Optical drives aren't potatoes. You can't boil them, mash them, or stick 'em in a stew. And by that, I mean there's simply not that much you can do with your average digital coffee holder. Optical drives read CDs. Optical drives write CDs. And... well, unless you have your drive hooked up to some kind of crazy Rube Goldberg device that feeds your guinea pig whenever you eject the tray, there's simply not much else you're going to be able to do with this essential part of your PC. CD goes in; CD goes out--end of story.
Of course, I'm being a little tongue-in-cheek with this description. There's a great deal you can do with your optical drive on the software side of things. Here's the problem: There are a ton of different programs out there for ripping, burning, and mounting images, amongst other behaviors. Finding the best-in-class application for your device can be like trying to find a tiny scratch on the bottom of the disc itself--a mind-numbing task that's sure to frustrate you as you sift through the 30 different utilities you've pulled down onto your desktop.
Allow me ease the pain a bit. In this week's freeware files, I'll be taking a look at some of the must-have software to supplement your CD drive. With these five apps, you'll be covered for a wide range of uses--ripping all different kinds of media to your (presumably) terabytes of storage space, burning your own custom discs and presentations based on preexisting files, and converting physical media to digital images that you can pull up off of your hard drive instead of ever having to fiddle with a disc again.
I wish I could point to a better tool for ripping your DVDs and Blu-ray discs than Handbrake. Unfortunately, there isn't one. There might be apps that offer more settings and customization options than Handbrake, but they certainly aren't without their learning curves. This easy-to-use app delivers a sturdy, helpful GUI for figuring out all the nuances of video ripping-and believe me, there are a ton. Check out Maximum PC's helpful guide to making the most of your Handbrake download, especially for the Blu-Ray ripping part of the deal. By itself, Handbrake doesn't do the greatest job with this kind of media. You'll definitely want to hit up the utilities AnyDVD or DVD43 to supplement your ripping, though it might be worth your while to use the encoding tool RipBot264 instead of Handbrake for Blu-ray rips.
As for audio, you have a few solutions. You can use a program like iTunes or Songbird as your default, all-in-one media warehouse and ripping solution (I recommend either; especially the latter if you don't own any Apple products). If you just want to rip your audio without all the additional cataloging support, check out Exact Audio Copy. This free CD ripping application does a great job of reading through the nicks and scratches of older media to get an accurate, digital copy of your physical disc. You get full ID3 support for tagging your audio and can automatically compress your files to whatever algorithm you want post-rip (especially useful if you combine Exact Audio Copy with the awesome AutoFLAC add-on).
Sound familiar? Again, ImgBurn is really a best-in-show kind of app that's well-suited to handle all the different kinds of files you throw at it. Want to straight-up burn an image (BIN, CUE, DI, DVD, GI, IMG, ISO, MDS, NRG, and PDI) to a disc? There you go. Want to create your own image file for burning or mounting later? Just fire up the program and select all the files you want to slap into the new archive. Need to burn audio CDs, DVD, or hi-def video discs? Easy as pie. To say that "ImgBurn" is comprehensive would be an understatement--this app literally does it all (and can automatically shut off when it's done!)
So why, then, would you want to grab DVD Flick? This app is like a slimmed-down version of Handbrake. You don't rip the DVDs yourself, rather, DVD Flick runs you through the whole media creation process: take preexisting video files, configure them up to meet your final specifications, and burn the disc. And unlike Handbrake, you can actually create little titles for your movies. It's a perfect way to give a little bit more organization to the 35+ video files you've packed onto your media of choice.
I frequently mention Virtual CloneDrive or Daemon Tools as two of my favorite image mounting programs out there. But, now, a new contender has entered the fray. I've really been enjoying using Gizmo Drive thus far, as this app delivers a comprehensive amount of support for even more file formats than I thought previously existed. Case in point: Not only can you use this freeware app to mount your standard disc images (ISO, CUE, BIN, NRG, etc.), but you can also load VHD files (used with Microsoft's Virtual PC program) into a virtualized optical drive as well. That's a pretty unique feature for mounting apps at this point, which gives the head-nod to Gizmo Drive as one of the best examples in its category.
This one's a little bit esoteric, but hear me out. Sure, you can burn a ton of your pictures and such to whatever media you want. But what's the point of doing this without incorporating a little pizazz as well? Are you really going to impress everyone when you have to tell them to fire up the ol' Windows Photo Gallery just to scroll through your shots? That's where the open-source DVD Slideshow GUI comes into play. This simple-to-use application gives you a number of different transition effects to slap between pictures (and movies!) you've arranged yourself. You can set durations, print subtitles, and run all sorts of visual effects throughout your little presentation. And when you're done, you can burn your masterpiece directly out of the app itself!
Like peas in a pod, these two utilities will allow you to create a little menu for launching programs, opening files, and doing whatever else it is you want to do whenever you stick one of your finished CDs in the drive for the first time. I'll start with PStart. If you have a ton of portable apps, executables, or .bat files stuck in a folder, then be sure to install PStart as a portable application to this folder. That's key, as this allows PStart to then use relative paths for the shortcuts it creates for its little launching menu. From there, feel free to add whatever programs you want to said launcher.
Once you're done, fire up Ed's Autorun INF Generator and select the main PStart executable as the one you want to automatically launch once the CD or DVD is first read by the drive. It's as simple as that. You'll now have a cute little icon-driven menu for launching elements on your discs instead of having to revert to the old, boring way of searching for these programs through Windows Explorer. Lame.