Although USB flash drives have become the most popular way to transport project files between systems, you're probably looking for a cheaper way to distribute presentations, music, photo, or video compilations. For these jobs and others, creating a CD or DVD make more sense. However, there's plenty of confusion at home and the office when it comes to what media to choose and how to write your files. Read on to discover our ultimate guide to CD and DVD media, burn strategies, and freeware CD and DVD burning programs.
Whether you use recordable (R) or rewritable (RW) media, there are two basic ways to create a disc: drag and drop, and mastered.
Drag and drop (also known as Live File System to Windows Vista and Windows 7 users, or as Universal Disk Format - UDF) enables you to copy files to CD or DVD media through Windows Explorer, much as you would copy files to a USB flash drive or other type of drive. Because you don't need to create a list of files in advance, drag and drop is very useful for backing up your files during projects for reuse on the same computer.
However, because of the many versions of the UDF standard in use, you can have versioning problems if you try to move a disc created with drag and drop from one system to another, particularly if the systems do not use the same drag and drop software. In some cases, you might not be able to read a disc on a different system, although you can read and write to it on the host system.
Drag and drop UDF support is built into the CD and DVD writing features included in Windows Vista and Windows 7, but Windows XP uses a strange hybrid of drag and drop and mastering to create CDs.
Before drag and drop was common, disc mastering was the only way to build a CD. Mastering requires you to build a list of files you want to copy to a CD (or DVD), making it inconvenient for frequent file backups.
Mastering's strong point, however, is that the media it produces can be read on virtually any device that can read the media used, especially if the media is written in a single session and the disc closed after use. A mastered disc is the best choice when you don't know what type of drive will be used to read the final result, or for distributing a finished audio, video, or data disc to others.
Discs written using the multisession method (in which some files are written, but the disc is not closed, allowing more files to be written later) is a useful midpoint between the ease of drag and drop and the broad compatibility of mastered single-session discs, but this method should not be used to create music CDs for use in CD players that are not designed for MP3 or other computer files.
When you shop for CD and DVD media, you'll find a bewildering array of choices. Here's help to cut through the clutter.
If you are creating mastered CDs for data or music, use CD-R media. CD-R media is recordable, but not rewritable: burn files to a CD and close it, and they're locked on the media as long as it lasts. If you want to update your disc, use multisession recording, and you can replace older files with newer files of the same name, but you can't ever erase files from the disc.
For drag and drop, especially on the same system, use CD-RW media. Choosing CD-RW media can be tricky because it comes in several speed ranges, including standard (up to 4x), High speed (up to 12x) and Ultra-Speed (up to 24x). If you use the same drag and drop software on more than one computer and want to use CD-RW media to transport files between computers, make sure you use media whose speed is supported by both drives. If you want to reuse a CD-RW disc, you can erase it. However, you cannot erase individual files.
Although you can use CD-RW to store a project in progress, I don't recommend it for permanent storage of completed projects. Thanks to the ever-changing world of UDF standards and glitchy implementations, the odds are fairly good that at least some CD-RW media will be hard or impossible to read in the future, even on the same machine.
CD-R 80 minutes holds 703MB; the older CD-R 74 minutes holds 650MB. CD-RW media capacity depends upon whether it is used in mastered or drag and drop modes.
Thanks to a now long-settled feud between the DVD Forum (developers of DVD-ROM and the DVD-R, DVD-RW, and DVD-RAM formats) and the rival DVD+RW Alliance (developers of DVD+RW and DVD+R media), DVD media is available in a wide range of options for recordable and rewritable media. Thankfully, if you have a Super Multi DVD drive, you can use almost any of these formats, and keep in mind that every rewritable DVD drive is also a rewritable CD drive.
The first recordable DVD media was DVD-R. It's available in speeds up to 16x, and is often recommended for playback in older DVD-ROM drives and DVD set-top boxes. DVD-R media holds up to 4.7GB.
DVD+R media is available in speeds up to 16x, and provides faster recording of smaller amounts of data than DVD-R. However, DVD+R media isn't as compatible in older DVD-ROM drives and DVD set-top boxes as DVD-R. DVD+R media is also rated at 4.7GB of capacity, but actually holds about 7 million bytes less than DVD-R media.
DVD+R DL was the first dual-layer media, enabling it to be used for creating backups of DVD video movies as well as high-capacity data backup and transport.. It is rated at 8.5GB of capacity, and works well with most recent DVD-ROM and DVD set-top boxes.
DVD-R DL is also available for these purposes. While also rated at 8.5GB of capacity, DVD-R DL actually holds about 4 million bytes less than DVD+R DL media. Because DVD-R DL is a newer format, it is not as widely supported by DVD rewritable drives as DVD+R DL.
DVD-RW and DVD+RW are both rewritable formats. However, DVD+RW supports faster recording, easier editing of media contents, and no need to finalize the media before using it on another system.
Although you can use DVD-RW and DVD+RW to make larger backups of projects in process, and this media is less finicky than CD-RW, I don't recommend it for permanent storage of completed projects. Thanks to the ever-changing world of UDF standards and glitchy implementations, the odds are fairly good that at least some rewritable media will be hard to read in the future, even on the same machine.
DVD-RAM is often left out of DVD rewritable discussions, but since most recent DVD rewritable drives support it, it's worth a closer look. DVD-RAW supports native drag and drop file copying without the need to use special software, so you don't need to worry about UDF versioning problems. It also supports true random access for easy file editing and erasure and hardware-based media defect management. DVD-RAM has a capacity of 4.26GB.
If your systems support DVD-RAM, it's the easiest way to transport files between systems using optical media. However, keep in mind that most DVD-ROM and DVD set-top boxes can't use DVD-RAM, so consider it a data backup and transport solution only.
Recordable Blu-Ray discs are known as BD-R, while rewritable Blu-Ray discs are known as BD-RE. BD-RE discs version 2.0 and higher support UDF (drag and drop) file copying. The ability to record to Blu-Ray media depends not only upon hardware and media support, but burning software compatible with Blu-Ray recording. See the listings for specific programs in our Freeware Recording Roundup for details.
CD-R – data files, music CDs, CD ISO images
CD-RW – personal file and project backups
DVD+R, DVD-R – data files, single-layer video DVDs, completed project backups
DVD+RW, DVD-RW – personal file and project backups
DVD+R DL – dual-layer video DVDs, larger file backups, completed project backups
DVD-R DL – larger file backups, completed project backups
DVD-RAM – hardware defect management, file backups
Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7 all include integrated CD burning (Windows Vista and Windows 7 also include integrated DVD burning). Is built-in disc burning enough, or do you need a third-party solution?
Windows XP, even in SP3, never added support for DVD media other than DVD-RAM. Thus, if you want to create DVD movie backups or data backups to DVD-R/RW or DVD+R/RW, you need to use a third-party burning program. The CD Writing Wizard doesn't support making ISO files, burning discs from ISO files, or burning Video CDs either. All it's designed to do is create CD file backups to either CD-R or CD-RW discs (to create music CDs in Windows XP, use the Burn menu in Windows Media Player).
Instead of creating a true mastered disc, Windows XP uses a clumsy process that involves dragging or copying files to the drive letter and then sending the temporary files created to the disc using the CD File System (CDFS) first developed for CD-ROM drives in Windows 95. When you eject the disc, Windows XP closes the disc so it can be used on other systems. It's a slow process, and the only good thing you can say about Windows XP's built-in CD writing support is that it's slightly better than nothing.
If you are unable to burn CDs using Windows XP's CD Writing Wizard, open the drive's properties sheet and click the Recording tab. This tab is used to enable recording with CD Writing Wizard and Windows Media Player, and is also used to specify the location for storing temporary files, the write speed to use (options in this menu vary with the media installed), and whether to eject the CD after burning. Note that enabling these settings can interfere with some third-party CD and DVD recording programs.
Windows Vista and Windows 7 also offer built-in CD writing but also include DVD writing. Both versions support creating DVD video discs through the use of Windows DVD Maker, Windows Movie Maker (Vista only) or the optional Windows Live Movie Maker.
In addition to supporting a wider range of media, Windows Vista and Windows 7 also support more formatting options:
Use Mastered if you are not planning to add more files to the disc later, to increase compatibility with older systems, and to prepare a disc for use with a CD boombox or DVD set-top player.
The default Live File System selection is UDF 2.01, which provides backwards-compatibility with Windows XP. When you use the Burn a Disc feature in Windows 7 and select Like a USB Flash Drive (Live File System) as the format type, it automatically formats the disc using UDF 2.01 (Windows Vista refers to the option as Live File System, and also uses UDF 2.01 as the default setting).
Note: Windows XP can erase a CD-RW formatted using UDF 2.01, but can't add files to it. Windows XP also supports older UDF versions 1.02 and 1.5.
To choose from other format types in Windows 7 or Windows Vista, cancel Burn a Disc, right-click the drive in Computer Explorer, select Format, and choose the appropriate file system from the pull-down menu.
For a list of Live File System versions and what they're best suited for, see "Which CD or DVD format should I use?"
Windows 7 adds the ability to burn a disc from ISO files using the right-click menu.
If you want to add additional capabilities to Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7's built-in burning features, take a look at Alex Feinman's ISO Recorder series. Version 2.0 is designed for Windows XP SP2 and above, and enables users to create ISO files from folders, burn ISO images to CD, copy CDs, and erase CD-RW discs. Version 3.1, for Windows Vista and Windows 7, adds DVD Recording of DVD images and bootable discs and DVD image creation.
The public beta releases of Windows 7 made a lot of computer users aware of ISO images for the first time. An ISO image is the layout of a CD or DVD stored as a single file. The ability to burn a disc from an ISO image is important, but so is the ability to convert a collection of files, such as a bootable program or customized Windows installation, into an ISO image that can be burned to a CD or DVD. Until Windows 7, working with ISO images has been a missing feature that required add-on software, but it's now part of Windows 7's standard CD and DVD burning wizards, and is also a common feature of the programs in our roundup.
My first recordable (not rewritable) optical drive was a 2X CD-R drive that took about 40 minutes to create a disc. Because mastering CD and DVD media requires a continual flow of data from the computer to the drive, unreadable discs (called coaster) were a frequent occurence in those days of slow systems and even slower drives. That was over a decade ago, and the rewritable drive industry has developed several methods for avoiding coasters:
Although data buffers in CD-rewritable drive were once as large as 8MB, a 2MB data buffer is adequate for most CD and DVD drives. This is because buffer-underrun prevention technology is a more effective way to prevent coasters. Buffer-underrun prevention slows or stops data flow to the drive while "remembering" where the drive last wrote data, and continues the write process from that spot.
By reducing burn speed when creating discs for use in non-computer devices such as CD boomboxes, car audio systems, and DVD set-top players, you can create discs with a higher likelihood of working. Slower burn speeds result in more distinct and darker pits on the media than faster burn speeds do.
Most drives and writing software now support various write optimization strategies to help the burn process work as well as possible with different types of media. By upgrading your burner's firmware if you have problems with certain brands and models of media, you also help improve the likelihood of a successful burn. Remember, a burn is not really successful unless the target device can read the media!
While most of the burning programs featured later in this guide can burn a DVD image to disc to create a video DVD, they're not designed to create the DVD image for you. By using the utilities and methods discussed by our own Will Smith in The Last DVD and Blu-Ray Ripping Guide You'll Ever Need, you can create DVD (and Blu-Ray) images on disc that you can then burn to DVD or Blu-Ray media. In the process, you can say farewell to copy protection woes.
Whether you're creating a collection of DVD images on hard disk or burning them to DVD, you should consider keeping them organized. For help, see our guide for adding meta-data to your videos.
If you're using Windows XP, a third-party CD/DVD burning program is a necessity, and it's a highly-desirable option with Windows Vista and Windows 7. If you didn't get a satisfactory program with your drive, or you're looking for a program with more features, we've selected four freeware contenders for your consideration:
AmoK CD/DVD Burning, as the name implies, isn't designed to work with Blu-Ray or HD DVD media, so if you're looking for an all-in-one solution, keep looking. However, if you're looking for a CD/DVD burning system that's portable and expandable and isn't hard to remove from a system, this might be on your short list. However, keep in mind that you'll also be dealing with clumsy plugin installation, and a lack of integration between plugins and the main program.
The basic AmoK CD/DVD Burning program supports basic CD and DVD burning, but to get the most from it, you'll want to add a variety of free plugins. Plugin support is needed for Audio CD burning, Video CD and Video DVD burning, and ISO creation/burning.
When you click the Plug-ins button in the program before you've installed plugins, you're taken straight to the AmoK download page, where plugins are listed for download. However, to install them, you must extract each plugin from its own Zip file archive and copy it manually to the program's plugins folder. After copying plugins to the appropriate folder, clicking the Plug-ins button displays a list of plugsins to choose from.
Selecting a plugin launches a separate program, such as the Audio Burning wizard shown here.
By default, AmoK's video and audio plugins select the SPTD (SCSI Pass Through Direct) data transport method. However, if this doesn't work, you can select SPTI (SCSI Pass Through Interface) or ASPI. I used SPTI, which is built into Windows 7.
In my tests, I was unable to get the Burn Video DVD on the Fly plugin to work properly, but I was able to burn a copy of Zulu by selecting VideoBurning and selecting DVD Video when prompted (you can also burn Video CD or Super Video CD).
CDBurner XP, despite the name, works on Windows Vista and Windows 7 as well as Windows XP (we used it on Windows 7). It supports Blu-Ray and HD-DVD as well as CD and DVD disc formats.
CDBurner XP has an easy-to-use interface and useful menus, making it easy to create a video DVD.
For times that you need help, it also offers good online help. One irritating glitch in the current version is the way the program window sometimes shrinks to the title bar, requiring the user to maximize the window.
Deep Burner Free is a cut-down version of Deep Burner Pro. Deep Burner Free does the basics (create audio CD, burn data CD/DVD, and create or burn ISO image). However, if you want to burn video DVDs or turn WMA files into audio CDs, you'll need to upgrade to Pro – or try a different program.
As with other programs in this roundup, you'll need to hit the Help functions frequently to figure out how to make things happen. Deep Burner Free's special features include a built-in Autorun builder that lets you specify not only what to do when a CD or DVD is inserted but also can build a customized (garish) menu, and a print function for CD or DVD labels and inserts. While these are useful extras, they don't make up for a lack of basic burn functionality.
ImgBurn provides a fairly cryptic interface and sends you off to its extensive online help to learn how to perform many tasks, but it's long been one of the most popular freeware burning utilities available because of its powerful capabilities.
ImgBurn starts up in Easy Mode Picker, but it's not always easy to figure out exactly which mode to use for some tasks. For example, it took a visit to the ImgBurn Guides to find out how to burn DVD video files to a DL disc. Doing so revealed one of ImgBurn's best tricks – previewing the best place to put the break that happens when a DL disc switches from Layer 1 to Layer 2 during playback.
By default, ImgBurn doesn't calculate disk capacity for a burn task, but leaves it up to you to either click the Calculator icon or click the Auto checkbox. However, once you do, it quickly figures out if you have enough space on your disc. ImgBurn displays a Log file below the program window so you know exactly what's going on with the program.
Other ImgBurn features of note include the ability to set booktype bits on certain DVD drives to improve compatibility with older DVD drives and set-top boxes, unparalleled configuration options, and the ability to perform common options from the right-click menu.
It should be no surprise that ImgBurn, which has often popped up in our utility roundups, is our top choice out of this roundup. However, CD Burner XP, another favorite of MaximumPC.com forum users runs a close second. While these aren't the only freeware choices available, they prove you certainly don't need an expensive media suite to burn discs that work.