New CD/DVD Technology Is A Slow Burn

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There's a new way to print visible information on recordable CDs or DVDs, and it might be just the thing for you if your business stores music, videos, or data on disc.

Actually, the technology was "new" when it was first announced by Hewlett-Packard in January 2004 at that year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES). At the time, HP said special "LightScribe" CD-R and DVD-R drives would ship by summer 2004. The extra coating layer required for the process was said to add only 10 cents per disc to the consumer's cost. All this was duly reported by the computer press as fact.

In reality, the cutting-edge LightScribe drives and disks are just now appearing on the market, and at substantially higher prices than claimed. They still may be well worth it for you. But the full story is an interesting and cautionary tale about the challenges of pushing a new standard out into a jaded world.

Writing On Discs Without Labels Or Ink

What is it that LightScribe drives and discs do? They allow you to "print" professional-looking fonts and images on the surface of recordable CDs and DVDs without ink (which can run) or sticky labels (which can loosen inside a high-speed drive).

LightScribe drives. The special CD and DVD drives that can accomplish this use a common red-light laser that's been modified to burn images on the "label" side of a disc as well as writing bytes on the "data" side. After you record the data, you flip the disc over and burn an image on the other side, using the same drive.

Coated CDs and DVDs. The only recordable media that will accept images from a LightScribe drive are special discs with a chemical coating embedded beneath the thin surface layer. This coating cannot run or flake off, because it's actually "in" the disc, not "on" the disc.

Print and play. Because LightScribe discs (see photo, below) are standard CD-R or DVD-R media in every other way, they can be read or played in almost any computer or entertainment system. The LightScribe drives, similarly, can read from and write to ordinary discs, not just the specially coated ones.

LightScribe disc This all sounds great. But a better mousetrap doesn't sell itself. As many innovative companies have learned the hard way over the years, it's not the best technology that wins -- it's the best marketed technology that wins.

A similar disk-writing gimmick fell into obscurity after it was introduced two years ago for exactly that reason.

Yamaha developed a CD burner that used a technique called DiscT@2 (Disc Tattoo). Unfortunately, it burned images onto the data side of a disc, not the label side, which was confusing. Even worse, the printed images used up some of the storage capacity of the disc. All that could have been rationalized away -- but the disc-writing software that shipped with the device was so clunky that no one ever took the technology seriously.

Selling A Better Way To Label

As the new kid on the block, LightScribe doesn't have the failings of DiscT@2. But it's up against fairly low-tech competitors that have some serious advantages: they are cheap, simple, and the images they produce can be quite attractive:

Felt pens. Everyone who's ever burned a CD or DVD has, at one time or another, written a line or two on the label side with a marker. This costs almost nothing and the writing is fairly durable.

Working in LightScribe's favor, however, is the fact that most people don't make beautiful cursive scripts like John Hancock but scrawl more like third graders. Not very professional for that business presentation disc, eh? Even worse, marker ink can dissolve and ruin the data on a disc if the wrong pen is used.

Adhesive labels. Slightly more professional than handwriting is printing your own labels and sticking them on your CDs and DVDs. Almost any laser or inkjet printer can print on label stock, so it's fairly easy to get a good image.

Here again, reality weighs in for LightScribe. A label that's off-center or has air bubbles can interfere with the rotation of a drive mechanism. In higher-speed drives, a label can even peel off the surface of a disc -- which is none too good for the disc or the drive.

Direct-to-CD printing. When labeling small quantities of discs, the best look to date has been available using direct-to-CD printers. These units, available from more than a dozen makers, place ink directly onto the label side of a disc. Special "printable" discs are required, but these are widely available.

Because these printers generally lay down color images, and LightScribe images are only monochrome, direct-to-CD devices would appear to be the stiffest barriers to the upstart challenger. But LightScribe has its own advantages, which may be decisive.

Will LightScribe's Advantages Be Enough?

LightScribe may, in fact, come to dominate CD and DVD labeling (for small-quantity uses, not mass-market discs) because of several inherent advantages:

Coolness factor. LightScribe discs are clearly imaged inside the disc rather than on the disc. This lends such discs a put-together feeling, despite the lack of color imaging.

Burn on the run. If your laptop is properly equipped, you can both burn and then attractively label CDs or DVDs with the portable's built-in LightScribe CD/DVD burner. There's no need to also pack a separate CD/DVD printer for your travels. And there's no cost for ink consumables, such as pricey cartridges or ribbons.

Durability. Unlike inking systems that place images on the surface of CDs and DVDs, LightScribe images can't scratch off or run, which is a problem with some inkjet formulations when they get wet.

Rewriteability. Discs written once with a LightScribe drive can actually be placed back in the drive and blank areas written to a second or third time, according to Kent Henscheid, HP's marketing and business development manager for LightScribe. Position marks in the central hub of the discs allow the laser to precisely write additional lines of information, he explains -- something that's practically impossible with direct-to-CD printers.

Getting Your Hands On LightScribe

Henscheid admits that LightScribes drives and media have taken longer to come to market than HP expected. But the products are real, and deliveries should be widely available by February or March for those items that aren't on shelves today:

HP personal computers have offered built-in LightScribe drives since Jan. 5, Henscheid says. Versions of the HP Pavilion, HP Media Center, and Compaq Presario computers come configured with the devices installed. To find specific models, see hpshopping.com and search for "LightScribe."

External burners are promised from such manufacturers as BenQ, Philips, and LaCie. The latter company offers a multi-format DVD burner compatible with LightScribe for $199 USD (for February delivery).

LightScribe discs should be forthcoming soon from Philips, Imation, Memorex, TDK, and others. Verbatim says it'll have LightScribe 8x DVD+Rs in February, and I've already seen the company's LightScribe 52x CD-Rs in one store for 80 cents each in a pack of 10. That's double the price of printable 52x CD-R discs, which are available from the same outlet for only 40 cents each in a 25-pack. But 40 cents is a small enough difference that people may well pay it to get the portability and durability of LightScribe discs.


If LightScribe disks could be inscribed in full color, or something approaching it, they'd be so clearly superior that they'd push ordinary recordable CDs and DVDs out of the consumer market within a year or two. At the 2005 CES, mysteriously enough, a source tantalizingly told me that color LightScribe discs would be available within six months.

Unfortunately, HP's Henscheid said LightScribe discs with a colored background (a pink disc with black printing on it, for example) might appear later this year. But not colored printing.

"Is it an insurmountable problem?" asked Henscheid rhetorically in a telephone interview. "No. Is it a challenging design task? Very much so." Among other things, the single laser beam in the typical LightScribe drive would have to accurately hit microscopic four-color granules that would somehow be placed on the coating layer in a precise grid.

Even without full color, I believe LightScribe offers advantages that can be exploited by many companies that create their own CDs and DVDs. LightScribe drives aren't for mass-media productions. (For one thing, writing the entire surface of a disc can take more than 15 minutes, although smaller images print faster). But your firm's customized productions or recordings, delivered on CDs or DVDs, might be perfect candidates.

For information on providers of compatible drives, discs, and software, see the Looking for LightScribe Web page.

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