Juggling Multiple CDs - USA Today VirtualDrive Review

Try to imagine life without your computer's CD-ROM drive. That would mean programs like Microsoft Office coming on several hundred floppy disks. Go ahead, try to install it. I'll check back with you in a few months.

While CD-ROM drives have become indispensable, they're not without their shortcomings. Actually, it's not really the drives that fall short, but the way in which some software creators choose to distribute their products on CD-ROM. Specifically, I'm referring to the far too often practice of requiring the CD-ROM to be present in the drive every time you use a program.

The main reason for doing this is as a means of copy protection. The logic is that if the CD-ROM has to be present in the drive, you're less likely to lend the disc to someone else, and it's also harder to give your friend a copy of the program. Of course, anyone with a CD-ROM recorder can find a way around all this, but that's another issue.

For many people, having to pop a disc in and out of the drive once in awhile may not seem like a big deal. However, if you have an extensive software collection and use several of these types of programs on a regular basis, it quickly becomes a real hassle.

One option is to buy what's commonly called a CD-ROM jukebox. You've seen music CD players that can hold three to five discs. This is the same idea, transferred to the CD-ROM world. With one of these devices, you can have several of your most often used CD-ROMs ready to go around the clock.

Just one problem. Since demand for this sort of drive isn't that great, prices have remained high. For example, Pioneer's DRM-6324X CD-ROM changer (www.pioneerusa.com) is a respectable 24X drive that can hold up to six discs simultaneously. For this convenience, though, you'll pay about $500.

If you have about $35 and lots of hard disk space, there is an arguably better way to tackle this problem. It comes in the form of a software package called Virtual Drive 2000, from FarStone (www.farstone.com).

This Windows 95/98/NT program allows you to create "virtual" CD-ROM drives -- as many as 23 of them -- on your hard drive. In other words, let's say you're tired of always hunting down that encyclopedia CD every time you need to look something up. Using Virtual Drive 2000, you can copy the entire CD-ROM to your hard drive. Here's the cool part: You fool your computer into thinking that this chunk of hard drive space is really another CD-ROM drive.

I know. You're probably already doing the math. There's 650 MB on a CD-ROM, and your hard drive is only so big. The first thing to remember is that most programs typically don't use up all 650 MB. Many, in fact, are in the 100-200 MB range. Plus, the Virtual Drive 2000 allows you to selectively remove files -- for example, those folders full of demo software -- from your virtual CD-ROMs. By only copying the files you really need to run the program, you can save a considerable amount of disc space. And if that's not enough, the software also includes built-in, on-the-fly compression.

Did I mention speed? As fast as CD-ROM drives have gotten in the last couple of years, they can't hold a candle to even a second-rate hard drive. The bottom line: Running your software from a virtual drive will be like sticking the original disc into a 200X or faster CD-ROM drive. Your jaw will literally drop at the speed difference.

Do you like listening to music on your computer? Virtual Drive 2000 can also make hard drive images of your audio CDs. And just as with computer files, you can leave out the tracks you don't like. The compression works on audio, too. You can download a free demo version from the company's Web site.

Speaking of listening to music on your computer, MP3.com recently launched a new service that could one day spell the end of audio CD changers -- if a lawsuit doesn't get in the way. Using the new My.MP3 service, you can store MP3 versions of your music CDs on the MP3.com Web site. What that means is that you can have access to your entire music library from any personal computer that has an Internet connection. Here's how it works:

To have a CD added to your digital library, you must insert that disc into your CD-ROM drive. The software at MP3.com can verify the authenticity of the CD and once it does, it adds a digital copy from its own library to your online library. You can then access your library using your unique logon/password combination.

There's no doubt that CDs represent a very convenient way to transport both data and music. Today, the only thing more convenient than a CD is no CD at all.