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Coaster-Free Burning with IDE CD Writers: Part 1

by Robert Bruce Thompson, Barbara Fritchman Thompson

Anyone who uses a CD writer has made coasters, or ruined CD-R discs. CD burning is an isochronous, or time-dependent, process because the data to be written must be delivered to the CD writer continuously, from the time the write commences until it is finished. Nearly all coasters are caused by buffer underruns, which result when the CD writer's buffer runs out of data while the CD is being written.

With CD-R blanks currently selling for about a dollar each, in bulk, a ruined blank isn't the disaster it was when blanks sold for $25 each. But making coasters still wastes time and money. Although the situation has improved over the last year or two, burning CDs reliably with an IDE CD writer remains more art than science. This article will tell you what you need to know to burn CDs reliably with an IDE CD writer. And many of these tips are just as important for reliable burns with a SCSI CD writer.

Choose the Right CD-R Drive

There are scores of IDE CD writers available from dozens of manufacturers. One model stands head and shoulders above the rest: The $260 Plextor PlexWriter 12/10/32A, which writes at 12X, rewrites at 10X, and reads at 32X, far surpasses other IDE CD writers in both performance and reliability. In fact, our testing shows it to be at least as reliable as the best SCSI CD writers.

The key to the PlexWriter's reliability is its use of BURN-Proof technology, which effectively eliminates ruined discs from buffer underruns. In simple terms, BURN-Proof turns off the writing laser when it runs out of data to write (duh), and then, when data is again available, restarts the burn exactly where it left off. In effect, BURN-Proof converts CD writing from an isochronous process to an asynchronous one.

With other IDE CD writers we hesitate even to move the mouse while burning. We walk softly and worry about vibration from passing trucks. The PlexWriter eliminates these worries. It is so robust that we successfully burned a disc from an image file on the hard drive while we were defragging that hard drive--a guaranteed way to ruin a disc with any other CD writer we have used. If you're in the market for a new CD writer, don't consider buying any drive other than the Plextor 12/10/32A.

If you already have a different CD writer, don't despair. The rest of this article describes many steps you can take to increase the reliability of burns with even the oldest and least reliable IDE CD writers. You may still create the occasional coaster, but your batting average should increase dramatically.

Install the CD Writer on Your Best Computer

Related Reading

PC Hardware in a Nutshell
By Robert Bruce Thompson, Barbara Fritchman Thompson

If you have a choice, install your CD writer on your fastest system. All other things being equal, burning CDs is more reliable on a system with a faster CPU, a faster hard disk, and more memory. These factors minimize the risk of buffer underruns. Some CD writer manufacturers publish minimum and recommended hardware configurations. A typical minimum configuration might be a Pentium/166 with 16MB memory, and a typical recommended configuration might be a Celeron/266 with 32MB. Published configurations are often based on the requirements of the CD writer software, but more of everything--CPU speed, hard-disk speed, and memory--always helps. We suggest you disregard any published minimums and consider the recommended configuration as the true minimum. And even then, you're likely to find that you need better hardware for reliable burns.

As an experiment, we removed a 4X CD writer (which had been functioning flawlessly) from a Pentium II/300 system with 64MB. We installed it in a Pentium/200 system with 32MB, which matched the published recommended hardware configuration for that CD writer. Even after we optimized the Pentium/200 system, however, attempting to burn CDs faster than 2X was an exercise in frustration, and 2X burning was less reliable than 4X burning had been on the faster system. Our rule of thumb is that most 4X IDE CD writers need at least a Celeron/266 or Pentium II/266 with 64MB for reliable burns, and faster CD writers may need correspondingly more.

The operating system you run also has a lot to do with reliable burns. In general, CD writers running under Windows NT/2000 are more reliable than those running under Windows 9X. If you run both operating systems, install your burner on the system running NT/2000.

Use the Right CD-R Blanks

All CD-R blanks are not created equal. We were about to say that you get what you pay for when buying CD-R blanks, but that's not precisely true. You certainly won't get more than you pay for. But if you're not careful, you could get less. Fifty-cent CD-R blanks from the bargain bin are probably not worth buying unless that price is for discounted high-quality discs. Unfortunately, some brand-name discs that sell at premium prices are little better than the cheap brands.

What really counts is not the brand name, but the factory that made the discs. Only a handful of factories actually make CD-R media, which are then relabeled under many brand names, including such respected ones as Sony and HP. Some discs sold under one brand name are actually made by multiple factories, some of which produce high-quality discs and others discs of marginal usability. So don't attempt to judge quality based solely on name. Instead, use the following guidelines when purchasing blank discs:

  • As a starting point, consider using the discs made or recommended by the CD writer manufacturer. In general, if the manufacturer also sells branded discs, those discs are likely to work properly with drives made by that manufacturer. There are exceptions, though. We have, for example, a spindle of Smart and Friendly brand discs. (Note: Both bulk and branded discs are available on spindles.) These were actually made by Prodisc Technology, and are some of the worst discs we've ever used. They are unreliable even when used in our Smart and Friendly SAF798 CD SpeedWriter Plus drive, and generate coasters nearly 100 percent of the time when used in any other CD writer we have tried.

  • Ignore disc color. Many people believe that green/gold or gold/gold discs are great and blue/silver or silver/silver discs are terrible, or vice versa. In fact, the color of a disc is determined by the dye and reflective layer it uses, and has nothing at all to do with the quality of the disc. Good and bad discs are made in all combinations of color.

  • Avoid using 80-minute discs whenever possible. Even if your CD writer and software supposedly support 80-minute discs, shorter discs are more reliable in all respects. Recording problems are more likely with 80-minute discs, and many CD players and older CD-ROM drives cannot read 80-minute discs reliably, if at all. Given the choice, we'd actually pick 63-minute discs over the standard 74-minute discs for routine use. But 63-minute discs, alas, have fallen prey to more-is-better thinking and are no longer readily available. We keep a few 80-minute discs on hand for times when we really need their higher capacity, but we use 74-minute discs for most jobs and recommend that you do the same.

  • Disregard descriptions of bulk versus branded. "Bulk" sounds cheap and unreliable, whereas "branded" sounds expensive and reliable, right? Wrong. Even some resellers who should know better persist in perpetuating that myth. The truth is that bulk discs are those without a silk-screened label and branded discs are those with the manufacturer's logo and other identifying information printed on the disc. Bulk and branded discs from any given manufacturer are usually identical and sell for about the same price.

  • Buy only a few discs and test them in your CD writer. Even if everyone tells you that a particular disc is the best, buy a 5- or 10-pack of those discs first. Then do some test burns on them under demanding conditions, such as backing up hundreds of small data files from your hard disk.

The problem with testing small and buying big, of course, is that one is never entirely sure whether the discs in the 5-pack were made by the same factory as the ones in the 100-pack. You can verify this, albeit after the fact, by using a program called CDR Media Code Identifier (see Figure 1). Based on data the manufacturer hard-codes into the ATIP (Absolute Time in Pre-Groove) of the discs themselves, this utility will report which company made the disc, the Type number and dye used, the media type (CD-R versus CD-RW), the nominal capacity of the disc, and (less frequently) the range of burning speeds for which the disc is suited.

Figuire 1
Figure 1: CD Media Code Identifier provides detailed disc information

But what if you have neither the time nor the inclination to do detailed testing for yourself? We'll go out on a limb here. Although we always recommend testing with your own equipment for best results, we have found Kodak discs to be consistently excellent and widely available. We've used them in numerous CD writers on systems ranging from a Pentium/133 with 32MB to a Pentium III/933 with 256MB, and have burned very few coasters.

We have also had uniformly excellent results with discs made by Taiyo Yuden and Mitsui Toatsu, although they are more difficult to find than Kodak discs. Of course, your mileage may vary. For example, our colleague Jerry Pournelle, who uses equipment similar to ours, reports excellent results with Maxell discs, whereas our experience with Maxell discs has been less than satisfactory. But then, it's quite possible that his Maxell discs were made by a different factory than ours were.

Use the Right Burning Software

Most CD writers come with software, and it's reasonable to expect that software to function optimally with the drive it came with. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Adaptec Easy CD Creator is the most common bundled software. Our experience with Easy CD Creator 3.5 and 4.0 has been mixed. Running under Windows 98 SE or Windows NT 4, Easy CD works reliably with most CD writers. Unless, that is, you also install the Adaptec DirectCD packet-writing software, which causes problems on many systems. Under Windows 2000, we've had nothing but problems with Easy CD Creator, with or without DirectCD installed.

Fortunately, there's a better alternative from the German company called ahead software. We have used its Nero Burning ROM software (see Figure 2) intensively for several months now, with consistently excellent results. We've used Nero with several CD writers on half a dozen systems ranging from aging Pentium II/300 systems with 64MB RAM and slow IDE hard disks to Pentium III/933's with 256MB and 10,000 RPM U2W SCSI drives. We've run Nero under Windows 98 SE, Windows NT 4 Workstation, and Windows 2000 Professional. We've used Nero to dupe audio and data CDs and to create custom data compilations. We've used a dozen different types of CD-R discs, from premium Kodak and Taiyo Yuden discs to no-name Pacific Rim discs that generated 25% to 50% coasters when used with Easy CD Creator. Over the course of our testing, Nero has produced exactly zero coasters. Not one.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Using Nero to burn a backup CD

In addition to being rock-solid, Nero is fast, noticeably faster than Easy CD Creator in most of our tests. Nero also seems to be quite forgiving of marginal source discs. We've used Nero to dupe discs, both pressed CD-ROM discs and CD-R discs, which Easy CD Creator refuses to dupe on any system and with any CD writer we've tried. In fact, Nero is so good that we've removed Easy CD Creator from all of our CD writer systems and replaced it with Nero.

You can download a fully functional, but time-limited, evaluation copy of Nero to test it with your own equipment before buying the software. Each month, ahead software posts an evaluation copy that expires at the end of that calendar month, so download your copy early in the month, if possible. If Nero works for you, buy a downloadable license key online for about $49. For that price, you don't get a printed manual, but we've never needed the manual anyway. Nero is also available in a full retail-boxed version with printed manual, but you may have trouble finding it at your usual vendors. If so, you can buy that version on the Web site for about $78, including shipping.

So much for the preliminaries. The next step is configuring your system for maximum reliability. We'll cover that in "Coaster-Free Burning with IDE CD Writers, Part 2: Configuring for Reliability. And then read Part 3: Burning CDs Successfully.

Robert Bruce Thompson is coauthor of PC Hardware in a Nutshell. He built his first computer in 1976 from discrete chips. It had 256 bytes (not kilobytes) of memory, used toggle switches and LEDs for I/O, ran at less than 1MHz, and had no operating system. Since then, Robert has bought, built, upgraded, and repaired hundreds of PCs for himself, employers, customers, friends, and clients. He is the author or coauthor of many online training courses and computer books. Robert maintains a personal online daily journal page, as well as a Web site devoted to PC Hardware in a Nutshell.

Barbara Fritchman Thompson is the coauthor of PC Hardware in a Nutshell. She worked for twenty years as a librarian before starting her own home-based consulting practice, Research for Authors. Barbara, who has been a PC power user for fifteen years, researched and tested much of the hardware reviewed for the book. Barbara spends her working hours doing research for authors and her leisure hours reading, working out, and playing golf.

Robert and Barbara Thompson's Web site is

O'Reilly & Associates has released (October 2000) PC Hardware in a Nutshell.