Computer Column



So, you have a nice notebook PC that works fine, didn’t cost too much and even has a bright color screen. But now that you know your way around the World Wide Web, you miss being able to hear radio broadcasts and other sound the way you can on your desktop system. And you miss that CD-ROM player.

You wish you’d spent the extra few hundred it would have cost to have a CD-ROM drive in your notebook, but it’s too late for that now. Well, there may be a solution for you, especially if all you really want is to have the CD-ROM drive and the ability to hear sound in the one place where you most often use your laptop, say your den or office at home.

Prices of outboard, portable CD-ROM players have come down to the point where they don’t cost much more than the added cost of a CD-ROM drive on a new laptop system under $400, perhaps quite a bit under if you’re willing to do some shopping around and buy through the mail. There are two kinds: Those that hook up to your computer’s parallel printer port and those that make use of a card-size PC (or PCMCIA) slot on the side of your system. Both are available with built-in sound cards.

The best known brand of parallel port CD-ROM drives is the “Backpack” series from Micro Solutions of DeKalb, Ill. Its eight-speed model 166700 carries a retail price of $379, but can be had for less. Computer Discount Warehouse (800-895-4239), for example, sells it for $337.55.

It is quite simple to use. It simply attaches to the computer’s printer port by means of an ordinary parallel cable. There is a “pass-through” parallel connector on the back of the CD-ROM drive to which you can connect your printer.

These “pass-through” devices work fine. Indeed, we have seen laptop computers with an outboard CD-ROM drive, an outboard tape backup drive and a printer all attached. All worked without a hitch.

Several disks come with the unit, one set to install the “driver” files necessary to allow your computer to recognize and use the drive itself and the others containing the drivers for the built-in 16-bit sound card. Once these are installed, your computer will treat the CD drive as drive D, and Microsoft Windows (either version 3.1 or 95; both are supported) will make use of the sound card the same as if it were built into the computer itself. There is a speaker built into the drive as well, though you may prefer to buy a couple of small, inexpensive speakers to provide better stereo effect.

When the drive is not connected, these drivers will cause no headaches. Windows will return an error message noting that no drive was found, but a mouse click on the OK button will dispense with that. Otherwise the system will behave as it did before you obtained the drive.

Backpack CD-ROM drives must be plugged into a power supply; they do not operate on batteries. Panasonic has a line of drives which do, including the KXL-D721, which comes with a credit-card sized adapter that uses your laptop’s “PC” card slot. Most of today’s laptops have two such slots, so you should not have to sacrifice your modem to use the Panasonic CD drive.

Overall, it is smaller than the Backpack, but between the drive itself, the cable, the card, and the sound card which also attaches to the unit by means of a separate wire and the included minispeakers, it involves a lot of pieces and no small number of wires. But it is truly portable, unlike the Backpack, which in addition to needing a power socket, weighs 4 pounds. Like the Backpack, it comes with “driver” software.

The Panasonic retails for about $100 more than the Backpack, but can be found at Computer Discount Warehouse, for example, for $399. Whichever of these units you choose, you will find they provide quite satisfactory speed in accessing your CDs and do a good job of playing the sound you find on the Internet.

If one of your aims is to get multimedia capability without turning over your whole desk to a computer, or having to buy a separate computer desk, these portable CD-ROM drives can be quite an elegant solution. The Backpack is about half the size of a shoe box, and the Panasonic is not that large. An ordinary typewriter table will easily accommodate either, and the computer, with room to spare.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at [email protected], or Brit Hume at [email protected].

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