Buying on Hype

Buying on Hype

Several months ago I read about a new CD technology developed by Zen Research for a multi-beam laser to access multiple tracks on CD ROMs simultaneously. It struck my interest as my CD ROM became a more important tool for me since the CD player in my stereo is defective. High quality digital audio extraction was also becoming more important.

Hence, I felt compelled to upgrade. Around October of 1998, I was browsing through the pages of Onsale to find a good deal for a CD ROM drive. I happened to find a Hi Val model of a True 40X drive for about $100, which was decent considering that the price was less than most vendors were charging for the same model drive (by about $20). As the story goes, I bid at the initial price of $99 and I won. To clear things up, Kenwood makes the drives but Hi Val markets them.

Afterwards, I had the drive ship to me from the Hi Val factory. Unfortunately, they shipped the wrong drive. It was an 8X multimedia kit (including sound card and speakers). All in all, with all of the phone calls that I had to make and multiple shipping screw ups, I ended up getting the correct drive late November, nearly 2 full months after I ordered the drive.

To give you an idea of what the drive promises, here are some specifications for the drive on the Kenwood site:

  • Recommended 200 MHz Pentium MMX for optimal performance
  • 7 beam laser to access multiple tracks
  • Average of 90 ms access time
  • CLV (Constant Linear Velocity)
  • 1MB buffer

Let’s analyze the specifications a bit. Kenwood claims that the drive obtains a 6MB average throughput throughout the entire disc. That’s quite a bold claim being that most hard drives (IDE and SCSI) can’t even achieve that kind of throughput. Also a 200 MHz MMX seems like an odd requirement as well. I’ve never seen MMX used for CD ROM drives. A 1MB buffer also seems a bit excessive for a CD ROM (as opposed to a CD-R drive) but then again we’ll see if that helps out at all.

The drive installed without a problem. The first thing I had to do was to test it out to see if it was noticeably faster. Normally, I’m not much of a person who relies on synthetic benchmarks but with a jump from 8X to 40X there should be at least a noticeable difference. The surprise? Very little to no difference. Copying a large file ended up at approximately 10X speed. This also included Winbench and Windows 98 system information that confirmed my observations.

The DOS drivers also had issues. It detected the CD ROM properly but the clincher was that it detected my IDE Zip Drive as a CD ROM drive as well. This caused the system to lock up in Windows when opening Explorer or My Computer. A visit to the Kenwood site did not provide any updated drivers, so I was forced to uninstall the drivers.

The final blow came over Christmas vacation. The drive all of a sudden stopped working even though it was less than two months old. It stopped spinning up and reading the CD, no matter which CD I had put in. I had to prompt for a refund after all the hassle and disappointment. Fortunately, I was offered a refund for all the trouble that I went through.

The biggest concern, however, is not with Hi Val’s shipping department and lack of organization but with the quality of Kenwood drives. Remember when I mentioned that the CD player in my stereo is defective? Well, it’s a Kenwood stereo system. I know two other people that have Kenwood home stereos with defective CD players.

Most of the time I prefer to write unbiased articles. Although I can’t deny the problems I’ve experienced, the technology is still new. Since the original 40X drive’s introduction, Kenwood has released 50X drives and up. The technology sounds good in theory but the biggest challenge is to make the theory work. So what drive do I have now? I decided to go with a Plextor drive. So far (since January 1999), I’ve been extremely happy with it and haven’t had any problems whatsoever. I’m trying to obtain a copy of the Plextor Manager software.

My recommendations would be for Kenwood to build a more reliable drive, not only in their CD ROMs but in all of their products. Either Kenwood has quality problems or I’m the victim of a strange coincidence. Improving the drivers would prove to be beneficial as well, especially with the large number of Zip Drive users. In addition, numbers that are realistic would be the best strategy. The 40X claim is too much marketing and hype and not enough proof. Otherwise, I’m inclined to believe that this technology is nothing more than a hoax (like the 100X CD ROM).

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