Sony Laser Library. (Column) (Evaluation)
by Peter Scisco
What better sign that CD-ROM has arrived than the introduction of a CD-ROM system designed expressly for consumers by the consumer electronics giant Sony? The Sony Laser Library system has all you need to enter the world of CD-ROM from your PC. And if you do move on to Windows-based multimedia products in the future, it's quite capable of meeting the basic specifications.
At the heart of the Laser Library is an external Sony CD-ROM drive, a solid performer that meets all current demands for CD-ROM use. I used the drive with a variety of applications, including those that came with the system, and experienced no problems.
Unlike Tandy's low-cost CDR-1000 drive, the Laser Library employs a CD caddy for handling both audio CDs and CD-ROMs. There is some discussion in the industry as to whether a caddy is the most efficient, or even the most consumer-friendly, means of inserting discs into a CD-ROM drive. Portable audio CD players usually sport a flip-top design. Still, the Sony caddy posed no problems, even after weeks of use.
Sony deserves applause for making such a complex device as simple as possible to install, use, and upgrade. A folding Read Me First guide lays out the basic steps for installing and running the system. Sony even includes a dual-head screwdriver for installing the adapter card into your PC.
The Host Adapter card is a half-size board compatible with XT- and AT-bus personal computers. Sony's installation guide, with its well-organized illustrations and clear instructions, leads even the most technophobic user through the process of removing the computer cover and properly inserting and setting the board. More sophisticated users will find IRQ and base address information in the System User's Guide, in case there are conflicts with other I/O devices.
Once you've installed the card and replaced your PC's cover, you're ready to hook up the CD-ROM drive. Connection is made through one of two 40-pin bus connectors; just click the supplied cable into place. Once you've plugged in the power cord, you're ready to install the Laser Library software.
The installation program is also well designed and works according to the most recent "standards." It searches your hard disk to make sure you have enough room to install the Laser Library files and then prompts you to insert one of the six CD-ROMs that come with the system. From this disc, the system creates a DOS menu for launching CD applications. If you have Windows 3.0 on your system, the Install program will create a Laser Library group and assign each CD-ROM application an icon within that group.
During the setup procedure, you can specify whether you want the Library menu to appear each time you start your computer. If you skip this option, you can call the menu to the screen by typing LL at the DOS prompt. The menu itself is simply arranged and can be manipulated from the keyboard or with a mouse. The six CD-ROM applications are listed, with a scroll bar to the right. Highlight the application you want to launch and press Enter, or double-click on the application name--it's that easy. A dialog box appears onscreen to ask for the correct disc. Once you've loaded the application, using the CD caddy, it launches automatically.
The CD-ROM applications included as part of the Sony Laser Library represent a wide range of use and practicality, and they're an excellent value: a CD-ROM drive and software valued at more than $1,000, all for less than $700.
Disk 1 is Compton's Family Encyclopedia. Though not the multimedia version, this is still an excellent electronic resource. Thousands of articles, pictures, and definitions are cross-linked. Students of all agers will appreciate the Researcher's Assistant feature, which suggests assignments on 100 different topics.
Disc 2 is Microsoft Bookshelf: 1991 Edition, a full-featured reference library complete with The American Heritage Dictionary, Roget's Electronic Thesaurus, The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1991, Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (my favorite), and The Concise Columbia Dictionary of Quotations.
For language students, disc 3, Languages of the World, allows you to pursue your avocation with electronic vigor. Translate words and phrases into 12 languages, including Chinese and Japanese. You can also search for idioms and compare word use throughout the selected languages.
Disc 4 is one of two in the library that comes close to multimedia. The program, National Geographic Mammals, is a database of photographs, drawings, and text related to the earth's family of mammals. Most exciting, however, especially for younger children, are the video clips of several different mammals.
Mixed-Up Mother Goose on disc 5 is a departure from the reference materials. Aimed at young children, this interactive game leads the player on a journey through the land of Mother Goose. Children will delight in meeting such favorite characters as Humpty Dumpty and Little Miss Muffett.
Sony rounds out the library on disc 6 with Software Toolworks World Atlas, a comprehensive database of maps and related information. You can print descriptions and maps to a file or send them to your printer, and you can import your maps into many popular word processing and desktop publishing packages.
You aren't limited to these discs when using the Laser Library. You can delete, add, or edit items on the menu as your CD library evolves. But though Sony has worked hard to make it easy to add disc titles to the menu, the process can be fraught with frustration.
As more CD-ROM publishers include automatic installation to the Laser Library as an option on their discs, adding to the menu should become simpler. Sony has done what it can to establish a menu for a system that so far has avoided standards. The company provides an 800 number for technical support. I found the technicians ready to help me sort through the variations of CD-ROM installations and launches.
Separate from the discs, Sony included one feature I thoroughly enjoyed while reviewing this unit--an audio CD player program. You can bring to the screen a detailed image of a Sony CD player; all of the buttons on the image are live. The play button starts the CD, the programming buttons let you set the order in which you play the CD tracks, and the eject button stops play and ejects the caddy from the CD-ROM drive.
For those who need a break from silence or office Muzak, the CD player can be run as a TSR. Having access to CD-quality audio from artists of your choosing is far better than being limited to the classic rock stations that litter the airwaves these days. The CD drive itself can be linked through a stereo amplifer to power regulation-size speakers. If you want to keep the music to yourself, Sony includes headphones.
If you're contemplating adding a CD-ROM drive to your home computer system, you'll have plenty of models and types to choose from this year. The Sony Laser Library isn't the least expensive, but its superior design and engineering, menu interface, easy installation, and high-quality CD-ROM applications provide solid value for your investment.