Saturday, December 29, 2001

CD writing basics explained

Saturday, December 29, 2001

If, like me, you're a bit of a web media junkie, your hard drive is likely to be bursting at the seams with cherished digitized entertainment. This leaves you with a tricky dilemma; do you engage in a cavalier deleting spree to make room for new arrivals, buy an expensive second hard drive, or glaze over in dreamy reminiscence for the days when 10mb of storage was thought to be all you'd ever need? Your best option is probably to get yourself a CD writer. These work just like an ordinary CD drive, however, will also allow you to archive up to 900 megabytes of data (depending on which CD media you choose) to a recordable CD, commonly known as a CD-R. CD writers are now very reasonably priced and are getting cheaper all the time, and if you shop around, blank CDs can be purchased for less than ten pence each, giving you a theoretically unlimited amount of storage space. While you'd imagine this would provide more than enough scope for anyone's storage requirements, the wheels of technological advancement continue to turn relentlessly. As soon as DVD-R drives become more affordable we will find ourselves embarking on a further storage revolution, and as a result we'll be referring to backing up many gigabytes of data rather than a 'paltry' few hundred megabytes. Nevertheless, until this day arrives, you can't beat CD writers for making cheap, convenient and hassle free backups.

Once you've purchased your CD writer you will need to acquire (or unwrap) some CD writing software to accompany it - your new device is useless without it (Windows XP's built-in, flimsy burning tool doesn't count). Most top quality CD writers are shipped with an OEM copy of Nero, the de facto standard in CD writing software. If the manufacturer of your new kit were shortsighted enough not to include this, you can head on over to the Nero home page and download a free trial version.

There are a variety of ways in which to copy computer data to a CD, and as you would expect they each bring with them certain advantages and disadvantages, all of which will be outlined below. The first method is to use a 'packet writer'; a piece of software that allows you to use your CD drive in a similar way to your hard drive. Employing this method you can drag and drop data onto your CD drive using nothing more sophisticated than an Explorer window. Whenever you do this, the packet writing software works seamlessly in the background, automatically copying the information to a CD without the need to execute any CD burning software. Similarly, you can use your burning software to create what is known as a 'multi-session copy'. This involves writing data to a CD-R a bit at a time whenever it becomes necessary to do so, until the CD reaches its full capacity. Both these methods are quite handy as you can use your CD writer much like a hard drive by dragging and dropping files onto it whenever you choose (it should be noted that this technique wastes a considerable amount of space, reducing the final capacity of the CD). The third option is much more reliable and makes more efficient use of the available space. It involves gathering together data in CD-sized chunks (up to 900mb worth) and then dumping it all onto a CD in one go.

Although CD writers are not quite as flexible as hard drives, they do have several advantages. The media is extremely cheap for a start. Also your data is undeletable, which means it is safe from hackers, viruses and accidental formats or deletions. Providing you have one of the more modern CD writers, a full CD can be burnt in less than two minutes so you are unlikely to find yourself twiddling your thumbs waiting for the task to be completed. With this in mind let's add speed of backup to the already impressive list of 'pros'. To give you a rough idea of how the speed ratings of CD writers relate to the time it takes to burn a full CD, a two speed writer can churn out the finished product in about 36 minutes, whereas a four speed drive would take roughly 18 minutes. Keep halving these estimates while doubling the speed of the writer until you reach the latest tech specs available today and you'll soon realize that they are so quick it's hardly worth quantifying the times involved.

When CD writers were still in their infancy, writing CDs at high speed could often render CDs unreadable because they had no way of combating a phenomenon known as 'buffer underrun'. These errors occurred whenever the device you were copying from was unable to serve files to your CD writer's buffers quick enough for them to be transferred to your CD-R in the absence of any stutters. To circumvent this stumbling block it was advised that you should write your CDs at lower speeds and learn to be patient. When it was discovered that - shock, horror - patience isn't a virtue possessed by the great majority of computer users, a new, all singing, all dancing range of writers were developed by Sanyo which could operate at full speed without running the risk of corrupting CD media. These new breed of drives, known as 'burn-proof' writers create error free CDs by suspending the burning process whenever the CD writer's buffers are empty, and resuming only when the buffers once again contain data which is available to be written.

Be that as it may, many people will not have access to one of the new varieties of writers or may even be stuck with a first generation dinosaur, so unless you want to create a lot of shiny coasters you will need to remember that you can't do anything else with your PC while a CD is being burnt. This is because, as already explained, any pause during the burning process can result in buffer underrun errors, which can render CDs unreadable. For this reason make sure you turn off any screen savers, automated TSR programs and power management functions before attempting to burn a CD. Just leave your PC to its own devices for half an hour while it struts its funky stuff. Come on, it can't be that difficult can it?

Providing you follow these basic rules, backing up your electronic goodies shouldn't cause you any major headaches. Copying original CDs for preservation purposes, on the other hand, is a different ball game entirely (refer to the ISO tutorial). The main problem stems from the fact that most modern software titles are copy protected. This can mean all sorts of different things. For instance, the publisher may have added large portions of unreadable data to their CDs, causing your CD writer to either go on copying indefinitely or to stop responding in the middle of the burning process. The most common method, however, is to alter the main executable file so that it will appear to copy successfully, but when executed will not function as it should. Not to worry though, help is close at hand in the form of Game Copy World, a site which while on the surface masquerades as a legitimate means of backing up your original CDs is really a pirate's toolkit containing the largest collection of cracked executables anywhere on the net. That said, it's also an invaluable resource for those of you wishing to stay on the right side of the law too. In case you haven't already guessed, in order to copy an original CD what you have to do is replace the original exe file with the cracked version before burning the whole thing to a CD. This will work without a hitch for the majority of the time, but some original CDs will require more sophisticated techniques in order to copy them successfully. Under these circumstances you will have to use Game Copy World's search engine to find the instructions for copying your particular game. These should be followed to the letter to avoid problems. This is always a good starting point whether you believe the cracked exe file will suffice or not, and will only take you a few minutes to read through in any case. Alternatively you can resort to everyone's favourite original CD duplicator, Clone CD, to make yourself a flawless backup. You'll have to contain your excitement until you reach the ISO tutorial to find out how that works.

A few final points that need to be taken into account before you begin backing up your data - make sure you're absolutely certain of what you want to put on a CD before clicking on the 'begin copy' button, because once burnt they can't be altered in any way unless you happen to be using CD-RW media. These are slightly more expensive than CD-R due to the fact that they can be formatted and re-copied many times. Also you need to remember that if you want other people to be able to use your CDs, or you want to be able to use them in a drive other than your CD writer, you will need to 'close' or 'finalize' the CD after copying it. This simply involves clicking on the relevant option before performing a CD copy. As a result nothing else can be added to it at a later date. One last tip before I dismiss the class; if your CD writer doesn't recognize the newer CD media available i.e. those with a capacity of 730mb or above, its firmware may need to be flashed. This procedure involves running an executable file which adds new information to the BIOS modules built into your CD writer. For more detailed instructions refer to my 'how to update your firmware' FAQ entry.

If you still have any unanswered questions have a browse through the other sections of my site before tearing your hair out in frustration. In addition you will find some very informative and detailed tutorials at CD Media World. Alternatively, you can take a look at Andy McFadden's CD Recordable FAQ. If he can't help you with your CD copying conundrums, no one can!

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