CD-ROM to go. (portable CD-ROM drives) (Buyers Guide) (Column)
by David English
CD-ROM is finally catching on. Early returns from our most recent readership survey indicate that about 20 percent of our readers have CD-ROM drives. That's up from about 3 percent just a year ago.
That means a lot of you already know about the limitations of the technology. Foremost is the inability to use your new CD-ROM software on a PC without a CD-ROM drive. If your PC at work has a CD-ROM drive but your PC at home doesn't, you can't use your CD-ROMs at home. Also, it's nearly impossible to use your CD-ROMs with a laptop or portable computer. Wouldn't it be great if you could use your CD-ROMs on any PC?
There is an option for laptops and other slotless PCs. SCSI adapters plug into your parallel port and give you both a SCSI port and a pass-through parallel port. Since most CD-ROM drives use a SCSI interface, you can plug most external or portable CD-ROM drives into a SCSI adapter. Unfortunately, if you have a standard parallel port, you'll only be able to read data at about two-thirds the standard data-transfer rate (about 100K per second, rather than 150K per second).
If you have a bidirectional parallel port, like the ones found on many Toshiba laptops, you can pick up some extra speed with two new SCSI adapters: the T348 MINISCSI Plus (Trantor Systems, 5415 Randall Place, Fremont, California 94538-3151; 510-770-1400; $229) and the AL-1000 (Always Technology, 31336 Via Colinas, Suite 101, Westlake Village, California 91362; 818-597-1400; $199). The same two models perform even better--in fact, about as fast as a card-based SCSI adapter--if you have a computer with the new EPP (Enhanced Parallel Port).
The best answer for laptops would be a built-in SCSI interface. Then you could easily add as many as seven SCSI devices to your laptop, including CD-ROM drives and additional hard drives. Currently, only NEC offers a laptop with a SCSI connector.
Now that you have a way to add a CD-ROM drive to your laptop, what about sound? There's the rub--you can't use the parallel port to do both at the same time. Media Vision offers the excellent Audioport, which plugs into the parallel port--in effect adding a sound card to any laptop. But it doesn't get along with the parallel-port SCSI adapters. If you could use both, you could convert your laptop into a multimedia PC (MPC). As it stands now, you'll have to choose one or the other--CD-ROM or sound--or resort to a bulky expansion unit.
You can still use the many CD-ROM applications that don't need sound, or you ca use your SCSI adapter as a quick way to move a CD-ROM drive from one desktop PC to another. If you have a sound card in your computer both at work and at home, you could buy a portable CD-ROM drive with a parallel-port SCSI adapter and set up both machines as MPCs.
One of the best designed and most versatile of the new portable CD-ROM drives is NEC's CDR-37 (NEC Technologies, 1255 Michael Drive, Wood Dale, Illinois 60191; 708-860-9500; $449). It's fully MPC compliant with an average 450-millisecond access time, a 150k-per-second data-transfer rate, and 64K of cache memory. Best of all, it weighs only 2.2 pounds (or 3 pounds with the optional battery pack). It's small and can easily fit into many laptop cases along with the laptop. You can buy the drive with any of four interface kits (XT/AT card--$539, PS/2 card--$598, parallel-to-SCSI adapter--$559, or Macintosh connector--$485), or you can buy the drive and interface kits separately. You can equip all your computers with interface kits and move the drive from computer to computer.
I've spent several weeks carrying the CDR-37 between my home and office. While not as fast as NEC's new MultiSpin CD-ROM drives (these speed demons have a 280-millisecond access time and 300K-per-second data-transfer rate), the NEC portable handled well all but the most demanding data (we're talking full-motion video, which can choke even the fastest drives). I'd recommend it to anyone who needs a reliable and portable CD-ROM drive.
For now it's a real effort to bring multimedia to slotless computers. Maybe someday al I computers will have the necessary SCSI and audio circuitry built right into the machine.