Monday, May 30, 2005

An idiot's guide to backing up and burning CD/DVD images

Monday, May 30, 2005

As Peter Kent says, "smart people use idiot's guides", and you're clearly that because you're reading my site instead of buying his books. ;)

While legally distributed CD and DVD images, e.g. the vast range of Linux species, are available online in all sorts of obscure formats, they mostly appear in one of two flavours; they will have either a 'bin' or an 'iso' extension. To the end user there is very little difference between the two formats aside from the fact that bin images tend to be accompanied by a tiny configuration file known as a cue sheet. These are processed by your writing software rather than the archive file itself, and include all the pertinent technical information needed to extract and burn the file. Data CD and DVD images differ only in terms of size, the DVD variety being the larger of the two.

No matter what form your disk image takes, there are only two methods in which to get it up and running. The first is to extract the files to your hard drive and 'mount' them to a virtual disk drive - a designated area of your hard drive which simulates the operation of a burnt disk sitting in your optical drive. Choosing this path allows you to test a disk image before committing yourself to keeping it, or at least wasting a writable disk on it. If after play-testing a disk image, you find that it's not to your liking, you can simply delete the files and reclaim the hard drive space they were occupying. For the remainder of this tutorial I will be concentrating on using disk images in the manner in which they were originally intended to be used; by burning them to a blank disk that is, so for more information regarding virtual disk utilities try searching my blog for the key phrase, "Daemon Tools".

Method numero deux involves burning your image onto a blank disk to be used in your optical drive in the usual fashion. To help you remember which tool you would use to accomplish this task I've gone to great lengths to conceive the following Laureate-worthy rhyme: "To burn a bin you need CD-R Win". Oh, you do flatter me! *blushes*. Ahem ...so anyway, firstly make sure that your cue sheet and bin file are in the same directory and that the path of the bin file documented in the cue sheet is correct. You can do this by opening the cue sheet in Notepad or a similar text editor, and checking that no path information is present on the top line of the configuration data. Prior to editing the cue sheet this line might read something similar to FILE "C:\Temporary Files\knoppix.bin" BINARY, but unless you create a directory on your C: drive called "Temporary Files" and place the bin file inside it, CD-R Win won't know where to find it. This is why it is best to remove all references to a particular drive and directory leaving just the name of the bin file, like so: FILE "knoppix.bin" BINARY.

So with the preliminaries taken care of, let's get on with the show. Once you have installed CD-R Win, open the program and push the 'record CD' button followed by the 'load cuesheet' button, and select your cue file from the relevant directory. If you're up to the challenge, take a blank disk, place it in your CD/DVD writer and push the 'start recording' button. Perhaps you should take a breather before moving onto the next segment of the tutorial - I don't want to wear you out. ;)

To burn a file with an iso extension you will need to switch your CD writing software; Nero or Disc Juggler will do the job very nicely - sorry, I don't have a poetic ditty to make this more memorable. In this case all you have to do is select 'open' from the file menu, scan through your directories until you come to your iso file and select it. Finally you would simply press the 'write CD' button and put your feet up. The hardest part is finding the right software for the task in hand - once you know which software to use you're laughing. If for any reason you can't get hold of the above mentioned software, all is not lost - a raft of alternative programs capable of interpreting bin, iso and cue files are available from the usual freeware/shareware repositories.

I'm sure there will be occasions where you will want to extract the contents of a disk image without first having to burn them to a CD or DVD. A few examples include installing an operating system from the hard drive, installing an application which doesn't need to access the contents of its setup disk once transferred to your computer or extracting standalone utilities from CD or DVD compilations. ISO Buster is perfectly suited to performing all these tasks as it can interpret and manipulate all the most popular disk image formats. If you want to create your own disk images, there's no need to switch tools as ISO Buster is extremely adept at this too. Have you got a CD or DVD containing critical data that you cannot retrieve through conventional means? Fret not; the author of ISO Buster prides himself on his application's ability to recover data from optical media no matter how mauled it may be.

Backing up your original disks

Despite the initial hype, CD and DVD media are not indestructible, and therefore to preserve them you may wish to use 'Alcohol 120%', 'Blind Read' or 'Clone CD' to make a backup copy of your disks. What these three programs do is dump the entire contents of a disk into a single image file, which can then be burnt to a CD or DVD, right away or at a later date. One question which is probably on the tip of your tongue at this point is, "but can't I just make a backup by copying the contents of a disk to my hard drive myself?". Yes, you could, but the chances are it won't work because it is copy protected. The crucial difference with using Alcohol 120%, Blind Read or Clone CD is that the copy protection is bypassed and the disk label is replicated exactly leaving you with an error free, identical copy of the original disk.

So where do you find these miraculous gadgets? Ah yes, I was coming to that. The official Clone CD home page is located at www.slysoft.com, Alcohol 120% you will find staggering in an intoxicated state at www.alcohol-software.com, and you can visit the home of Blind Read by pointing your browser towards www.vso-software.fr. Trial versions of all three programs are freely available from their respective web sites. Blind Read and Alcohol 120% are no doubt exceptional programs, but as my personal preference is for Clone CD this will feature as the exemplar used to illustrate the backup procedure detailed below. If Clone CD has trouble reading a particular disk you can try unleashing Alcohol 120% on it, and if that fails finally give Blind Read a whirl.

Let's begin our foray into the realm of disk imaging by downloading the trial version of Clone CD. If you find it useful you can purchase a license for it later - the demo version is fully functional for a limited time so you will not miss any of the features on offer in the registered version while you test drive the program. Fire it up, and if you have purchased a username/serial number combination, enter it in the relevant space under the register tab before continuing to the main interface. Insert the disk you wish to copy into one of your optical drives. Any of them will do if you have more than one to choose from, but bear in mind that your CD/DVD writer will often be more efficient when it comes to reading protected data compared with your ordinary CD/DVD ROM drive. Even if your writer is much slower than your ROM drive I would strongly advise you to use the former. A faster drive will only get the job done quicker if it can read the - often deliberately corrupted - data structure of the disk, which isn't always the case.

Skewer the 'read to image file' button with your pointer and select the drive in which you have inserted the disk you wish to duplicate. If it is a data disk be certain to inform Clone CD of this by choosing the data CD/DVD option. Similarly, if it is a game disk, select the game option before continuing (you don't really need me to tell you this, do you?).

Subsequently choose the drive you would like to store the image file on, making sure you have a sufficient quota of available disk space to work with, and finally give the destination file a name. Now if you poke the 'start disk read' button the data should begin transferring from the disk to your hard drive. This would be a good time to go away from your computer and do something useful for a few minutes; analogous to the burning stage, any break in the data flow can cause problems later on, so it is wise not to tamper with your PC once the process is underway. When you return, the operation should be complete and all that will remain to be done is to transfer the data from your hard drive to a blank CD/DVD, so find a suitable disk and pop it into your CD/DVD writer. Then if you hit the 'write from image file' button, select your newly created image file and click on the 'start disk write' button, Bob's your mother's brother... or in other words, your work here is done. Congratulations, you've produced your first cloned original disk!

Since the authors of all three of these programs have aimed for idiot-proof operation, once you've used one you've used them all. The interfaces are very similar so you shouldn't have any difficulties porting your newly acquired knowledge of Clone CD when making use of its rivals. Because some programs of this kind extract data from disks using different mechanisms depending on the way the data has been protected, it is sometimes necessary to inform them of which copy protection scheme has been applied to a disk prior to imaging it. If the program you are using does not detect this information automatically, you can do the detective work yourself by visiting Game Copy World and searching for the title of the game you are attempting to copy. GCW will provide very detailed instructions on how to copy each title, nonetheless, the only bit of information you need to pluck from the articles is the copy protection mechanism utilized e.g. SafeDisc, SecuROM, LaserLock etc. Alternatively you can instruct a third party utility to take care of the task for you. Once armed with this information, select the corresponding protection method from the relevant drop down menu and away you go.

An added bonus of using Clone CD or Alcohol 120% is that they both support CD/DVD emulation; that is deluding your operating system into thinking that the disk image on your hard drive is actually a real CD/DVD sitting in your optical drive. Windows never was the sharpest tool in the box, eh! Sorry, I couldn't resist taking a swipe at Microsoft. The advantages of this are fairly obvious; it becomes unnecessary to burn a disk image to a CD/DVD in order to use it - very handy if you happen to have run out of blank disks or if you do not intend to keep the disk images forever. Beyond this, there is a huge reduction in data access times since hard drives are many times faster than optical drives. Also, if for whatever reason, a disk image cannot be accessed properly you will realize there's a problem long before you create a fresh new coaster.

You will find more detailed information and relevant links on this subject in others areas of my blog, so feel free to make use of the search feature if you're still struggling to get to grips with it.

Now you've so meticulously assembled your first backup disk, you're not going to want to just scribble its title on a scrap of paper and shove it inside a jewel case, are you? The answer you're looking for is "no"! Come on, work with me here will you? If you want to make your backups look more professional you can download scanned versions of the original CD/DVD inlays from the internet and print them out providing you know where to look. Oh what the hell, it's nearly Christmas. Here are some links which you might find useful: CD Covers (.cc), Mega Search and CD Covers (.to). Amongst these sites you will find covers for games, applications, audio CDs, video CDs, DVDs and... well pretty much anything that comes in a CD or DVD case really. These sites are undoubtedly superb resources, but please keep in mind that unless you own the original disk the artwork accompanies, you are breaking the law by downloading and using it.

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