When the first PC-based CD players appeared back in the days of Windows 3.1, installing and configuring the hardware was difficult, and CD systems were expensive. Today, however, recordable (and re-recordable) CD players are inexpensive, readily available, and easy to install, and although 650MB of space might seem a bit paltry in these days of mammoth-gigabyte hard disks, recordable CDs are still an excellent way to back up important data, such as digital media. The latest tools also let you make your own audio "mix" CDs, which you can use in any standard CD player—in your car, home stereo, or portable CD player. Let's look at some of the available tools and capabilities.
On the PC, Windows XP and Windows Me ship with versions of Windows Media Player (WMP) that let you easily create audio-mix CDs; XP also lets you work in a rudimentary fashion with CD-R and CD-RW discs. For audio CDs and many backups, you'll want to work with CD-R rather than CD-RW because you can't play CD-RW discs in standard audio CD players, and CD-RW media tends to be less resilient than CD-R media. On the other hand, CD-R discs are one-write only, so you'll want to get it right the first time.
Creating audio CDs in XP or Windows Me is fairly straightforward. In WMP, select the music you want to copy to a CD in the player's Media Library and choose File then Copy to CD in WMP 7.1 (in Windows Me), or Copy to CD or Device in Media Player for Windows XP (MPXP). The MPXP interface is much nicer than the WMP 7.1 interface; you can work with the files directly in the player. It's also faster: The CD-writing capabilities in Windows Me are limited to 2X speeds, regardless of your hardware's speed. Note that you can add as many songs as you want to a blank CD-R, until the CD is full, and that you can come back later and add songs to a CD that isn't full. Most CD-Rs will hold 74 to 80 minutes of music.
Creating a data backup—only possible natively in XP—is likewise simple, although it isn't obvious. Select the files you want to archive, right-click, and choose Send To, then CD-RW Drive (or whichever recordable CD drive you have). Or use your standard drag-and-drop skills to copy files to the recordable CD drive. Again, you can keep adding files until the CD is full. For data, most CDs have 650MB to 700MB of capacity.
If Windows' built-in capabilities aren't compelling enough, or if you have special recording needs, it's time to turn to a commercial solution. Two standouts exist today: Roxio EZ CD Creator and Ahead Nero. Of the two, Roxio's solution is more user friendly and offers a wide range of features. Savvy users, however, consider Nero more powerful because of its advanced features and extensible interface. Ahead Nero has released many free and low-cost add-ins for its product, including MP3 encoding and DVD- and Video CD (VCD)-writing capabilities.
On the Macintosh, the situation is similar to the PC. Serious digital media users will want to turn to Mac OS X 10.1, which arrived last week (I'll write a full review for the next issue of Connected Home EXPRESS). In addition to increasing performance and adding numerous user-requested features, Mac OS X 10.1 adds some cool digital-media features, including drag-and-drop CD and DVD-R creation. And using iTunes, any Mac OS 9.x or 10.x user can create audio-mix CDs in a manner similar to that in MPXP on the PC: Simply select the music you want to burn from the iTunes Library and click the Burn button, which resembles a radioactive symbol.
Users of earlier versions of the Mac OS can also turn to commercial alternatives. The best of the lot is Toast, from Roxio of EZ CD Creator fame. With Toast, you can turn iMovies into VCDs that are playable on any DVD player, make data backups, and work with a far wider range of CD-R and CD-RW hardware than iTunes supports. So Toast might be a viable option, even for an OS X 10.1 user, if the built-in capabilities don't address your needs.
Whichever platform you use, solutions are available to backup important data and make audio-mix CDs and Video CD movies. Now that we store our memories on the PC, this capability is all the more important.