32X CD-ROM drive: Fact or phantom?

The delayed arrival of DVD-ROM technology has left a gap in the market that manufacturers are eager to fill. According to a report issued by Disk/Trend, 32X CD-ROM drives could be on the market by the end of 1997. The question is, will they be reliable and are they needed?

The delayed arrival of DVD-ROM technology has left a gap in the market that manufacturers are eager to fill. According to a report issued by Disk/Trend, 32X CD-ROM drives could be on the market by the end of 1997.

But is this high-speed technology reliable--and do you need it?

Over the past year, CD-ROM drives have leapfrogged from 8X to 24X speeds, defying everything from overheating to increased vibration. The notion that faster is better has flattened the CD-ROM drive development cycle to approximately six months, says Disk/Trend president James Porter.

"Just about all the CD-ROM makers we talked to are just shaking their heads at how fast they came up from 4X," he says. "They each assume that by the fall Comdex show, their competitors will be announcing 32X, so they'll have to as well."

Based on interviews with CD-ROM vendors worldwide, Porter says he expects manufacturers will at least have demos by the US autumn and some might even ship 32X by year's end. Bearing out his suspicions, Toshiba spokeswoman Kelly Odle says the company's 32X drive is expected to be announced around mid-November at Comdex and to ship by the fourth quarter.

Although 32X has long been considered the last technologically possible incarnation of the CD-ROM drive, it remains to be seen whether Toshiba, Panasonic, Pioneer and other manufacturers will be able to deliver reliable drives at that speed. The same challenges that faced each generation of drives are even more pronounced in the development of the 32X, says Ted Pine, an analyst with InfoTech.

"Any time you start to spin that fast, you have added cooling requirements and additional stability issues," he says. "The faster you spin a disk, the more true that spin has to be."

The fastest drives available right now are 24X drives, but even they aren't able to spin at 24X across an entire disk. Only the data on the inside tracks is transferred at 24X. The rate on the outer tracks is typically between 10X and 12X, according to testing conducted by the PC World Test Center. The same characteristic is expected in 32X drives, which will have to transfer data at 4.8MB per second to reach the 32X speed.

For the average user, a 32X drive isn't exactly a must-have peripheral. The applications most people use every day, whether at home or at the office, run just as well on an 8X drive as they would on a 32X drive. Nevertheless, Disk/Trend expects the CD-ROM drive market to exceed US$66 million in 1997, peak in 1998, then concede to the growing DVD-ROM drive industry by 2000.

If the 32X CD-ROM drive makes it to market, consumers can expect it to be priced around US$130, then settle to about US$100, following the same price pattern as previous versions, Pine says.

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