Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
CD-R and CD-RW Burning
101 - part I
The September Orphans’ SIG generated a
vigorous discussion about the techniques to burn a CD-R or CD-RW. Or, more
precisely, why the burner didn’t burn. Further to that discussion here
is an assortment of tips and techniques. Some are gleaned from user forums
and colleagues but many are from the “school of hard knocks.”
Unlike the mystery that surrounded the
dawn of the home computer age, today’s hardware installations are simple:
mount the burner in a drive bay, attach the power and data cables and (optionally)
the audio cable. The software installation, with its wizards and default
options can be considered a no-brainer. Most of the bundled software also
offers default settings that address most configurations and help the newcomer
to avoid grappling with technical choices. Now, you’re ready to go: hit
the burn button and... what did you say: “A coaster?”
To preface the following, I use Win 2000
and Nero. My system is not spectacular (Pentium II, 266 MHz & 256 MB
RAM) and my 12X burner does not have buffer-underrun protection. I currently
do not use a packet writer (for example, Adaptec’s Direct CD or Nero’s
InCD); I will expand upon my rationale later. Having upgraded to this Windows
2000 system from one running Win 9x (but not Me) and, incidentally, Adaptec
Easy CD Creator/Direct CD, I know that this platform is more stable than
Win 9x/Me (no blue screens of death). Identifying the culprit is another
story. While it is easy to blame the operating system (OS), the burner
drivers or the burning software — singly or collectively — this is too
simplistic. There are too many potential weak links: for example, incompatible
BIOS settings and hardware/motherboard conflicts.
As a rough rule of thumb the more potent
your system and the more recent your operating system, the less likely
you will experience problems (yes, there are exceptions). Microsoft is
gradually drying up support for legacy operating systems; the longer you
remain with one of them then the greater your potential for problems since
hardware manufacturers won’t devote resources to old hardware. As a result
you may soon experience problems to obtain new hardware drivers that are
compatible with an older OS. However, I am not advocating that you purchase
the latest Pentium-4 system. Installing legacy equipment (for example,
a 2X burner on a recent Pentium-3 or Pentium-4 system) to save a few bucks
is often a false economy. Sometimes this works (I have had good success
with older Hewlett Packards and Plextors — the latter, although initially
expensive, have achieved cult status) but often there are subtle, behind-the-scenes
interactions of older firmware (code that is embedded within the electronics
of the burner — a sort of BIOS, if you wish) with newer OS’s. It is worthwhile
checking the hardware manufacturer’s website to locate a firmware update.
Sadly, I expect that this will become less frequent. As the price of burners
continues to plummet, the profit margins continue to shrink. Manufacturers
are more interested in selling the latest and greatest and minimizing expensive
support for yesterday’s “obsolete” hardware.
Most of this is personal experience: it
worked for me. But — as in most, if not all, things concerning computers
— there is more than one road to success. These comments are, of necessity,
pretty general. There are so many configurations that determining why it
doesn’t work often has to be a hands-on affair with a particular system.
I am assuming that the Hardware Device Manager has not flagged (the yellow
triangle with the exclamation mark or the stop sign) the burner as a problem.
If it has, then the cause(s) must be addressed first.
The best creation software (both brand and
version) was supplied with the machine. While software tweaking, by the
hardware manufacturer, is extremely unlikely the hardware may be subtly
primed to look its best. This does pose a problem when an older burner
is in a system that has the OS upgraded. Often, burning software must be
upgraded to remain compatible (that is computerese for “working”). If you
do not need to upgrade to accom- modate a new operating system and your
burner hardware/software combination is working, I urge you not to try
to fix “what ain’t broke.” As I will relate later, a lot of problems arise
trying to upgrade the software to the latest “dot” variant. While not true
in every case, many of these upgrades are released simply to add support
for the latest burner models. If you do not own that new model, why do
you want to install software to support it?
If you do not own that
new model, why do you want to install software to support it?
Try to burn, at all times, at the maximum
speed of the burner. Assorted Internet-based forums suggest that this is
the most reliable approach (how fast is not the issue) since the write-laser
is tuned to perform best under this condition. Try the test burn option
(emulates the burn process without actually powering the write-laser) if
your software supports it. If you get an error reported, try to de-activate
background processes to free more cpu cycles for this task.
Use name-brand blank media. Some machines,
particularly older hardware, will like a brand (or a few brands) and gag
on others. Check that the media is speed compatible. As already stated
burn blank media as close to the maximum rated speed as possible. If you
have, for example, a 12x speed burner, buy the appropriate speed-rated
media and not the latest, fastest — and more expensive — on the market.
Evidently, planned obsolescence is at work here: in a while, the media
that is optimized at 12x or 16x will no longer be on the market. You may
have to try a few brands of faster media to achieve a working compromise.
Name-brand hardware is always preferred;
it doesn’t have to be the most expensive but it should be known. There
are too many good brand names at reasonable prices to warrant taking a
chance on an obscure brand to save (likely) less than $10–$15. Besides,
should you require help, it is more likely that the technicians will have
information about popular brands than the white-box special.
Avoid the media that is labelled as suitable
for music CDs. These blanks are optimized for compatibility with burners
attached to hi-fi systems. They may — or may not — perform correctly in
a computer- controlled environment. Realistically, they should fail; after
all, they are designed for systems whose burn speeds are well below current
specifications in the computer arena.
I am reluctant to burn any media to its
full capacity. I prefer a cushion — to err on the side of caution if you
will — of a few megabytes. Earlier burner models may not support the 700
MB/80 minute media that is available (despite your burning software’s capabilities).
If in doubt, restrict your archives to less than 650 MB (you can use the
700 MB capacity media, however). Similarly, overburning is a complicated
routine that requires hardware/firmware support, compatible software and
suitable media. Some makes and models perform well; others are decidedly
flaky. No manufacturer will go on record to support this: I wonder why?
While it may be initially successful, there is some suspicion about data
longevity compared to similar, non-overburnt media. Theory aside, consider
this dilemma: should you ever have to replace the burner that made these
overstuffed marvels will your new burner be able to read them?
The discussions about dye type (green,
blue or yellow) and reflective material (silver or gold) as factors in
data longevity are, for me at least, a non-starter. As long as they are
name-brand and your burner likes them then you should be content. Why do
I make this recommendation? As a parallel, consider the known tendency
of magnetic media (for example, floppy disks and tape media) to lose data
over time (let’s leave the physics to explain the “why” aside). Assuming
you have your eight inch floppy disks handy, whether the data is intact
is moot — show me the hardware to read them! My point: in 20 years “CD-whatever”
will be history. The media will be frisbees, not actively-used data repositories.
Presumably, if the data on this media remains important it will have been
re-archived on the contemporary media. The data-media combination used
today, despite boasts of archival properties of 50 years or more, cannot
change this immutable law.
Avoid, if possible, writing music to CD-RW
(harder to read on a machine that did not perform the original recording
and many hi-fi players (as distinct from computer hardware) won’t read
If your system is more than a few years
old and you are buying a burner for the first time, I would recommend avoiding
the ultra-fast ones (currently 24X or 32X upwards). In any event, pay the
premium (very minimal) and get a burner with buffer-underrun protection
(should be available in some 12X and likely all 16X upwards). This is device
(hardware/firmware) based; it cannot be implemented by software alone (although
the burning software must support this feature, it is not, per se, implemented
by it). Make sure that your burning software (if it is not the bundled
application) supports this feature.
CD-RW media for packet writing (copying
files individually to the CD-RW media as though you are writing to a floppy
drive) must be formatted before the media is usable. Never attempt to format
a CD-R; you will render it useless if you succeed. Many CD-RW blank media
are sold at retail pre-formatted for Adaptec/Roxio software (Direct CD
is Roxio’s Easy CD-Creator packet writing software). This pre-formatted
media is useless (without re-formatting) if your burning software is Nero
InCD. I have never seen pre-formatted media for Nero in the stores. To
the best of my knowledge, other manufacturers’ software would also require
a proprietary format. Since the format is different (Yes, I know that there
is supposed to be a standard but... ‘nuff said) you can’t read data written
by Roxio on its formatted media by Nero’s InCD and vice versa.
Do not attempt to pick-and-choose burning
software. For example, do not try to use Roxio’s Easy CD Creator for CD-R
but Nero’s InCD to write CD-RW. These are known to be incompatible. Nero
has offered at times a utility to permit co-existence with variable results.
It is not accepted by all operating systems. As an aside, if you insist
on packet writing, Roxio’s DirectCD packet writing software seems to garner
better reviews than Nero’s InCD. There are other burning software packages
out there but I have not used them. Some of these may, however, prove compatible.
For a long time Adaptec (now Roxio) software
was the favorite. For beginners, Easy CD Creator was, well, “easy to use”.
I used an early version very satisfactorily with a 2X Hewlett Packard burner.
Then came Version 5.0. The user forums are full of horror stories with
it. As a non-user (my current burner shipped with Nero) I do not know the
source of the problems but they are real and apparently fairly common.
I would be comfortable recommending version 4.x. Note: verify that this
version supports buffer-underrun equipped hardware. The latest Roxio (Ver
5.3, I think) seems to be doing better but I am not certain if it is stable
under all conditions. See my comments about problems upgrading software.
How much of this is Roxio’s fault and how much devolves to Microsoft’s
Windows XP multimedia problems resurrects the old chicken-and-egg tale.
I gather from forums that Windows XP has
a lot of multimedia problems. You can translate this anyway you please
but I gather it does include burning problems. Easy CD Creator Ver 5 was
supposed to be tailored for Windows XP but somehow... Since I am not running
Win XP, I can’t help much here, I’m afraid. Maybe Roxio Ver 5.3 is OK here,
I don’t know. Then again, add Service Pack 1 and... here we go, again?
The attachment of the drives to the EIDE/ATAPI
controllers is important. If you have one hard drive and one CD burner
then the hard drive should be the Master on the Primary IDE channel and
the burner should be the Master on the Secondary IDE channel. Since burning
requires reading the hard drive to obtain data to burn to the CD-R-RW it
is preferable to utilize different channels. EIDE/ATA/ATAPI topology does
not allow simultaneous activity on both devices on a channel. Indeed, to
avoid this very problem SCSI was the choice for early burners.
If you have two hard drives, then both
should be on the Primary channel; the boot drive should be the master.
The CD devices should be together on the Secondary channel with the burner
as the Master. There is discussion of these setups on both PC Magazine’s
Extreme Tech (www.pcmag.com) and Tom’s Hardware (www.tomshardware.com).
While most current burners support direct
memory access (DMA) paradoxically, there are a few that do not. Older burners
often require that DMA be disabled. While DMA compliance is preferable,
if your burner doesn’t support it then you will endure constant problems
until this setting is corrected (drive properties). Make certain that this
setting corresponds with the manufacturer’s specifications.
What processes are active in the background?
Newer systems (faster, more powerful CPU and presumably more memory) have
more flexibility to accommodate overhead (processes not directly related
to burning), particularly with buffer-underrun protection enabled. With
today’s high-speed burners the few minutes required to create a new CD-R
can likely be spared: shut down any non-essential processes.
Got a burning need?
Check back in next month's
Ottawa PC News
for the conclusion of this hot article!
Copyright and Usage
Ottawa Personal Computer
Users' Group (OPCUG), Inc.
3 Thatcher Street, Ottawa,
ON K2G 1S6
The opinions expressed in
these reviews may not necessarily
represent the views of the
OPCUG or its members.