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Appeared on: Wednesday, May 30, 2001
NTI CD Maker 2000 Professional


1. Introduction

Introduction

In a year when more than 60 million CD recorders are expected to ship worldwide, it seems there will be plenty of ?room? for expansion of recording software vendors.

By introducing its latest offering, ?CD Maker 2000 Professional?, NewTech Infosystems (for short NTI) has entered a stiff ?battle? against competitive recording application programs such as Ahead?s ?Nero 5.5?, Roxio?s ?Easy CD Creator 5? and Prassi?s ?Primo CD?.

At a time when Microsoft intends to offer built-in basic recording capabilities in its future operating systems (a.k.a. the Windows XP family), the competition is expected to become even more fierce. A usual practice followed by many recording software manufacturers is to have their programs be offered in the form of 2 packages, a simple basic features offering, provided usually through the channel of OEMs and large retail vendors, and another ?professional? version aimed at more advanced users needs. This second type of recording applications, sold through the regular software distribution channels, is what mainly differentiates full-featured CD recording software from each other.

NTI CD Maker 2000 Professional aims at this specific target group of users. And it promises to cover most of their needs in an easy and hassle-free manner. Our group of reviewers rigorously tested it both under regular and advanced mode user requirements.

In the following sections we present a basic operations description of the program to help you acquaint yourself with its use, along with our test findings and a set of rules (best-practices) which must be followed when using a CDR application seeking optimum performance at no expense of achieving advanced requirements.

Any user can download a full-featured 30-day trial version of the product from NTI?s website and make his own opinion out of our findings and tests here.

Sammy Volos, Lead Reviewing Editor, DigitalDrives Inc.

Assessing a recording application capabilities

When a user decides to make a recordable CD should first ask himself about the intended purpose and use of the disk. His needs define a series of tasks he will have to perform using, in our case, CD Maker 2000 Pro as the software of his choice. The application itself should be able to assist him to define these tasks and offer, as well, an intuitive menu-driven user interface, helping him accomplishing them. Many recording applications these days try to hide the unnecessary technicalities from the casual user and encourage him to feel he has the full control over the details of the actions the software will have to carry out.

Recording details are usually hidden into menu-driven windows, were the fine-tuning options should be logically arranged for easy setup and retrieval by the advanced user or professional.

We have found that in many cases this, essentially sound and correct, practice is the source of both user-frustration and induced bugs.

According to the purpose of each disk, there are defined CD formats that have evolved during a period of 20 years, since the introduction of the audio format in the red-book standard by Sony and Philips (CD-DA, digital audio). Newer formats are built upon the basic encoding and error correction features of this original ?standard?. The types of disks that mostly concern consumers and always find their way as the tested disk-formats in web reviews are:

  1. CD-ROM, for regular recording of user data files from a hard disk or another storage medium
  2. CD-DA, for custom audio compilations of songs extracted from music CDs and user-created or downloaded MP3 files, and
  3. VCD, for VCR-quality playback of video/audio streams onto a consumer DVD player.

In the next few sections we offer an introduction to both the basic and advanced features of NTI CD Maker 2000. Our own view on this program and our criticism is presented along the main text and the accompanied photos.

Anthony Doros, Reviewing Editor, DigitalDrives Inc.

 


2. Setting the general options

Setting the general options

These are the important settings affecting every aspect of the software?s functionality. You can select the directories used for the program?s cache buffer and log-file saving. Keeping track of the changes made on the log files seems to be a good idea for expert users when troubleshooting recording problems. For most of us, however, it might be a good idea to leave these setting to their default positions.

If a particular user owing more than 2 hard disks or able to select among different disk partitions might try setting the cache on the fastest disk, provided there is amble free space.

In the Preference pane you can protect your media during the recording process and experience fewer ?coasters? by incrementing the percent of the source disk ?tested for reading speed? before recording. We found the notation: ?amount of source data to measure? being used in the programs dialog somewhat complicated, however.

By enabling the relevant check-box, the program will measure read speed versus write speed before actually writing to a disc. The amount of source data to be measured is adjustable from 25% to a full 100%, in 4 steps.

Unfortunately, this option does not apply to BurnProof or JustLink enabled CD recorders when the relevant option is checked on. In our opinion, the user should be able to judge by himself whether a chosen recording speed is too high for a particular recording job and be able to resort to a lower speed, even if his recorder is able to gracefully recover from a buffer underrun situation by using anyone of the above technologies.

We like programs offering this option, as it is known (at least to some experts) that linking adjacent sectors on a CD by using either one of the available buffer underrun protection technologies introduces increased locally C1/C2 errors. (Avoiding this type of errors has always been the ?holy grail? of CD recording (and optical, and magnetic) technology research and development.)

In the same pane you can also select whether the recording speed will be lowered just after a Buffer Under Run error occurs during testing.

What seems to be a particularly interesting feature of NTI Maker 2000 pro is the option offered for verifying the recorded disk files versus the original source data. Right after the writing process, the program is able to check the quality of the resultant disk, comparing sector-by-sector the files recorded on the CD against the original source data. The comparison takes of course several minutes for a 650MB-long compilation, but our belief is that it?s well worthy.

This was a long-awaited feature by many users and it is being now offered by some commercial packages.

It is also possible to compare complete folders recorded onto a disk with respect to the folders on the hard disk or other medium.

It would be desirable next versions of this (or other applications) to offer the following features as well.

  1. Comparison of ISO track-images with respect to recorded tracks both on a sector-by-sector and file-by-file basis. What we would like to see is essentially the incorporation of the WinImage shareware right into a recording application.
  2. Full file-by-file comparison of the recorded files against the original, but this time performed from a different CD-ROM. This would apply during a period of time less stressing on the rotor/head of the recorder and allow an extended period of problem-free recording. In this case, the exact location of the original files should be determined by using the .CDM file consisting of the particular compilation information, as saved from the program itself.

In the ?CD Copy? option pane you can force the program to ignore medium errors from a source CD. The software will ignore any damaged files during CD reading and will continue recording skipping to the next readable files or sectors. This is useful for copying from scratched and other non-repairable media, but should be used with caution. Some files might not be copied during recording when this options is checked on, but might be otherwise possible to copy them by cleaning the originals or trying a more capable reader. In such a case the user might be left with the impression that he has a perfect CD copy when this is absolutely not the case. The only remedy is to read carefully the displayed messages or always perform a full disk comparison against the original.

Finally, in the ?Advanced? option pane, you can select the size of the small files to be cached before recording. When making a data CD, any file that its size is less than this adjustable value (0KB to ?All files?, in increments of about 64KB); will be cached in the directory specified above for the program cache buffer before recording to the CD.


3. Copying a CD

Copying a CD

This part of our review will be of particular interest to those making regular copies of their purchased CDs, be it in the form of a PC application, a game or just an audio CD.

CD Maker 2000 Pro users will find it very easy to copy a CD on a sector-by-sector basis. First, select the ?CD Copy? option in the main program window. The packaging says ?Easy as 1-2-3?, but for most functions only two steps are required:) In the ?CD Copy? menu window the buttons on the left navigate the user between the functions in ?STEP 1? and ?STEP 2?. In STEP 1 you select the source CD drive, as well as the target (destination) CD recorder. An available check-box allows users to cache the entire source CD onto the hard disk before starting the burning process. This might be a helpful option when the source drive offers a poor data stream, or the original disk is in scratched or otherwise poor condition.

STEP 2 has to do with the writing options. You can select among 3 ways to proceed: Simulating (Test), write or both. You choose the speed and the number of copies you want to make. Moreover, the advanced settings offer the option of choosing among 3 recording methods: track-at-once (TAO), session-at-once (SAO), disc-at-once (DAO), or the default "smart decision," which lets the program decide by itself. A blue check mark next to one of these user-defined options indicates the program's preference in case you wonder. This is an especially handy feature when you decide to manually adjust the program-settings.

Let?s say here few words about these burning methods. Track-at-once (TAO) is the oldest recording method. It was used (long time ago:) when the firmwares of the drives did not allow many sophisticated fine-tunings of recording. Under TAO, many types of disks cannot be created. This essentially resulted to a copy-prevention mechanism of early drive users.

Session-at-once (SAO) and disk-at-once (DAO) are essentially the same recording method. In the SAO case the disk is left open, in DAO the recording of additional sessions/tracks is prohibited. SAO should be the preferred method whenever applicable. If the user wants to write-protect the disk then he might choose the DAO method.

Under a modern PC configuration, TAO should not be among a user?s choices, unless there is some particular testing or experimental need.

Moreover, there is another more powerful recording method, the so-called RAW mode under the MMC-1 specifications. As this method is only useful for backing-up copy protected disks or for making custom disk formats, no one of the mainstream recording applications offers support for it. It would take a long (perhaps a very long) explanation if we would like to go into the full technical (and commercial) details and implications here, so we restrain ourselves to come back to this into a full-featured technical review in the near future.

According the built-in choices of CD Maker 2000 Pro, after performing a series of tests under many conditions on several recorders, we can not argue that the selected options are the wisest possible, especially if one takes into account that almost every modern recorder supports the SAO method.

Finally, by pressing the ?Start? button the burning process initializes. A dialog box displays a progress meter and the estimated remaining time. A second meter displays the amount of data stored in the cache as the burning process goes on. A dialog pops up after the disc is finished, writing "CD is recorded successfully," and displaying a small trophy. A nice relaxation for the user, especially when media prices are high, as (allegedly) will be the case in a few months period from now...

 

Creating a CD-ROM

During the first step you select the files or folders that you wish to add to the CD in the ?Explorer? pane (similar to the windows explorer). Then you simply drag and drop the selected items onto the ?Data Track Layout?, just  below it.

The whole process is very similar to the way other recording applications work. Any user switching from one of them should be right from the beginning familiar both with the concepts and the interface.

The Data CD properties window allows you to select the ?File System? and the ?Data Format? options and set the Volume and Date&Time information.

You choose the target CD-R drive from the available target drive list and then you go to Step 2, where you can adjust the writing options, exactly as described in the Copy CD procedure above.

During our tests we didn't notice any particular problems. The BurnProof and JustLink ?anti-coaster? technologies supported by CD Maker 2000 on our testing devices made the recording process easy, smooth and reliable.

We expect the same will apply to drives supporting the ?Safe Burn? technology when they ship in the near future, assuming the NTI programmers will add support for it into future programs upgrades!

However, we noticed here the lack of any ?overburning? support capabilities. We might suggest to the NTI programmers to add this very useful feature into some of the next program updates. This is now offered by some competitive packages and is one widely demanded option from the users, as it helps them extend their recording compilations by a marginal amount of storage in some cases were using a larger capacity disk is not available or desired.

We should point out that overburning by itself might imply more troubleshooting issues for the programmers of recording applications and the engineers of drives. Overburning might result to more unread disks and coasters. Consequently, we believe this feature should be offered and used only under the user discretion.

At the time of ?finalizing? this review we were informed that this feature will be added in an upcoming software upgrade.

We also noticed that once the recording process has been started, there is no way to interrupt it. Although such an action would intentionally render the media unusable, this might be useful in case something unexpected has happened and the user wants to stop recording. For example during a ?panic shutdown? or reboot situation.

We checked the software?s capability to create an ISO 9660 CD Image file. The source file contained 400MB of data coming from the original ?Windows 2000 Server? distribution. The drive we used for reading was the TEAC CD-W516EB v1.0A. It took the program almost 6 minutes to complete the ?image? file. The result could be better, since another competing CD-R software gave us an approximately 1.5 minutes lower reading time.

According to the program makers, this is a double buffering issue and an upcoming upgrade will cope with it. We hope we will be able to verify this ourselves when we are offered the opportunity to test it.


4. Creating a Video CD

Creating a Video CD

Following the same easy method of drag-and-drop, one should move the MPEG-1 (.mpg) files from the Explorer Pane to the ?Video Track Layout? pane. The target drive and the Video CD properties (Album, Volume and Date&Time settings) chosen during ?Step 2? are the same as in the case of a data disk.

The same step also finishes the writing process.

We noticed that CD Maker 2000 does not support AVI to MPEG-1 format encoding.

Anyway, according to our opinion an expert user should always use a full-featured MPEG-1 encoding application (such as the TMPEG or Panasonic encoding applications). This way he will have full control over the full encoding options and quality of the result.

Creating Mixed-Mode and CD Extra discs

What?s different here is that we must follow the full 3-step procedure. In the Mixed-Mode CD procedure you first create the ?Data Track Layout?, following the usual drag-and-drop procedure from the data files in the upper program pane. In ?Step 2? you create the Audio CD Layout, acting in the same way as during custom audio CD creation below. Finally in step 3 you write the CD. The CD created this way contains one session. The first track is a data track, the other tracks are audio tracks. The first track is readable only by PC CD-ROM drives, the other tracks are both visible and readable by consumer CD players and CD-ROM?s as well. (This format was mainly used by older games.)

In the case of a CD Extra compilation, you proceed again as in the Mixed-Mode case but the CD contains at least two sessions. The first holds the audio and the other(s) the data. (This format is newer than the format of a mixed-mode disk.) When a user makes his own disks, he should always prefer a CD Extra disk.

Audio issues

NTI CD Maker 2000 stays side-by-side to the competition when it comes to fulfilling the needs of both an audiophile and a casual user. It supports audio extraction, decoding of MP3 files to CD Audio compatible tracks (WAV files) and encoding of CD-DA tracks or WAV files into MP3 files. As you convert WAV's to MP3?s you can also set the compression rate (quality) you expect to get, which can be up to 320Kbps. All you have to do is to right click one of the CD tracks on the Explorer and choose Convert Audio Format. Nothing simpler:)

The software can also access a CDDB online database to automatically name tracks from many popular CD?s. What is not encouraging here is the fact that NTI CD Maker 2000 does not support the Microsoft?s WMA (Windows Media Audio) format. (An upcoming upgrade will, we have been told...)

Creating an audio CD is easy and the procedure is almost familiar. Drag and drop the selected audio files from the Explorer window to the ?Audio Track Layout Pane. Then you can set the Text Information from the Audio CD properties dialog:

In our case the Internet CDDB access feature did not work, due to an exceeding license issue which we expect will have been resolved by NTI by the time you read this.

The software also supports a ?sound optimization? option. This option applies only to WAV files. You can select between the ?Remove noise? and ?Remove clicks and pops? options or both. The user is offered a preview option after applying this filter: This means you can listen to the filtered WAV file and decide whether you will keep them or not.

There is something we missed here, along with all other recording software we have used. The inability to normalize individual .WAV or .MP3 files. We encourage the NTI marketing and programming people to offer a sound normalization function. This would equalize the sound level of tracks coming from different sources, delivering a smooth audio result. (Again, WMA and normalization support is expected to be included in an upcoming upgrade offer.)

In Step 2 the program starts and proceeds offering the same functionality as mentioned above concerning the other CD formats.

CD Maker 2000 Pro also supports real-time recording of live audio from a microphone or another source directly connected to a soundcard directly. This means that audio is burned in TAO mode right as it comes out from the soundcard. The process is simple: in Step 1 you select the audio source from the Input Source List. Then you connect the audio source device to the microphone or line-in jack of your system?s soundcard and select the target drive from the ?Target Drive List?.

In Step 2 you are about to start recording of a live audio track. A new recording window loads on screen and you just press the start button and the recording begins. Meanwhile you should start the audio source as well, (i.e., start the player or speak into the microphone).

To stop the recording process, click the Stop button. What is important is to close the session after finishing recording, in order to be able to hear the recorded sound onto another CD-ROM. This way, a series of audio tracks are recorded on a disk. There is a 2 second pause among adjacent tracks and the disk. Be careful, however, not to close the session and then continue recording, as in this case any session other than the first one will be inaudible in consumer CD players.


5. Other features

Other features

The program also offers the usual suite of utilities such as CD-RW erase, CD Drive properties utility, and Disc Info. Stand-alone file and CD comparison is a very useful tool not found on every other recording application.

As described above, this tool allows a user to compare two files or CDs easily by selecting them, as shown below:

The following Log file comes out after pressing ?OK?. Shown are the differences among the two files or CDs. In this test-case, we compared two files and the results showed just a difference in the ?video CD-properties? file (not found).

The utility can be very useful in CD copying as you can compare the original data in the hard disk with the recorded data on the CD. The only limitation in this case is that all files should reside in a single folder, or the root of a drive.

You can erase a CD-RW by choosing the quick or the full erasing options. The quick mode is, unfortunately, applicable only to drives that support this functionality. This is due to restrictions of some drive themselves, not a program fault.

Quick erasing applies to the disk TOC contents only and the procedure takes just a few minutes. The full erasing option erases all written areas of a disk and takes several minutes, according to the supported speed of the writer and the disk itself. It took us 2 minutes to fully erase a HS CD-RW disk.

The ?Disc Info & Tools? utility gathers many features in just one window. Among them is the ?CD Info?, some buttons that allow users to read a CD track, erase the CD-RW (if inserted), read the CD-Text of an audio CD and close an open session of a TAO recorded medium.

The ?CD Drive? property window provides the general CD Drive information, its reading/writing capabilities and the audio extraction options. You can choose among the default reading speed for audio extraction, the best quality speed and the fastest speed. Default reading speed equals to the current reading speed set. Best quality reading speed allows the program to determine the fastest possible speed providing the best audio extraction quality. The fastest speed choice will adjust the reading speed according to the maximum drive capabilities.

We believe this set of options is sufficient for basic CD audio copy. Of course, more advanced and demanding users have always the option to use a more specialized ripping application, such as EAC.


6. Packet Writing - Conclusions

Packet Writing

The CD Maker 2000 Pro package includes the ?FileCD? program, solely provided for packet-writing use. FileCD uses ISO 9660 as the main file system structure, with UDF space allocation and defect management and Packet Writing.

FileCD users can add files incrementally to a CD-RW disc, delete files or folders from a disc randomly, and rename files or folders already written to the disc. Moreover, discs written by FileCD can be read back by any CD-RW drive with an ISO 9660 compatible operating system.

The preparation for writing files to a CD starts with CD formatting (an analogy from the floppy-disk era). You can choose between the Quick format and the Full format option. The ?Quick format? option can be used for reformatting an erasable disc. ?Full format? can be used for blank discs. You can also verify the disk after formatting, a somewhat time consuming process which, however, offers an extra level of protection against defective media. Before proceeding with the formatting process you may give a label name to the disc. After formatting you can easily add files to it. Just drag and drop the selected files from the windows explorer to the FileCD window. You can also rename and delete the files by simply using your mouse.

We did not test the relevant features for recorded-once disks, as we think this is a rarely used case.

Several enhancements, such as support for other manufacturers? UDF formats, are expected to be added to the basic program?s functionality in the near future.

Conclusions

NTI?s CD Maker 2000 proved to be a very good general purpose recording application. Almost every feature a normal user will ever need is right a click away from his/her mouse. Some tools and add-ons further enhance the program?s functionality.

The application?s performance can be judged according to the options chosen, their usability, and the pre-recording time spent for ?housekeeping? and verification tasks. In this latter area CD Maker 2000 lagged a few seconds when it came to pre-mastering data disks. We can not offer, however, at this time a definite judgment at this particular issue. We intend to offer our readers a full fledged comparison in this era among several well known recording applications in the near future.

Recording gurus might miss a few options, but surely they will find their way by using specialized applications or even develop their own (if not done this already:)



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