CD-RW drive makers may be hurting right now, but designers are feeling no pain. In the past year, changes in technology that have prompted vendors to unload older products, as well as changes among the vendors themselves, are producing a good selection and great prices for designers. "Manufacturers have bought the parts, so they have to go ahead and build and sell the drives," says Edward Meadows, president of CenDyne, which markets a line of both internal and external CD-RW drives for PCs and the Macintosh, as well as CD-R and DVD drives and media. "But then they'll sell at cost or below if necessary," just to unload the existing inventories. Indeed, the past year has been a wild ride. Typical prices for new drives have dropped from £200 to £100 in a matter of months. In addition, the vendor performance "X" rating for the CD-R write speed of mass-market drives has doubled from 12X to 24X (and 32X drives, shown at Comdex, are due in December). Buffer-underrun technology (which helps prevent ruined discs when burning CD-Rs) has become de rigeur in almost all new CD-RW drives. Overall, price wars have pushed CD-RW drives to record-low consumer prices of under £80. What's behind the price wars? Manufacturers have found themselves with excess inventories due to the weak economy, which caused a drop in consumer demand as well as decline in PC-bundled sales. The result: aggressive sales of older drive inventories, through rebate promotions as well as lower prices. It's a good time to shop for CD-RW drives. Market consolidates Capping the year are withdrawals of two of the top five vendors of internal drives. Hewlett-Packard announced in October it will no longer sell HP-branded CD-RW drives, focusing instead on its new DVD+RW drive. HP had 35 per cent of the global market share at the time of the announcement. Iomega is also withdrawing - but only from the internal CD-RW drive market. The company, also among the top five CD-RW vendors in sales last year, acknowledged the change of strategy at Comdex. "We decided our focus is now external," says Scott LeFevre, senior manager of optical product management at Iomega. "Last year the internal market experienced such price erosion due to oversupply that it was difficult for anybody to make any money. And with external drives we can differentiate ourselves with cutting edge design and speeds, as well as with high-transfer interfaces like USB 2.0 and FireWire (also called IEEE 1394)." PC users are often simply unwilling to crack open their PC chassis to install an internal drive, LeFevre says. And dropping internal drives will mean fewer tech support calls from nervous users. Iomega is also paring products in small ways to cut its costs. For example, the upcoming 24X USB 2.0 Predator drive will ship without a USB 2.0 card, which means most people will need to separately buy one to take advantage of the drive's full speed potential. Champing at the bit are established companies like TDK, Philips, and Sony, and up-and-comers like CenDyne and Pacific Digital. Each is anxious to fill the consumer retail void left by HP and Iomega. Philips Consumer Products has released a 20X/10X/40X CD-RW drive, the PCRW2010K, and is about to ship a 24X model, with a 32X one close on its heels. Why so many similar choices? Stores want drives that hit the £60, £80, and £99 price points to lure a wide spread of customers. Philips is one of the largest suppliers of drives to PC manufacturers, but is re-entering consumer sales after a year out of the business. And the company has already seen an uptick in demand. "We're pleasantly surprised with the volume we're doing in the fourth quarter," says Bruce Walters, product marketing manager for Philips Optical Storage. Tech wars ahead A CD-RW explosion is in the works, say analysts. In 2002, "CD-RW drives will replace CD-ROMs in commercial PCs, since the prices have come down," says Wolfgang Schlichting, an IDC analyst. "It's a floppy replacement." Then, he says, "CD-RW becomes a volume business and a speed race, just like CD-ROM" before it. But the march of improved technology will slow a bit. The increasing X-rating numbers are a bit deceptive, Schlichting says. As they become bigger and more impressive, the user benefit actually becomes smaller, he says. The write technology in CD-RW drives incrementally increases speed in three separate stages, and not uniformly across the surface of the drive. CD-RW drives using Zone CLV to reach a CD-R write speed of 24X divide the disc into inner, middle, and outer zones and write data at a constant speed - 16X, 20X, and 24X, respectively - within each zone. A 24X CD-R drive should perform at an average transfer rate of about 3.3Mbps. The advent of the holiday season may see prices stabilize instead of continuing to drop, the vendors say. You'll still see inexpensive special deals on CD-RW drives, priced to spur holiday sales. The new entry level will become 16X/10X/40X drives, with 20X and 24X drives in the midrange, and the new 32X drives being the benchmark for cutting-edge speed. Those 32X CD-RW drives were making their debut at Comdex, showcased by several manufacturers, including QPS, Acer, AOpen, LG, and Pacific Digital. TDK has also announced a 32X drive. Those drives are expected to shave about 30 seconds off the write time for a full 650M byte CD-R disc. Most manufacturers plan to ship 32X drives by mid- to late-December; some may not ship the high-end drives until January. Where will the speed race end? It's still anyone's guess, say the vendors. "Every time they say there's a limit, (the engineers then) pass it," says Randall Rosenbaum, TDK product manager. Already, there's talk of 40X and 48X CD-R write speeds to come in the next year. But as speed becomes less of an issue, ease of use, support, and software bundles will become more important, Rosenbaum says. "If you don't have a good software bundle, you're not going to use your burner," says Rosenbaum. "It becomes a chore, not something that's fun." Other extras Vendors are already jockeying for ways to distinguish their drives. For example, a 32X Sony drive due out early next year will come with a Memory Stick slot, says Robert DeMoulin, senior product planning manager at Sony's disk storage production division. The slot would make it especially convenient to copy photos taken with a Sony digital camera to disc. He also believes CD-RW drives will draw interest from consumers looking for ways to enhance their existing systems rather than buy a new PC. Also, those upgrading to Windows XP may add a CD-RW drive to take advantage of Microsoft's inclusion of rudimentary CD burning functionality. "With Microsoft putting CD burning (capabilities) in XP, it will be a catalyst for increasing the awareness of CD burners" and what CD burners can do, DeMoulin says. As another customer lure, both Philips and TDK offer tech support seven days a week, and both provide videos to hand-hold newbies through the installation process. Iomega, with its new focus, is likely to find increased competition among external drives thanks to the proliferation of high-speed interfaces like USB 2.0 and FireWire. For example, Pacific Digital's £180 24X/10X/40X USB 2.0 drive, introduced at Comdex and due to ship in December, will include a two-port USB 2.0 card from IOgear. "USB sells, because people want ease of use," says Tony Tate, vice president of sales and marketing at Pacific Digital. CenDyne's Meadows agrees that USB 2.0 will become the interface of choice. "We believe USB 2.0 will be a better market than FireWire," since FireWire drives will cost a little more to make, and therefore will be priced higher than USB 2.0 drives, Meadows says. What's next? One of the biggest developments in recordable CD technology is Calimetrics' long-awaited MultiLevel Recording technology, which enables you to write approximately 2GB of data to ML CD-R/RW media. Though originally expected this fall, drives that use this chip aren't ready to show. CD-RW drives equipped with an ML chip can write to MultiLevel CD-R media at 36X, and will use packet writing to write to ML CD-RW media at 30X. Plus, media is available in three capacities and physical sizes, and is cheap: £1.30 for a 2GB disc. While the MultiLevel Recording CD-R record speeds are not far off from what standard CD-R writing technology is at now (especially with 32X drives soon on the market), ML technology will offer a sizable increase over standard CD-RW write speeds. Those speeds currently max out at 10X; drives capable of writing to CD-RW discs at 12X will be introduced at the same time as 32X CD-R write speeds hit the market. "ML is the next big thing," says Rosenbaum. "It's the stopgap between CD and DVD. It's cool and exciting, because with ML, you can burn regular CDs and 2.0G byte ML CDs." TDK plans to add an ML chip to future versions of its Mojo audio player, potentially giving users up to 30 hours of CD-quality MP3s (at 160Kbps or 190Kbps). The first CD-RW drives from Plextor and TDK featuring this technology are due out in the first quarter of next year.