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CD recorders, Part 1: 3 ways to ensure good results
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

CD recorders, Part 2: 3 ways to ensure good results 

Technofile for March 8, 1998

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers

Recording your own CD used to be hard. Now it's easy.

The difference? Better software and more reliable CD recorders.

Microsoft made the difference on the software side. The boom in CD recording occurred just as Windows 95 was introduced, so most of the early PC software worked the old-fashioned way, without the extra features of the latest versions of Windows. CD recording also got a boost when Adaptec, a veteran manufacturer of disk controllers, started producing CD software that other firms had developed. (Adaptec's programs are now the industry leaders.)

On the hardware side, most CD recorders now come with large memory buffers. These areas of memory work like reservoirs; they can keep data flowing to the recorder's laser head even when something in the PC interrupts the transfer for a second or more. They also record much faster, typically running at four times standard playback speed. (Some recorders will create CDs even faster.)

As I mentioned last week, blank CDs for regular CD recorders are ridiculously cheap if you shop around. They sometimes sell for as little as $1 each. That's a good thing, because you'll need a lot of them in the first few months of CD recording. Standard CD recorders are unforgiving: They can't erase what they've already recorded. Make one mistake while recording a CD, and you've just ruined the disk. I have two dozen of these let's-make-a big-beer-coaster mistakes, and you'll probably have your own set of memorabilia, too.

(Standard recorders are referred to as CD-R devices. Recorders that can erase and re-record are called CD-RW devices. I don't recommend them for most users because the disks they create can't be played on CD-ROM drives. And their special blank CD-RW disks are six to eight times as expensive as CD-R blanks.)

Newcomers are likely to get frustrated by the one-shot nature of CD-R recording unless they follow some simple rules. Stick to the guidelines I'm listing here until you're comfortable with the way your CD recorder behaves. And users of Windows 95 and Windows 98 need to make a couple of changes to the way Windows handles memory before they start using a CD recorder. The changes are detailed in a companion article, excerpted from a book I'm writing.

Here are three things you should do to make successful CD recordings:

    • Get a big, smoothly running hard drive. Ideally, it should be a second drive, so it's not full of regular files and folders.

By "big" I mean many gigabytes. (A 3-gigabyte drive will cost less than $200 if you shop around.) Most modern drives no longer stutter to adjust their thermal calibration, but if you have any doubts about the drive, ask if it is "AV" certified. AV drives keep running normally while they do their thermal calibration, which keeps them aligned as the drive heats up or cools off. A drive that stutters can ruin a CD recording.

    • Create an image file first, and then record the CD from the image file.

You'll need that big drive to create one or more image files before you actually "burn" the final CD. A CD image is a huge file that contains all the stuff that goes on the CD. (Think of it as a CD that you can create and store on your hard drive until you're ready to turn it into its final format.) Because you're never forgiven for even the tiniest slip when recording a CD, the making an image file first is the smart way to go about it. If there is a problem making the image file—if, for example, you've tried to put too much onto a CD—you can just erase the image file and start over.

Modern CD recording software should provide an easy way to make image files. If your software doesn't, get better software.

Create the CDs from your image files only after shutting down all other programs. Multitasking is fine until it ruins your CDs. You can do without your e-mail or your Web surfing for the 20 minutes or so that it takes most recorders to burn a CD.

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