Burning Questions: What's Next for LightScribe?

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Have burner, have labeler: The idea of creating disc labels using the same laser that you use to burn your discs certainly sounded intriguing when it was first introduced a year and a half ago.

That concept--arguably the most innovative new feature to hit optical storage in years--became even more appealing once LightScribe Direct Disc Labeling technology finally became a real product at the start of the year. The initial flow of drives that supported the technology, invented by Hewlett-Packard and licensed to all comers, was admittedly small--a veritable trickle of products--but I'm seeing signs that the numbers are about to increase.

For starters, HP's LightScribe business unit announced a slew of new licensees, including such major consumer electronics firms as Pioneer and Panasonic. More significantly, most of the major optical drive players say they will support the technology: With the May announcement, the addition of Hitachi/LG, Benq/Philips, Toshiba, and Lite-On bring the total number of drive manufacturers licensing the technology to six. Missing from the list are only a handful of drive makers, among them NEC and Plextor, neither of which could comment on their LightScribe plans for this column.

LaCie LightScribe drive

Given the manufacturer support, it follows that we're starting to see more and more drives with LightScribe technology. One of the biggest surprises thus far: LightScribe-capable drives aren't priced dramatically higher than their typical non-LightScribe siblings. For example, external LightScribe drives from HP (the DVD Writer 640e) and LaCie (the D2 DVD±RW with LightScribe), which cost about the same, are less expensive than many competing external drives, including Plextor's PX-716UF.

Now that the first wave of LightScribe-capable products has begun to transform the optical drive landscape, I spent some time discussing what's on deck for the technology with LightScribe marketing manager Kent Henscheid.

All About Speed

Let's face it: We all have a fascination with speed, and nothing is ever quite as fast as we'd like it to be. That includes LightScribe. Regardless of LightScribe's eye-catching wow factor, the time required to etch a label on a disc remains the biggest gotcha to the technology; see our review of the first LightScribe drive to market, HP's DVD Writer 640i for more on the poky etching times.

So just why is LightScribe so slow?

"One of the factors that determines the speed is the power of the laser," Henscheid explains. When LightScribe was first in development, "we designed to existing drive specs and constrained ourselves to the available power of the optical drive, so we would fit into the established design of the optical drive."

This allowed drive makers to easily integrate LightScribe technology, but it also meant the first generation of LightScribe media would be limited in its label write speed. Just as the write speed of a disc is determined by the formulation of the dye on the data side of the disc, LightScribe's write speed is affected by the label-side coating on a LightScribe disc.

The two sides of the disc are not influenced equally by the laser, however. LightScribe coating doesn't react in the same way as do the high-speed 16X-capable dyes on recordable DVDs, for example. "The material in the data dye is intrinsically different from the coating material on the label side," says Henscheid.

Another difference is the laser's focus: Whereas the densely packed data side of the disc is burned with a precisely focused laser, LightScribe drives defocus the laser, which in turn slows down drive speed.

Since manufacturers won't be boosting the power of a drive's laser any time soon, LightScribe developers have had to find alternate ways of boosting the write speeds. "The focusing method for the laser, the coating, the laser power--all of those work in concert--so-called multiple dials, to affect the speed," says Henscheid.

Improving the Media

The only area that's completely independent of the drive hardware is the media. "One of the elements we have control over is the coating itself," says Henscheid. "And we have developed a new coating that will lead to faster write speeds."

The first-generation coating could handle faster speeds than those we've seen in optical drives, but only under specific conditions. Says Henscheid, "with higher-power lasers, we've demonstrated that the coating material can perform faster."

Media with the new coating is expected to perform about 50 percent faster than the current media. According to Henscheid, a detailed, high-contrast, full-disc label might take about 30 minutes to create today; with the new coating, you might see a savings of as much as a third, taking that time down to 20 minutes. It all depends upon the drive and the drive's laser characteristics; and it is also affected by the design of the label.

HP and media manufacturers both expect second-generation media to be in stores by the end of the year. Current LightScribe drive owners will be able to take advantage of the new media by updating their drive's software. Updates will be made available by individual drive vendors; they will also be available via the LightScribe Web site.

Rainbow of Colors

There may be some truth to the rumblings I've heard about LightScribe acquiring the ability to create full-color labels. But don't get your hopes up too high: HP and the media manufacturers haven't figured out how to use a drive's existing laser to create a rainbow of colors for a full-color label akin to what you'd get from a $3000 Rimage thermal printer, for example.

Nonetheless, LightScribe inventor HP is looking beyond the technology's current monochrome imprints on gold discs. The company has focused on tweaking the LightScribe media coating so it can work with a variety of colored discs. "It's a step in the direction of color," acknowledges Henscheid. "The first step was to develop materials that allow us to deliver color capability. As we move towards the long term, we're looking at materials that will work with different background colors."

HP has developed a palette of colors, but only a handful will make it to market. The colored LightScribe media will support the faster-speed LightScribe coating. The discs may ship later this year, at the same time as the faster coating comes available, or shortly thereafter.

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