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Review: Kenwood's 52X True-XTM IDE CDROM
Update: Although my original 52x is still running OK in the Beige G3, there have been many readers that had problems with their drives during the months after this review was published. Some owners loved them, others had bad experiences. In some cases replacing a drive has helped (one reader returned his twice) but that may not be the solution to all problems (see the bulleted list below). In the fall of 1999, Maximum PC magazine's 'Watchdog' column covered complaints from PC owners of the TrueX drives regarding drive failures. Some speculated this was due to bad batches, etc. but that was denied in the article I read.
I want to preface this article with some comments (gripes) I have with most 'fast' CDROM drives: noise, spin-up delays and sensitivity to CDs that are not perfectly flat or balanced. These problems are all related to using a 'brute-force' approach to higher data transfer rates - increasing rotational speeds. Since today's higher rated (20X and up) conventional CDrom drives have to spin the disc at extremely high speeds (6,000RPM or more for some drives), the drive spins down during idle periods to extend motor life and reduce heat and vibration. Anyone that has tried inserting one of the 'freebie' CDs or a CDR with a label attached slightly off-center has heard the increased vibration (and in some cases rattling) that will occur when the disc is not perfectly flat or out of balance.
Say goodbye to all these noise problems and hello to higher performance with Kenwood's patented multi-beam pickup (7 beams) and "ZEN" ASIC controller. By reading 7 tracks in parallel extremely high RPMs are not needed and performance easily exceeds anything possible with a conventional design CDROMs. Even Wide SCSI CDROMs can't match the overall performance of this Kenwood 52X "True-X" drive. (Recent tests in PC magazines show it outperformed even the Plextor UW SCSI Cdrom drive and costs much less).
This drive is available from Hi-Val and Kenwood. If purchasing a Hi-Val package make sure you see the "True-X" designation to ensure you're getting a genuine Kenwood drive and not the 52X "Max" Hi-Val drive.
Patented 7 Beam Pickup Design Reads 7 Tracks in Parallel
The Zen TrueXTM Advantage
Zen's advantage is gained through reading multiple tracks simultaneously and by processing the data through a custom ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit). Zen incorporates three unique features:
Another benefit of the 7 track simultaneous read is that random access times for tracks within the 7 beams is as low as 5ms (!). Average random access is specified at 90ms and the drive has a 2MB cache - 4 to 8 times the amount in most CDROM drives. A complete list of drive specifications is listed at the end of this review.
First Test On the Mac!
I've always tried to break new ground here to let you know what works and what doesn't (despite claims to the contrary - i.e. the B&W G3 IDE Slave article). My main motivation is to make you aware of the best performance values available and to ensure you get the right product the first time. Since IDE is a standard regardless of platform, I was confident this drive should work fine. The fact Apple's later CD/DVD driver extensions are almost universally compatible with IDE CDROMs is another plus. I'm glad to report that so far in actual use I've seen excellent performance and quiet operation. There was one error reported at the end of a Macbench v5 random access test at one specific size (1MB), but none during real world tests with CDs and Finder copies.
In case you're not familiar with installing a CDROM drive (this one is no different than any other), I've created an illustrated step-by-step installation guide for Beige G3, 86/9600 and Blue and White G3s.
This CDrom drive feels as responsive as many hard drives in actual use and as shown below, Macbench 1MB sequential read tests showed a transfer rate of 6.7MB/sec, almost 3 times as fast as the standard DVD drive. Since this drive is so responsive, you can often save hundreds of MegaBytes of disk space by opting for minimal installs of with games and applications. Benchmarks don't tell all the story on this drive - it's noticably more responsive in actual use than any CDROM drive I've ever used. Do you hate that delay while the CDROM drive spins up every time you do a file access, even on a fast G3? This drive makes that agonizing and frustrating ritual a bad memory.
Audio CD Player Notes: The Control Strip CD Player works perfectly, allowing switching tracks while playing, etc. but there were quirks with the CD player application. See the compatibility tests below for more details.
Note that the recommended TrueX IDE setting is 'Master' not Slave. If no other IDE device is on the same cable, it must not be set to Slave (a rule of IDE). According to one Beige G3 owner, the drive would not be recognized as a Slave when paired with a hard drive set to Master in his system so I suggest you leave the CD set to the default (as shipped) Master setting. All IDE Macs I've seen have the CDROM set to Master and that is how the drive ships. Leave the drive set to Master as shipped. My Beige G3 (rev 2) has a ZIP drive as the slave and the combo works fine.
(SCSI Mac Owners: Many readers asked if their older SCSI-based Macs could use this drive with the ProMax TurboMax PCI IDE card. Although ProMax officially does not support CDROM drives connected to the TurboMax see the comments below for my initial test results. Also be aware that Kenwood has a SCSI version of this drive in the works which will be available soon.)
Audio Extraction Information Update: Several readers mentioned previous issues with older 40X versions of this drive and audio extraction quality. As reported in some PC reviews and verified by Kenwood - the firmware of the 40X model and the first builds of the 52X model have revised firmware that resolves the audio extraction quality issue. Extraction speed is reduced to 12x or so they say, but quality was rated as excellent. Here are Kenwood's comments to me on the issue:
"We did a firmware update for our 40X TrueX CD-ROM drive to improve the quality of digital audio extraction (DAE). It now delivers a DAE speed of 11X-13X -- which is faster DAE performance than most other CD-ROM drives -- and since this update, we have not had any reported problems with DAE quality. This updated firmware was made available to anyone who requested it and was incorporated into all future products. "
I am glad to report that the Kenwood multi-beam 52X "True-X" IDE CDrom so far has worked great in my B&W G3, Beige G3 Minitower and 9600/350 [see below] using a Turbomax IDE card (*but* a reader sent word that it did not work in his 8500 with a Turbomax card). One Beige G3 desktop owner reported that in the Desktop case the tray rubbed a bit but it didn't in any of the tower cases here (but was close). The standard Apple supplied CD/DVDrom driver worked plug and play with the drive and I could boot from the CDROM perfectly using the OS 8.5 CD. Sustained rates were almost 3 times the performance of Apple's OEM CD/DVD drive.
Notes: Although I saw no errors of any kind in real world use with the True-X drive, the MacBench 1MB Random Read test generated an error at the very end of the test (where it would normally be 'cleaning up' test files from the HD it reported an error). I noticed on the other tests there was a long delay at the very end of each test, which was not seen on the stock DVD ROM tests. Since I saw no problems in the other tests or real world file copies I'm attributing this to a MacBench bug similar to the one seen with original Intitio Miles SCSI cards.
Update: Here are the results of comparison tests in the Beige G3 (stock 24X CDROM vs TrueX drive). The Beige G3 was a Minitower rev 2 model with IDE ZIP slave drive, running OS 8.1. There were no errors of any kind during the test:
Copy tests in the finder showed less advantage over the DVD drive, but the target disk was about 85% full and not optimized. (Note that in the past I also saw literally no difference in Finder copies with a U2 Cheetah and IDE drive so perhaps the file system is a bottleneck or the nearly full/fragemented target drive.)
Since the True-X drive is Ultra-DMA/ATA Mode 4 capable, I wonder if the ATA3 rating of the B&W G3 CDrom interface played a factor (primary IDE channel is ATA4). Probably not as even ATA3 is capable of higher speeds than even this CDrom (which has a max spec I/O rate of 7.8MB/sec). The table below lists the tests I performed:
Just to satisfy my curiousity, PC Tests were then run on a Dell XPS-T500 Pentium III 500MHz system which had a Toshiba 4.8X DVD drive (rated 32X as a CDROM drive).
On the PC I immediately noticed the improvement from the True-XTM drive. There were no sluggish spin-up delays as with the OEM drive. Opening CDs seemed literally as fast as using a hard drive. Placing the same CD in the 4.8x/32X DVD drive made it easy to compare the difference in performance. The difference was so dramatic that the DVD drive is now relegated to movie playback only. I can't stand to use it for anything else after experiencing the True-XTM drive performance.
You'll note that almost all of today's 'fast' conventional CDROM drives are rated with a "Max" label (i.e. 40X "Max"). That's because they read data at variable rates across the disc. Usually you will never see the "Max" rated speed in actual use as that rating is for the outer tracks only. (At the same rotational speed the larger data area of the outer tracks results in higher transfer rates.) To help you visualize this I'll use what I call the 'shovel analogy'. Think of the disc as having a uniform layer of sand (data) on it. Consider the drive pickup head as a shovel. You can see that pushing the shovel around the inside area of the disc would result in far less sand (i.e. data) being picked up.
To make matters worse for "Max" rated drives, remember that CDROM discs are burned from the inside tracks out. That means you'll never see the maximum rating on a disc that is not literally full. Even in that case the average speeds will be far less than the often optimistic "Max" rating which is based on outer track speed only.
I like to think of it as rating an automobile as capable of '100 mph Max' with a disclaimer that top speed is rated going down hill only. A better illustration would be the case where your car would only reach its maximum speed when driving on the outskirts of town and speeds would reduce as you got closer to the center of the city.
Here is a comment from Kenwood's FAQ describing why conventional CDROM drives 'ratings' are often far higher than what you will actually experience:
" Depending upon the operating environment and quality of media, the Kenwood 52X TrueX CD-ROM drive delivers a typical performance ranging from 45X to 52X across the entire disc. An advertised 48X "Max" CD-ROM drive performs at 19X on its innermost tracks, but achieves 48X performance only on the disc's outermost tracks (if the disc is full). "
The following table illustrates the variable rate of most 'Max' drives vs. the True-X design:
TrueX drives deliver consistent performance across the entire disc within a narrow tolerance,
depending on the quality of media and operating environment. [Kenwood commments]
Tech Note: CAV vs CLV Drives:
Conventional CDROM drives are divided into two types; Constant Angular Velocity (CAV) and Constant Linear Velocity (CLV). All so-called "Max" drives are CAV (Constant Angular Velocity) types, which spin the disc at a constant speed regardless of where the head is on the disc (inner or outer tracks). Access rates are generally better on CAV drives than CLV types due to the constant RPM reducing head settling time. Most drives today are CAV types since they are cheaper to produce as there is no variable motor speed circuitry required. CLV (Constant Linear Velocity) drives vary the motor speed as the head moves from the inner to the outer tracks to maintain a constant data rate. Reads on the outer tracks are at a slower RPM since there is more data there than on the inner tracks (since the circular area is smaller as you move toward the center of the disc). CLV drives normally have higher latency at higher speeds as the motor RPM is changed.
No CAV or CLV drive approaches the "True-X" performance and both require spinning the disc at rates up to 5x higher than the "True-X" design, resulting in increased noise, sensitivity to disc balance/flatness and delays in spinning up to speed. Some conventional design drives have incorporated special vibration sensors that will reduce the speed of the drive but this is just a band-aid for the drawbacks of the brute force approach.
Without a doubt this is by far the fastest and most responsive CDROM drive I've ever used. On the PC it seemed literally as fast as a hard drive in actual use and on both Mac and PC, sustained rates were about 3 times as fast as the stock DVD drives. The icing on the cake is quieter operation and no spinup delays. My only wish is that they made one in DVD format.
With Apple's replacement drives (and others) often costing more than this far superior Kenwood drive (appx. $129 SRP), the 52X "True-X" is a 'no-brainer' for IDE-based owners looking for a faster drive that is also quieter. I suspect it will be more reliable also, as the lower spindle speed should extend the service life. I now find the moaning spinup noise and delays of conventional drives even more irritating than before, now that I know there is a solution.
If you're as tired as I am of the the spinup/spindown delays and noise of the conventional 'fast' CDrom drives - the Kenwood 52X "True-X" CDROM drive is a dream come true. There is currently no better design or faster performer on the market. The conventional CDROM drive "Brute-Force" approach to higher performance (RPM) has already reached its practical limits in my opinion.
This drive has earned a spot in my personal machines and it's refreshing to see an innovative product with a unique design that lives up to hype.
Note: Don't confuse this drive with other '52X' (Max) rated drives (Hi-Val offers several lower cost drives that are not based on the Kenwood design. Look for the "True-X" and Kenwood label to ensure you're not getting one of the standard buzz boxes ;-).
Tests in the Beige G3 showed it worked fine with OS 8.1 (I was using Apple CDROM driver 5.4.2 there but others may work as well). The CD Audio Player application worked fine as long as I stopped playing one track before advancing. performace as noted above was generally many times faster than the stock 24x IDE drive. Head movement makes more noise (a squeak sort of) than the stock drive but there is no jet engine/buzzing that occurred any time the stock drive was spinning. I'd never go back to the stock drive.
Pricing and Availability:
Suggested retail price for the 52X "True-X" drive is $129.95
I bought the review drive (Hi-Val package) from CDW, which had it in stock and delivered it promptly. One dealer had a lower price but showed a 2-3 week delay. Kenwood tells me this drive will be available from CompUSA under the Kenwood brand name. Hi-Val drives are also sold by many mail order dealers. For owners of SCSI based Macs, don't despair - Kenwood told me a SCSI version is in the works and should be released by Summer 99. They also say a DVD version may be available early next year.
Related Links: (Kenwood/tech links removed after they went MIA)
Update - Initial Tests with Promax TurbMax PCI IDE Card:
I've just completed a quick test of the Kenwood drive in a PowerMac 9600/350 with the TurboMax PCI IDE Card from ProMax. To summarize results so far the drive does seem to work using Apple's CD/DVD extension v1.2.2 (copied from my PowerBook w/OS 8.6) for all but Audio CDs which would hang if inserted. Given that ProMax does not support CDROM drives and the fact the PCI IDE card appears as a SCSI interface to the MacOS may be partly responsible. I was also not able to boot from the TurboMax connected CDROM. Regardless my 9600/350 will be using the drive - no way I'm going back to the stock 24X SCSI drive. Note: One 8500 owner reported the Turbomax/TrueX drive did not work so buyer beware. I'd suggest waiting for the SCSI model to be safe for older Macs with no IDE onboard.
The TurboMax IDE card I have has version 1.5 firmware - most recent version from ProMax that adds increased IDE Hard Drive model support and may be a factor in the success. I'll have more details here later but wanted to post this update since many readers had asked if the drive would work with the TurboMax card in a SCSI based Mac. Except for Audio CDs, the TurboMax IDE card (ROM v1.5) seems to work with the drive.
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