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