Burning Questions: Instant Reference Guide to Creating DVDs and CDs

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Copying data to optical discs is easy. But navigating the myriad of formats and disc creation options can give even the most experienced user pause. Sure, the software you've got likely has default settings that make burning discs transparent. But odds are you've been mystified by options on the software's dialog screens--track-at-once vs. disc-at-once, anyone? This guide will help you understand the burning process so you can better prepare for your projects.

Except where noted, Roxio's Easy Media Creator 7 and Ahead Software's Nero 6 Ultra Edition can handle the tasks discussed below.

Burning a Disc

Copy a DVD: If you have a second optical drive on your system, you can easily copy contents from a disc in that drive to another in your burner. But if your second drive isn't the fastest spinner on the block, it might be just as expedient to first create an image of the DVD on your hard drive. The software may go a bit faster when transferring the data from your hard drive to disc. Plus, if you destroy your first copy, you can always burn another from the image residing on your hard drive.

Choose Your Write Speed: For optimal performance, make sure the write speed corresponds to the speed of the media you're using. To maximize your new disc's potential quality, and to avoid buffer underruns, try bumping the recording speed down a notch or two.

In case you're wondering, buffer underruns occur when the data source fills the drive's buffer faster than the drive can copy the data to your destination. All drives have buffer underrun protection; but the situation can still occur, especially if you perform CPU-intensive tasks while burning a disc.

Multisession or Finalize? For data or video, select a multisession burn, or finalize your disc. With write-once DVD-R and +R, and CD-R, you can choose to add data to the disc in separate burning sessions over time (called a multisession write), or lock a disc so you can't add more content (called disc finalization). You'll need to decide which route you're taking before you initiate the burn. If you want to play any part of your disc in stand-alone DVD players or recorders, you'll need to finalize it. DVD drives in computers, in contrast, can read off a multisession disc, but only the most recently added content.

Drag and Drop Data Files: If you're using rewritable media, you can simply drag and drop the files in Windows Explorer, just as if the DVD-/+RW or CD-RW drive were a floppy drive. The disc you create will use the Universal Disc Format file system, and should be readable on most PCs and Macs. But note that UDF requires overhead for its disc error correction, so you'll typically sacrifice one to several hundred megabytes' on the rewritable disc, depending upon whether you use CD or DVD.

Pick Your File System: Most burning programs default to the Joliet file system, which allows you to use 64-character file names, as you do in Windows, and automatically generates an 8-character file name with 3-character file extension for use with DOS and earlier versions of Windows. That should work for most burning needs, but you can usually find a few more formatting options in the software. Burn an ISO 9660 disc if you want the disc to have near-universal compatibility with different operating systems, including Windows, Macintosh, and Unix. The resulting file names must be 8 alphanumeric characters, with a 3-character extension.

Verify Your Data: It's a pain to do, and it's admittedly tedious--but it's also very necessary, especially if you're backing up critical data or making a one-of-a-kind video disc. Verification is your best means of confirming that the software made an accurate copy of your data, and that your disc didn't have a problem during the burn. Some burning software performs verification by comparing each original source file to the copy created on the disc, bit-for-bit; other programs simply compare the original file's size to that of the copy.

CD Quirks

Create an Audio CD: If you want to play a music disc on your stereo system or car stereo, you need to use CD-R media, which is more compatible with consumer electronics decks than CD-RW. Also, make sure to finalize the disc so it can play on other devices.

Track-At-Once or Disc-At-Once? Use track-at-once for creating multisession data CDs. The drive initiates the disc's lead-in, burns the data, then goes back to the lead-in to tell the disc where the files are stored (similar to the way a file-allocation table works). The drive then completes the process by writing the lead-out for the disc, which identifies where one write session ends and the next begins. This requires a lot of overhead, so you'll get less than 700MB of space for data on the disc. Roxio's Easy Media Creator chooses the correct session automatically; Nero automatically selects track-at-once, but it does give you the option to change it--so leave that setting alone.

Use disc-at-once if you're writing to the disc one time. With disc-at-once, the drive writes all the data in one fell swoop and automatically finalizes the disc. This is useful for maximizing the amount of content you can put on a disc. Disc-at-once is also best for creating master discs, because disc duplicators can't use discs written with track-at-once. Again, Roxio automates this process; Nero picks it for you, but also allows you to change the option if you choose.

Add CD-Text: Isn't it cool how the audio CDs you buy can identify the track and artist information associated with a song? You can add CD-Text to your home-grown audio CDs, too, but only if you write the disc using disc-at-once. Before initiating a burn, look through the options available to you to enable the CD-Text feature. The software picks up this information automatically from the audio file's metadata--just as MP3 players do--but typically you can manually edit the track title and artist name if you wish.

Creating Video DVDs

Use DVD-Video Format: Most disc-burning suites--Easy Media Creator and Nero included--let you first author a disc (meaning that you create chapter and title menus for the project) and then burn the disc in DVD-Video format. Usually, both of these functions are handled by a dedicated video editing and creation module within the software. You can also create a DVD-Video disc using a data-transfer module, but only if you're copying an existing movie on DVD as opposed to authoring one. For example, you'd use the data-transfer module if you're copying a DVD movie disc you authored previously, or one you created on your living-room DVD recorder.

Trick Your DVD Player: Some burner/software combinations allow you to change the bit setting for the booktype, or standard, of your DVD media so that it appears to a DVD player as a DVD-ROM instead of its true format, be it DVD+R or +RW. Benq, for example, ships its drives with a utility to change the booktype setting. This fools the device into playing a disc that it would normally have choked on--a particularly useful trick with DVD+R and +RW on older DVD players, and the new DVD+R double-layer media.

Use the Right Connections: Import audio and video via an audio-visual input box connected to your PC via USB 2.0, or a graphics card that has A/V inputs, such as a TV tuner card. Where possible, use S-Video for optimal video clarity, and use FireWire to connect your digital video camcorder and computer.

Cram in the Data: Pack more video onto a 4.7GB disc by using a different video codec, or lowering the bit rate. MPEG-2 is the standard codec for DVD-Video, but you can get only 1 hour of video on a disc at the maximum bit-rate and image quality settings.

If you can handle a slight reduction in image quality, you'll want to consider other encoders, such as DivX, MPEG-4, and H.264, which can reduce a given video file size by about half. That means you can safely fit nearly 7 hours of content on a single DVD, without seeing any significant pixilation or artifacting of the image. The catch: To play back video, you'll either need PC software that supports the codec you used, or a DVD player or handheld video device that can play these new formats. Nero's Recode will handle MPEG-4 and H.264, but only from an existing DVD-Video. Roxio's VideoWave (part of the Roxio suite) handles DivX, but only from raw video files that you're importing.

Edit Your Video: Streamline your video with a dedicated editor like Adobe Premiere. Or you can rely on the integrated, but not-as-advanced, video-editing tools found in popular DVD burning suites like Ahead Software's Nero 6 Ultra Edition and Roxio's Easy Media Creator 7.

Make Your Own Music Video: Too exhausted to sort through your hour-long video clip and edit it? Some software can analyze the video you input and cut together a slick-looking movie set to the music accompaniment of your choice. Your best bet for doing this is Muvee Technologies' Muvee AutoProducer 3.5MX; Muvee's technology is also found in other software programs, including ArcSoft's Showbiz 2.0.

Create a Slide Show: Most burning suites allow you to relive that exotic getaway or momentous event by creating a slide show on DVD, replete with your choice of music and digital images. Even better, you can archive the full-resolution original images on the same disc.

Converting From VHS to DVD

Buy a Dual-Deck Recorder: Bar none, VCR-DVD recorder combo decks are the most expedient and convenient means of transferring content on analog tapes to optical discs. Costing about $400, these devices typically have a one-touch copy button that automates syncing the start of your VHS source tape with the start of the DVD recorder. But if you prefer to muss with cables, you can use any DVD recorder to copy video input from a VCR or camcorder via the device's composite or S-Video connectors.

Fix the Image by Changing Cables: If you've hooked up a VCR, camcorder, or other analog source to your DVD recorder and notice an issue with the image, such as banding across the screen, the problem could stem from faulty or cheap wires--like the ones that come bundled with most VCRs or DVD recorders. Before assuming your TV or recorder is on the fritz, invest in higher-quality cables.

Turn Off On-Screen Displays: Remember those on-screen display overlays that pop up when you fast-forward, rewind, or hit Play on your VCR? Those screens will be recorded to DVD if you use your VCR to output an A/V signal to your DVD recorder. Turn off the OSD setting in your TV and your VCR, and be sure to position the tape where you want it before starting to record.

Smooth Transitions: For the smoothest transitions, try hitting Pause on the VCR, then starting the DVD recorder and un-pausing the VCR as close to simultaneously as possible. The one exception to this rule is if you're recording from a TiVo or Replay hard-disk recorder to your DVD burner. Start out with your TiVo or Replay guide screen showing, begin the DVD recording, and then start playing the recorded show. This way, at the start of your DVD you'll see the recorded show's title, summary, and date--handy info, considering that most DVD recorders don't provide easy ways to add program titles.

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