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CD-ROMs get speed, but little else

The CD-ROM may finally be able to deliver the speed it has long promised, but speed alone may not be enough to save the dying technology.

The CD-ROM may finally be able to deliver the speed it has long promised, but it may be too little too late to save the dying technology.

On Monday, a start-up called Zen Research will announce a new component set for CD-ROM drives that delivers up to 40X data retrieval speeds. Currently, the fastest drives on the market claim 32X speeds, but analysts say the actual data transfer time is much slower.

"The system manufacturers have been the ones who have driven up the 'X' levels," said Jim Porter, president of Disk/Trend, an optical storage research company. "They want to be able to say they've got the latest and greatest, but above 8X, you really can't see the difference."

Still, the speed boost may not be enough to save the disc. CD-ROM, which was once praised for its storage capacity and transfer speed, has been overshadowed in the last few years by DVD-ROM drives.

DVDs store enough data to hold and play back entire movies with a quality superior to that of videotapes. DVD drives are usually only included on high-end machines, but prices are dropping steadily, and analysts expect the DVD to replace the CD-ROM as the dominant storage technology in the next three years.

Since DVD hit the market, CD-ROM makers have competed to offer drives with the fastest data transfer rate. However, the actual rate is usually much slower than drive makers claim, analysts say.

Zen's components use Constant Linear Velocity, a technique that reads data from the inner or outer portion of the disc at the same speed. Current drives read data from the outer portion of the disc much faster than the inner portion, where most of the data is stored, according to Jeremy Saltzman, vice president of product planning for Zen.

The discrepancy in read times has led to consumer confusion about CD-ROM drive speeds, Saltzman says. "On the inner tracks you would get half or less than half of the stated speeds," he said.

PC makers may choose CD-ROM drives with Zen technology as an interim solution until DVD drives hit the mass market, Porter said. "As long as there is a significant difference in price between CD-ROM and DVD-ROM, and until there's a large amount of content in DVD format, there's going to have to be an interim product."

Zen is looking further down the road than CD-ROM drives. Its components will carry over onto DVD-ROM drives, when the speed race hits that technology, said Mary Bourdon, an analyst with Dataquest.

Zen also announced a partnership with Kenwood to develop drives based on their TrueX technology.