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CD-R and CD-RW Burning 101 - Part I

by Dunc Petrie

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 them properly.

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 ( and Tom’s Hardware (

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.

Bottom Line:

Got a burning need?
Check back in next month's Ottawa PC News
for the conclusion of this hot article!

Originally published: October, 2002

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