BUYING A CD MAKER


CD burners are great! I've had mine for three years now and couldn't live without it! I back up my files to CD-R. I compile my own personal "best of" music albums. I copy the software I buy and then hide the original disk safely away. I can send pictures and short videos I to friends who have computers with compatible image software. I can work on original music and send the disk to associates around the world so they can add their own parts to the songs. It's the best thing since sliced bread, but it is not instant gratification!

For instant gratification you need a ZIP or JAZ drive. They work faster, require no preparation but they are expensive and may not hold enough data. JAZ and ZIP disks can also be damaged easier than most CD-R disks, plus they can also have their data erased or corrupted by strong magentic fields (CD-Rs are photo chemical density based storage, not magnetic like a cassette tape).

Making a CD-R, even in a fast burner, takes time. It is not a process like copying a file from your hard drive to a floppy. Don't think those "write on the fly" CD burners are any faster -- sometimes they are even slower!

"Burning" a CD disk -- as it is called, because generally a low powered laser light cooks the chemical inside the disk -- is a contiguous process. It starts at the inner most area of the disk and works outward toward the edge in a continual and curved manner. Writing to a hard drive, floppy or ZIP drive is an intermittent process. Files can be all over the place. Some here, then blank space, then more files. Not so with a CD-R writer! If one little gap occurs through a writing error the disk becomes partially or totally flawed! CD-R writing errors do occur regularly.

To make a CD-R or RW disk you first select the files to put on the disk. Then the software used (often Easy CD Creator from Adaptec -- the free copy you get is not the best possible software you can use and you should upgrade from this to the most current version, if you can). It reads the files and creates an image file with an index on your hard drive. This process takes time to complete.

Once the disk image has been made the actual writing to the CD disk occurs. This, too, takes time. Should the software be unable to process a given file or pass data from your hard drive to the CD writing tool, a data underun occurs and you get a fatal disk error. Generally this error cannot be recovered, you lose the disk, your time, some money and become very frustrated.

Disk errors happen because the writing process must be continual. It can't be paused and picked up at a later date. You can copy a few files, burn them to disk and add more files at a later session, but the files you add now must be total, complete and properly indexed.

The index process doesn't occur until after all the files are recorded to the disk. If you get a fatal error in mid-writing, the index is not there! That's why the disk becomes a coaster on your coffee table instead of a back up archive in your CD jewel case tower....

There are two things you can do to lessen the frequency of data underuns:

1). Buy a CD burner with a very large hardware buffer. These have memory chips in them, just like your computer, and the data is transferred from hard drive to buffer. Then it moves from buffer to writing tool. The larger the buffer, the more the safety zone.

2). Don't use your computer -- or allow your computer to do any tasks other than processing the CD data -- while you burn the CD.

Many PCs have an automatic gizmo called a "Task Scheduler" and this software program checks the date and time regularly to see if some task should be run (such as scandisk or virus checking). Turn this off. Turn off your virus checker, as it looks at every file before they are opened and this can slow down the data process. Take all in-resident programs, such as an Instant Messenger, out of memory. Shut them down. Shut down the Real Player start center.

Get as many of those little icons in your tray by the clock out of there. (Keep, of course, your video controls as well as any other programs that are required to run the computer, but turn off everything else in that tray!) Make sure your power miser and screen saver are turned off, as they also poll the system and check the time. All of these resident, polling programs take computer cycles away from data transfer and anything that takes away from data transfer increases the potential for a buffer underrun.

Just sit there and watch TV or look at the little progress markers on the CD writing software move from left to right. Don't do anything else with your computer.

Even with all these precautions you will still get an occasional data underrun and lose a session or the whole disk. Generally if this is a second or third session the data recorded and index from the previous session will still be there, but the rest of the disk can't be used for further storage.

To play the disk on a music player, for CD quality music, you must close the disk. Which means you can't put one or two songs on the CD and then test it out on a music player. While you can usually play the songs back through the recording software, using the CD burner, most conventional CD players or "Walkman" type devices will not be able to read the disk until it has been closed. For music it is generally better to record on the one-use CD-R disks than the re-writable CD-RW disks, because many music players can't read these disks. Especially the older music players.

The process of writing a CD-R or RW generally takes two or even three times longer than the makers of burners actually claim. They quote the highest write speed. Writing speed can also cause buffer underrun. If you take all the precautions listed above and still get data underrun errors, you will have to go into your software options and lower the writing speed of your high speed burner!

Writing to an erased CD-RW disk is generally done at slower speeds than for a virgin disk. If you get errors on a CD-RW you will have to erase the disk, then re-try the process at a slower speed.

If the maker of the burner claims you can make a CD-R disk in 15 minutes, plan on it taking 30 - 45 minutes from the time you sit down at the computer to run their software until the time you take the disk out of the CD burner. And if you have to burn at the slower speeds, this means doing a full single density CD can take more than a full hour to finish.

In buying a CD burner be aware that there are now several types of disks, so the burner should read and write to "all media" -- and since the burner may have been manufactured six months ago, some of the newer media may not be covered in that "all media" statement!

The original disk process was 650 MB. There are now larger capacity disks and even a new double density disk with over 1 GB of storage. Some of these disks require specific hardware support. Others require software support. This is why I stress you should upgrade to a full version of whatever "creation" software you choose to use.

Find out if the CD-RW burner has a built-in EPROM so you can upgrade "firmware" at a later date should there be wrting problems or new media disks not supported by the original data inside the burner. Not every CD-RW burner can upgrade the firmware.

Don't be overly concerned with "brand name". CD-RW burners come from any of several plants in the far East. Most "brand names" are simply glued on as a piece of plastic. You may find that the "Memorex" and the "Goldstar" and the "noname" CD-RW unit are exactly the same, except for the price. To see who really makes the unit, look at the unit itself.

There is a label on the CD-RW burner giving a part number and possibly even a company name. Go to the internet and look them up, see how long they have been in business and what companies they make burners for! What you want to find is a reputable company that has been in business for a while and will still be there in two years when you need a firmware upgrade. It is possible that the "brand name" unit may get preferred treatment in these firmware upgrades, so it can sometimes be worth the price for this extra support.

The CD-R disks thenselves have different properties. They come in various colors, green, blue, silver and gold. The green ones are closest to a commercial CD in light refracting, thus they work in more CD players -- especially older CD units. The gold color disks seem to have the poorest reflection power and don't even work well in older CD burners! As mentioned the CD-RW disks may not work well in many music players, nor in older CD or DVD/CD computer players. My CD-RW burner can't read some of the CD-RW disks it has made (however my newest CD/DVD player has no problem with these disks).

As with the burners themselves, brand name doesn't mean much in CD-R disks. The only factor is you may be able to get an exchange on a bad disk from a known, reputable company should it be flawed. They don't pay for postage, however, so you have to ask: "Will you really send in a CD-R disk that is worth 50 cents or less?" You must pay at least a non-refundable 56 cents or more in postage, plus you must put it into an envelope to send it back to Memorex, TDK, 3-M or Maxell.

I'm not a big fan of paper labeling the physical CD-R disks. These disks are already covered with a painted, silk-screened logo from the manufacturer. To put a paper lable on top of this adds to the weight and thickness. This extra bulk can hurt both the CD-RW burner and other CD players. I once ruined a computer CD player with one of those round lables over my CD-R disk. Use those round, sticky paper lables with great caution!



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