Test Drive: Backpack Triple Play USB 2.0 CD-Rewriter

By Eric Grevstad

Got new technology? Great; you can plug Micro Solutions Inc.’s new Backpack Triple Play CD-RW into a newfangled, high-speed USB 2.0 port. Prefer old school? No problem; you can plug the $229 drive into a laptop’s PC Card slot or a dusty Pentium desktop’s parallel printer port, even if you’re still running Windows 3.1 or DOS.

The external drive is something of a niche product in an age when even economy-model PCs come with built-in CD burners, and there’s only so much even Micro Solutions can do to bridge current and legacy tech (Windows NT and 95, for example, don’t support original USB, let alone USB 2.0). But the Backpack does a versatile job of straddling hardware and software generations. It even comes with installation software on a floppy disk as well as CD.

Any Port, Any Windows
Backpack-brand external drives were delivering multimedia via the parallel port way back before laptops came with CD-ROM drives or PC Card slots, and they’re still at it: The Triple Play is so named because it comes with parallel, PC Card, and USB 2.0 interfaces and cables in the box, though its fastest rated speeds of 32X/10X/40X (write/rewrite/read) apply only to the last. The venerable parallel-port connection slows the drive to 8/8/8X; the PC Card (which plugs into the drive’s parallel port) is rated at 12/10/12X. You can also use the supplied USB cable for computers with the more common USB 1.1 port, though that’s slowest of all at 6/6/6X.

The USB connector and two parallel ports – one for the computer, the other a pass-through for a printer – are alongside audio and AC-adapter jacks at the rear of the sturdy, bulky Backpack case, which is the size of a small shoebox or a few inches shorter than two thick Stephen King or Tom Clancy hardbacks placed end to end. The four-pound Triple Play is designed for desktop use or sharing among several computers in an office; a slimline, slightly slower 16/10/24X Backpack Bantam model ($249) is available for briefcase duty.

An ergonomically ideal desk arrangement is hampered by short cords: We’re used to notebook AC adapters with roughly equal cords on both ends (so the power brick is halfway between the computer and wall socket), but the Backpack’s adapter-to-wall cord is an asymmetrically skimpy 14 inches. The PC Card parallel cable is equally short, so if you use that interface you’ll need to shove the back of the Backpack close to the side of your notebook.

Installing the driver software took just seconds on our Toshiba Satellite 5150 laptop with Windows XP, although we were briefly confused to see that when we then connected the hot-pluggable drive via various interfaces – PC Card, the laptop’s USB 1.1 port, USB 2.0 using an Orange Micro PC Card adapter – Win XP’s Found New Hardware wizard detected the device, found the driver when we clicked “Load software automatically,” then repeated the same process a second time.

In addition to trial versions of backup and CD-label-making programs from Stomp Inc., the Triple Play comes with Micro Solutions’ own UDF (Universal Data Format) packet-writing utility for floppy-disk-style, drive-letter access to CD-RW discs within Windows Explorer and applications (not installed on Windows XP systems, which have their own packet-writing support).

It also comes with a house-brand burning utility called SpeedyCD, which offers two beginner-friendly paths to disc mastering – a point-and-click interface for making copies of CDs or saving CD images to the hard disk (either in its own or the standard ISO format); and a drag-and-drop screen for adding data files or audio CD tracks to a layout that’s then burned to CD. The latter is finicky about making you aim with your mouse to drag data and audio files to separate destinations, but SpeedyCD is otherwise simple and effective.

Nowadays, Micro Solutions admits, the Backpack series’ lowest-common-denominator, parallel-port-and-DOS support is mostly for running disk-imaging recovery utilities in emergency, system-crash situations, so we skipped it. But our testing indicates the Triple Play is a fine if not particularly fast solution, whether you’re running Windows 98, Me, 2000, or XP, and whichever interface is available.

When we plugged in the PC Card parallel cable, our diagnostic utilities identified the Backpack as a Mitsumi CR-48XATE — a 32/12/40X CD-RW drive with a 16MB buffer and buffer underrun protection. (Interestingly, the diagnostic utilities didn’t detect the drive when we used either USB option, although it ran fine and seemed to multitask slightly better – the on-screen stopwatch we use to time operations stuttered or flickered slightly while burning discs via the PC Card interface, but ran smoothly under USB.)

Using SpeedyCD, the PC Card-connected drive copied a 670MB data CD from the Toshiba’s built-in drive to a blank CD-R in the Backpack in 18 minutes and 30 seconds, at write speeds varying from 6X to 10X. When we switched to the USB 1.1 port, the same task slowed to a steady 6X pace, finishing in 25 minutes and 10 seconds.

Your Mileage May Vary
Then, looking forward to the highest possible speed, we plugged in the state-of-the-art USB 2.0 interface – and burning was barely faster, completing in 19 minutes. What the heck? Checking SpeedyCD’s detailed job report, we found the possible answer was to, like politicians everywhere, blame the media: Though the disc was an identically labeled TDK 32X-certified 700MB (80-minute) CD-R, we spotted slightly different markings on the disc itself (ironically, it said “Certified Plus” where its siblings bore only a serial number) and SpeedyCD reported a different manufacturer.

We tried the task again with another blank CD-R (one officially certified only for 16X writing, as it happens), and the USB 2.0 interface indeed proved the fastest, copying the disc in 9 minutes and 33 seconds. Moral of the story: Especially with the latest, highest-burn-speed CD-R and CD-RW discs, beware of variations in media batches.

Media wasn’t an issue when we checked out the Backpack’s read rather than write speed, ripping the original data CD to an ISO image on the PC’s hard disk, and the different interfaces lived up to their relative billing: The job took 2 minutes and 40 seconds with USB 2.0; 6 minutes and 55 seconds with the PC Card; and a leisurely 13 minutes with USB 1.1.

Overall, we’d like a couple more feet of cable, but we’re pleased with the Backpack Triple Play – we wouldn’t choose it or any other external drive as our home PC’s daily burner for producing substantial numbers of audio CDs or data masters, but it’s perfectly fine for backups or occasional mix making, with plug-and-play portability and versatility that makes it ideally suited for its main purpose of being available to back up or recover a number of PCs in an office.

Reprinted from hardwarecentral.com.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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