How Can I Burn a CD?

Originally published 04 April 2000 as a Mac Daniel column for Low End Mac.
Rated "Best of Mac Daniel" (top 15 most-read columns) from six months after its publication until it was pulled from the site.

Q: I have a Mac with a CD-ROM drive. Can I use it to write to ("burn") CDs?

A: In a word, no. CD-ROM stands for compact disc, read-only memory. They key word in there is "read-only." You can't write to a read-only disc, and you can't write to a CD without a special CD-R or CD-RW drive.

A CD-R (CD-Recordable) drive takes special blank CDs that, with the software that (usually) accompanies the drive (such as Adaptec's Toast), can be written to (or "burned," in techno-geek-speak) once and read as many times as you wish in most CD-ROM drives. These CD-R discs hold from about 720 to 780 MB per disc (or about 72 to 80 minutes of music, if you want to make your own music CDs).

There are a couple of drawbacks to CD-R. One is that they're write-once media. If the burner's buffer is exhausted (likely due to your computer not transferring data fast enough), you'll have a nice silver plastic coaster. Coasters can also result from using poor-quality media — or from trying to burn media at a higher speed than it's rated for or at a higher speed than your computer can handle.

The other big drawback is that some older CD-ROM drives can't read CD-Rs. Commercially pressed CD-ROM discs (or music CDs) reflect about 85 percent of the incident light, which is plenty for the lower sensitivity of the laser pickup heads in older CD drives. CD-Rs, on the other hand, reflect at most 50 percent, and sometimes as low as 30 percent, of the incident light. The laser pickups in some older drives aren't sensitive enough to detect the variations in the data surface of the disc and thus can't read the CD-R you just burned.

CD-RW (CD-ReWritable) drives can burn CD-R discs in normal write-once mode, or they can burn CD-RW discs (a special type of media which is different from CD-R media and somewhat more expensive), which can be written to many times, but are readable only in newer CD-ROM drives.

As with CD-R, CD-RW discs reflect much less incident light than commercially pressed CDs, but CD-RW discs only reflect somewhere around 15 to 20 percent of the incident light. This isn't nearly enough for the laser pickups in most any CD-ROM drive with a speed of less than 4x to pick up, and many 4x drives won't read CD-RWs either. If you need to share some data with a person who has an older CD-ROM drive, CD-R, as opposed to CD-RW, is definitely your best bet. The main advantage of CD-RW over CD-R is you can rewrite the data on a CD-RW disc up to 1000 times or so. If you're doing backups, this could work out to be less expensive in the long run, because you can use fewer pieces of media (most backup experts recommend a three-piece system where you cycle every three days) and simply overwrite the old data.

Now that you know the respective drawbacks and advantages of CD-R and CD-RW, you probably want to know what it costs. You can get an internal IDE CD-R drive (if your Mac uses IDE for its internal drives; most don't) for as little as $150 if you shop around, but be warned that such a cheap drive probably won't have Mac drivers or any software bundled with it, which will add $100 or so to the cost. External SCSI is probably your best bet; internal SCSI would work but only a few Macs have enough front-accessible bays for you to retain your old CD-ROM drive (very useful for copying from one CD to another) and install a new CD-R or -RW drive.

If you have one of the newer Macs without built-in SCSI and don't have a SCSI card, there are also USB CD-RW drives. APS (see below) makes a good one, as do Sony and QPS. Iomega has also recently introduced one. Be forewarned that USB drives won't work much faster than 4x due to the low bandwidth of USB. As of this writing, very few (QPS makes one) FireWire CD-R or -RW drives are available, but I haven't seen much information on them. MacInTouch has a slew of reader reports on the Que! drives, though, if you want to sift through them.

For PowerBook G3 Series owners, there are a few expansion bay options for CD-R/RW drives. I'm not going to cover them here for one simple reason: the WallStreet machines get hot enough as it is, and they don't need a CD burner inside them making matters worse. The Lombard and Pismo machines, while the heat issues have been lessened greatly, still would probably be better off if you didn't try to cook them from inside. If you want information about the expansion bay options, check out any of the major Mac news sites — there have been several announcements within the past week.

Most good drives come with bundled software for writing to CD-R and/or CD-RW, such as Toast or Discribe. I recommend against getting a cheap drive without bundled software because the odds are pretty good that you will spend the difference on getting the software you need. (The Finder doesn't yet support accessing CD-R and -RW devices as normal storage devices, so you can't just buy a drive, hook it up, and drag files to it. You can do this with some third-party commercial software that gives the Finder this ability. Again, this probably won't come with a "cheap" drive.)

If you want a good CD burner, I recommend two things. First, don't skimp on media. Generic media is generally fine for up to about 4x speed, but beyond 4x, there have been reliability problems with most of the generic media I've encountered. And the faster you can get a disc burned, the happier you'll be.

Second, get a good CD-R or CD-RW drive. Yamaha mechanisms are great; Macworld has ranked them very highly in the reviews I've seen. APS Technology makes, in my opinion, the best cases in the industry. CD-R and -RW drives get really hot, and APS has probably the best cooling system of anyone out there. I personally think the best bet right now is the APS CD-RW Pro. It's an 8x4x24 Yamaha external SCSI mechanism in their Pro case, which means it can write CD-Rs at up to 8x speed (approximately 8-10 minutes to burn a full disc), CD-RWs at 4x speed (about 17-20 minutes for a full disc), and read CDs (of any type) at 24x speed.

I don't personally own one (yet, though this may soon be changing), but I've never heard anything negative about APS drives. Sorry, but I don't have a recommendation for a USB- or FireWire-based drive because I haven't yet seen enough information to make an informed recommendation.

copyright ©2000-2004 by Chris Lawson