The Joy of Labeling

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Recording a CD or DVD is only half the job. The other half is making sure you label what you recorded. Otherwise, the next time you reach for a disc, you'll waste time figuring out which one you've grabbed from the unlabeled masses.

Personally, I've never been particularly good about labeling: Witness the stack of unlabeled video tapes stashed in my closet. Sometimes I haven't made a label because the tools--pen, adhesive labels--weren't at hand. Other times I was impatient; I just wanted to record and go.

Since I don't want to end up with a ton of CDs and DVDs with no moniker, and no clues as to their contents, I've turned over the proverbial new leaf. But what are the best options for labeling discs? In my quest for the perfect labeling system, I discovered I was chasing a holy grail: The perfect labeling system doesn't exist. But there are worthwhile options galore.

Pens and Case Inserts

Marking pens may be boring, but they're fast and they work. However, if you want to use a marking pen to scribble a quick-and-dirty label on the top of a disc, manufacturers and the National Institute of Technologies say to avoid a pen based on alcohol or a solvent, as these materials could eat into the disc's surface.

The FAQ on the site for Sanford's popular Sharpie permanent markers says that the company has never encountered a problem caused by use of its pens on CDs. But the company also states that while it doesn't believe Sharpie ink can damage CDs, "we have not performed any long-term laboratory testing to verify this."

If you buy discs in individual cases, there's typically a card insert for the front of the jewel case that you can reverse and write on as needed. But typically, these inserts have no label for the spine--and without one, it's a hassle to find an audio CD you've lined up with the rest of your music collection. Plus, if you buy your discs by the spindle and purchase your jewel cases separately, you won't have any inserts on hand.

Label-Creation Software

This brings us to another option: software for creating disc info that you print onto adhesive labels. Most media-burning software includes a labeling component, except perhaps the stripped-down software that ships with most DVD drives. If yours lacks this feature, don't despair: There are a handful of stand-alone labeling applications from companies like Avery, Fellowes, Maxell, and Meritline.

However, both built-in labelers and separate applications often have Byzantine interfaces that make them frustrating to use. Furthermore, none of the stand-alone apps can automatically populate your label with the information for the data you've just burned to disc, such as musics tracks and title, video chapters and titles, and data file names. This is true even among most labeling components integrated into suites. For example, Ahead's Nero 6 Ultra Edition does auto-populate, but only for audio CDs; and Pinnacle's Instant CD/DVD auto-populates for DVD video content only. Without this key feature, creating a label take a lot of time--especially if you're putting a hundred-plus MP3s on a CD.

In addition, many programs support standard-sized jewel cases, not the type of full-size movie DVD cases that those prerecorded DVDs on your bookshelf use.

There are also some concerns with the adhesive labels themselves. Even though many third-party packages include a gadget to apply labels, you still have to take care to apply the label evenly and smoothly, with no air pockets. Otherwise, the label could cause an unequal distribution of forces on the disc as it spins in the drive, which in turn could cause the disc to shatter while spinning at high speeds such as 52X for CDs and 16X for DVDs.

Print Labels With Your Ink Jet

Introduced last summer, Epson's $200 Stylus Photo 900 was the first consumer ink jet printer to include a dedicated CD/DVD tray for printing directly on a disc's surface. Epson has since released the $180 Stylus Photo R300 and the $230 R300M, both of which support printing on optical media.

To use these printers for labeling media, you'll need to buy printable discs such as those offered by Maxell and Verbatim. (When they're sold in a spindle, printable discs don't cost any more than standard media.) Plus, you have to use Epson's included utility, CD Print, to design your label--which means you're stuck entering all of the disc's contents manually. You're out of luck if you were hoping to use a third-party application.

There are additional limitations. For example, the Stylus Photo 900's label-printing software cautions you to wait at least 24 hours before using your disc in a CD or DVD player. Ouch. My burn-and-go instinct is strong, in spite of my resolve to better ID my discs.

Thermal Printers

For years, high-end duplicators from Microboard, Primera, and Rimage have offered professional-looking thermal printing on discs. But these costly duplicators are targeted at businesses with high-volume production needs: Primera's Bravo DVD Publisher, for example, sells for about $1800.

Casio has brought basic thermal disc printing to the masses with its $125 CW-75 Disc Title Printer. This compact printer resembles Casio's label printer, with its small, gray-scale LCD and QWERTY keyboard. But the CW-75 prints directly on discs, and it's nothing fancy: You're limited to just eight lines of text above the disc's hub, and eight below.

Burning the Label

CD or DVD burners that also label the discs aren't quite here yet, but they're on the way. In May of this year--or perhaps sooner--you should be able to buy a DVD burner from Hewlett-Packard that includes the company's new LightScribe technology, which lets you use the burner's laser to etch a label onto the top of LightScribe media.

The process isn't easy to control, says Daryl Anderson, inventor of this promising technology. "LightScribe-enabled media comes with a thin layer of a photosensitive dye that has a high-contrast change from its initial state to its activated state," he says. "At the center hub is a ring with 'control features,' a bar-code-like reflective ring that's embossed into the disc at the time it's molded using polycarbonate."

The control features on the disc also serve as the control center for the LightScribe burn process. "They look at the orientation of the disc, so the drive knows where the disc is, rotationally, as it's labeling," explains Anderson. This built-in intelligence means the drive can resume burning the label as needed, which is particularly handy should you want to add new song titles or file names to the label at a later time.

"The drive [also] looks at the control features and gets information about the media that it's dealing with, so it learns about the safe operating parameters for that given media," continues Anderson. From there, he says the LightScribe component of the firmware "takes the information from the control features on the media and information about the drive capabilities and melds that together to control the burning process--the imaging process in the drive--in an optimal fashion." Among other things, the firmware controls the laser and the spindle speed.

How LightScribe Labels

The printing isn't controlled by the strength of the laser; rather, it's how long the laser hovers in a specific spot on the disc. "As you concentrate more and more spots in an area, the darker an image would be," says Anderson. He explains that the process is analogous to half-toning in gray-scale images on ink jets and monochrome lasers.

The initial generation of LightScribe drives will support burning labels at 4X, meaning it will take about 20 minutes to create a full-disc label. HP plans to halve that time by the end of the year, Anderson says. HP also plans to license LightScribe technology; the first announced software licensees are MicroVision and Sonic.

We'll have to wait to see how well LightScribe lives up to its hype. In the meantime, if like me you're determined to find an easy way to become a meticulous labeler, check this column next month for a test drive of several labeling products.

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