good software Cons: So expensive that the significant cost advantage of CD-R is seriously eroded