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Burning Desire
There have been so many massive advances in the technology that allows us to burn CDs and DVDs that it seems incredible to think that the first single-speed burners, which at the time sold for over 700 for a 2x writer, would now be writing at 52x and selling for under 40. If you don't believe me here's a scan from a magazine dated 1996, that's only just ten years ago.



If the 779 for the recorder isn't painful enough look at the price for the blanks. That's 5.50 each!

With all this technology pummelling away at the speed and cost barriers and advancing the way we burn optical disks, one area of the whole process seemed to be totally ignored, identifying them when the process was finished.

No doubt like me you have dozens, possibly even hundreds of CDs and DVDs scattered throughout your home or office, mostly labelled using CD marker pens, some neatly, some not so neatly, some in great detail, others so vague you're not quite sure what's on them. If you're very organised you may have gone the route of paper labels. When these appeared on the scene they gave users the chance to create and print very high quality labels that really looked rather good, well, once you'd calibrated your printer they did. The problem came as drive speeds increased. Unless a paper label was absolutely smack-bang in the middle it would case a CD or DVD to vibrate when rotating at high speeds, and this in turn would cause read errors. They also tended to dry out after a few dozen visits to the inside of a hot CD or DVD drive, which would cause them to lose their adhesion and start to curl before eventually they were often flung off completely deep into the heart of your drive.

A more successful option, and still one of the best ways to add colour labels to your disks, was to buy blanks with an inkjet printable top surface. These occasionally also case balancing problems and they require the purchase of a printer designed to be compatible with them, but it's worth the cost in the long-run if you need a lot of quality colour labels.

Apart from thermal transfer printing which uses solid ink, often on a ribbon, and is limited primarily to text labelling this leaves one final option which is what we'll be examining today. It's called Direct-To_Disk labelling and involves using the same laser that burns data onto the underside of the disk to then burn a label on the opposite side.

Despite what seems to me like a relatively low profile for Direct-to Disk labelling, there are in fact two competing standards (isn't that compulsory for any disk technology these days?). LightScribe was the first of the two standards to hit the market and was invented by the boffins at Hewlett-Packard, who have licensed the technology to a variety of drive and media manufacturers.

The other option is LabelFlash. It was introduced by NEC in December of last year (2005) and is based on a technology developed jointly by Yamaha Corporation and Fuji Photo Film Co. It's based on Yamaha's Disc T@2 (Tattoo) technology which allowed text and graphics to be burnt onto the data side of a disk in any area not already recorded to with data. In fact this can still be done using any LabelFlash compatible drive. Fuji's expertise came in creating a suitable dye to allow the same thing to be done on the rear of the disk too.

Although this article isn't strictly comparing the drives used, I will tell you a little about them. The NEC drive which was kindly sent to us to use for this article was the ND-4551A, a LabelFlash capable version of the very fast and extremely popular ND-4550A. The other is Lite-On's SHW-16H5S (on the left).

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Although not strictly relevant to this article there's no point buying a LightScribe or a LabelFlash drive if its performance stinks. With this in mind I did a quick timed data write and immediately noticed something was wrong. The LiteOn drive seemed to be taking considerably longer than the NEC to burn the same data to a DVD, so I took a look at the performance in Nero's CD-DVD Speed.

First I checked both drives using my regular 16x DataWrite discs. The NEC graph is on the top, the LiteOn is below it:

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To make sure it wasn't a disk compatibility problem I ditched the DataWrite media and repeated the test with the Fuji LabelFlash media. Again the NEC is on the top and the LiteOn right below it:

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After some frantic cable replacements, jumper checking and pin inspecting, none of which helped to solve the problem, I decided to switch the drives around and set the NEC as the master drive and the LiteOn as the slave. I deliberately didn't use the CS "Cable Select" option as most home builders use the master and slave settings when setting up their drives.

With the drives master and slave settings switched things were suddenly looking a lot healthier. Again the NEC is on the top. First I retested with the DataWrite media:

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Then once more for the Fuji media:

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It's a long time since I ran into this kind of issue where optical drives don't play nice together so I'd mistakenly assumed those days were behind us. Precisely which drive was responsible for the problems I don't know but if you have your DVD recorder sharing a channel with anything else I'd suggest you run it through a quick speed check just to make sure it's performing like you paid for it to. As for why I didn't test the drives individually with each one set as a master, I did, the plan behind fitting both at the same time was in the hope that I could find a version of Nero that would support both label formats at once and allow me to switch from one to the other, then to test if this caused any compatibility problems. Unfortunately it seems such a version of Nero doesn't exist, or at least I couldn't find it.

Anyway, it seems both drives have a fair lick of speed, a fact easily verified if you do a quick scout around the 'Net for more specialist reviews on them. Time now to look at their labelling prowess.
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