Adaptec, Inc., founded in 1981, is perhaps best-known today for its SCSI host adapters and RAID controllers. However, in addition to hardware products, Adaptec also designs, develops and markets CD-Recordable (CD-R) software. Its software products include Easy CD Creator, WinOnCD, SoundStream, Toast, and Jam. Adaptec offers its software as standalone products as well as bundling its product with many CD-R drives. Adaptec's latest version of Easy CD Creator, Easy CD Creator 4 Deluxe touts itself as "quite simply the most powerful, easy to use CD-Recording Software ever developed." Included in the package are a multitude of utilities which allow you to create data and audio CDs, custom jewel case covers and CD labels, and even hard drive backups to CD. For the purposes of this review, we will focus mainly on the creation of data and audio CDs, although all aspects of this full-featured product will be examined.
The minimum system requirements for Easy CD Creator 4 Deluxe are Windows 95, 98 or NT 4.0/5.0, Pentium 166 Mhz, 32 MB ram, 55 MB hard disk space (although up to 270 MB may be used depending on your installation options), a CD-R or CD-ReWritable (CD-RW) drive, recordable or rewritable CDs, and an 800x600 display with 256 colors. In addition, you will need Internet access if you wish to use the Internet features. These include a file update searcher and online registration tools.
Two CDs come enclosed in the retail package. The main programs, Easy CD Creator Deluxe, DirectCD, and Take Two are available for installation from the main disc, while the second CD holds Special Edition versions of MGI Software's PhotoSuite II and VideoWave II, photo- and video-editing programs. A search of the install CD and MGI's website could not find the differences between the retail and SE versions, although in using the programs I noticed many features appeared to be grayed-out.
Installation is easy and straightforward, with options for choosing where to install the application. There are separate installations for Easy CD Creator Deluxe, DirectCD, and Take Two, so you may choose to selectively install (or uninstall) from these three options. Also, within the Easy CD Creator install, you can select or deselect the following: Easy CD Creator, Create CD Menu System, Jewel Case Creator, Liquid Music Player, PhotoRelay, Video Postcard Templates, and Web-Checkup. This type of flexibility in installation can come in very handy during reinstalls or if you do not wish to use a certain sub-program.
Prior to discussing the various sub-programs, it is important to define the various write methods.
Track-at-Once: With this method, data is written to the CD one track at a time. When a track is completed, the recording laser is stopped. Each time the recording laser is stopped, a gap is placed between the just-completed track and the upcoming track. Each gap between tracks typically takes up two seconds and is actually a part of the upcoming track.
Disc-at-Once: With this method, data is written to the CD in one operation without turning the recording laser on and off between tracks. This method also closes the CD in the same operation, write-protecting the disc. Once a disc is closed, no more data can be recorded to it.
Session-at-Once: This method is typically used for the CD Extra format, where audio tracks and a data track are combined in two sessions on the disc. The first session contains one or more audio tracks recorded in a single pass, followed by a second session of data written into a single track. The laser is turned off between the two sessions, creating a gap. Once the data session is completed, the disc is closed.
Create CD Menu: Launching the desktop shortcut icon or inserting a blank CD-R/CD-RW will bring up the Create CD Menu, which provides an easy, intuitive way to select the right program for your task at hand. Alternatively, you can individually launch each program via the Start Menu. Until you become familiar with the individual programs, it is best to use this menu, as it simplifies and speeds up your CD-creating process.
Easy CD Creator: The bulk of your time will probably be spent here. There is an Explorer-like interface that allows you to search all of your drives and add the folders or files you wish to copy to CD into the CD Layout window. Here you can choose to make an audio, data, or mixed-mode CD, as well as CD Extra and bootable CDs. You may also choose your writing format: Track-at-Once, Disc-at-Once, or Session-at-Once. Using the drag-and-drop interface, I successfully burned an archive CD of driver updates, which I then used to update the drivers in a seperate system that did not have Internet access. This is an extremely useful mode of file transfer when dealing with files that will not fit on a floppy, or files that would span multiple floppies. CDs created in this format are readable by virtually all CD-ROM drives. According to Adaptec's help menu, some drives may not be well-calibrated to read CD-R disks, and in some instances you may have better luck with certain brands of media. At this point it is worth mentioning that the help menu built into Easy CD Creator is extremely detailed and includes both basic help for those not technically inclined and more detailed help, including a searchable index. The Reference section and Glossary are invaluable to those wanting to learn the ins and outs of CD Recordable technology.
CD Copier: CD Copier can duplicate nearly any kind of CD. Simply enter the source and destination directories and press the Copy button. Ideally, this is done from a CD-ROM drive to a CD-R or CD-RW drive, but if you only have a single CD-R/RW, you must click on the "Advanced" tab and select Disc Copy. This copies the source CD to the hard disk of your choice. If you have more than one partition and have sufficient space, it is best to choose your fastest partition. Once the source CD is copied to your hard disk, CD Copier automatically ejects and asks you to place an empty recordable disc into your drive. Recording begins from the hard disk automatically. When the recording is finished, the CD is again automatically ejected for you. CD Copier defaults to Disc-at-Once writing method, so no gaps are placed between tracks. However, when duplicating an audio CD, any gaps between tracks will also be duplicated. Using CD Copier I easily copied a favorite audio CD using the Disc Copy option. To my ear, the duplicated CD sounded as good as the original. Note that in order to duplicate an audio CD, your CD drive must be capable of digital audio extraction (DAE).
CD Spin Doctor: Adaptec bundles an audio cable with the retail package of Easy CD Creator 4 Deluxe to allow you to connect your computer's soundcard with your stereo system. This is where Easy CD Creator can get really interesting-you can actually create custom audio CDs from your old vinyl LPs and cassettes via their Spin Doctor program. This can be an invaluable tool for those old collections that you just can't find on CD in the stores. Additionally, there are numerous recording options which allow you to clean the audio to reduce extraneous noise from, say, a heavily scratched LP; morph the audio through various effects, such as GenderBlender, Reverb and Concert Hall; detect silences and separate the audio into multiple tracks to keep an LP from being recorded as a single track; and balance the loudness of selected tracks when recording from multiple sources. Unfortunately, my stereo system does not have a turntable or cassette deck, so I could not test some of CD Spin Doctor's most interesting features. However, I was able to test the morphing options and found them amusing, if not personally useful. There is a Preview button that lets you listen to the various morphs in realtime, with slider bars to adjust, for example, the pitch in GenderBlender. However, during the preview process I found the program would completely shut down when I attempted to halt the preview or cancel out of the "Option Properties" page. Numerous attempts would produce the same result; it appears to be a bug in the program. A search of Adaptec's site failed to find a fix for this. The problem can be minor to extremely annoying, depending on how often you rely on the preview feature. If you don't use the cleaning or morphing effects, you won't be affected but I suspect many folks will want to at least try these out, and those who want to restore their LPs and old cassettes will want to implement Noise Filtering and Pop Removal. Previewing is necessary to fine-tune via the slider bars, but previewing is what causes the program to shut down when you halt the preview; thus, you need to remember where the slider bar was when you reload the program so you can set it without help of Preview, back out, and record your music. Hopefully Adaptec will address this problem in a timely manner.
Jewel Case Creator: The Jewel Case Creator program included in the Adaptec package is actually quite powerful and simple to use. There are 19 themes you can use to decorate the outside, inside, and spine of the jewel case as well as the CD itself. If you're not happy with any of them, you can create your own by importing graphics. Bitmap and JPEG formats are supported. Also included is a complimentary CD-Labeler by Hewlett Packard. Some assembly is required, but it works as advertised. The first label I pressed onto a disc was slightly off-center and created some vibration when playing in a CD player. The second time I was more careful and managed to press the label on nearly perfectly. It's not an ideal solution, but definitely gets the job done. Only four labels are included in the package.
Liquid Music Player: Bundled with Easy CD Creator 4 Deluxe is the Liquid Music Player by Liquid Audio, Inc. This is a program that lets you listen to streamed internet music clips, download and buy single Liquid Audio tracks, and purchase complete CDs via snail mail. You can also use the Liquid Music Player to make custom Liquid Audio track lists, which you can then record to CD-R. A visit of www.liquidaudio.com showed a largely uninteresting collection of downloadable clips which often required visits to local radio station websites for download. I had difficulty in finding many of these downloadable clips and eventually lost interest in the whole process. However, many are saying that the future of radio is the Internet, so it may only be a matter of time before something like Liquid Audio becomes a new standard.
Photo Relay: This program is used to create slideshows, web photo albums and video postcards. There are various options that allow you to aquire images from a Twain device (eg. scanner, digital camera), sort, print, and send to CD. Integration is such that Easy CD Creator will automatically start when you are ready to move your slideshow, web album or video postcard to CD. During the writing process, an executable (.exe) file is created on the CD which, when run, starts the selected process automatically. You must use a completely blank CD-R because PhotoRelay writes a new session every time you create a slideshow, web album or video postcard, rendering any other sessions that may have been on the CD-R unviewable. This is an excellent way to preserve your family photographs permanently to CD, provided you have a scanner to convert your photos to digital format.
Session Selector: When creating or working with multisession CDs (CDs with more than one recorded area of data and/or audio tracks), you normally can only access the last session written to the CD. This is where Session Selector comes into play. Session Selector lets you choose which session to make accessible, using the standard Windows Explorer interface. If you regularly record multisession CDs, this is a very handy tool to give you access to all sessions.
Sound Editor: Sound Editor is similar to sound editors that come bundled with many of today's soundcards. You can cut, rearrange, and add effects to WAVE files, and then save the results of your work. There is a graphic representation of the WAVE file you are working on, easing the process of getting to the exact point in the sound you want to work on. Although this is a very basic program, it can be very useful or just fun to work with in, for example, editing or creating Windows sound effects. If you have a microphone, you may also record your own sounds, edit, and save in WAVE format.
Video CD Creator: Also included with Easy CD Creator 4 Deluxe is a Video CD creator, which creates a video layout (a file that contains the play items and sequences that you wish to record), then records it to a blank CD via Easy CD Creator. Video CDs can be played in video CD players, Compact Disc-Interactive (CD-I) players, and most DVD players. The video clips you use must be in MPEG-1 format. If you have video clips in other formats, such as AVI, QT or MOV, you must use a third-party converter to change them to MPEG-1 format. According to Video CD Creator's help file, a common use for this program is in kiosk presentations, where frequent playback can wear out VHS tapes. A video CD is much more durable for this type of application.
Web Checkup: Web Checkup is simply a utility that when run, searches the Internet for any updates to your Easy CD Creator software. If updates are found, the process of downloading and installing the update is automated.
DirectCD: DirectCD formats your CD-R discs in a file system based on UDF v1.5, which is a standard that allows CD-Rs to be read to and accessed just as a standard floppy or hard disk drive. In this format, data is written with packet writing technology, a method of recording in much smaller chunks than disc-at-once or track-at-once technologies allow. With a DirectCD-formatted CD-R, you can use Windows Explorer to drag and drop files and folders to the disc, as well as any software application (such as MS Word) that can read from and write to a drive letter.
When DirectCD is installed, a tray icon is placed into your system tray. I could not find a way of disabling or removing this icon without either completely uninstalling DirectCD or using a third-party program to remove it via the registry. Even when not in use, it consumes about 2 MB of system memory. For those who require a clean tray and complete control over their system, this may be a turn-off.
In order for DirectCD to work, it must recognize your CD-R drive and be compatible with it. When I first installed the program, my CD-R drive was not recognized, and thus would not allow me to use DirectCD. However, a simple file update via Web Checkup remedied the situation. Once my drive was recognized, the DirectCD Wizard started. This wizard checks the status of the CD in your drive, prepares the disc so you can read and write to it, and manages the final data when ejecting a DirectCD disc. Simply formatting a disc to DirectCD format consumed 33 MB of space. Once the disc is formatted, you may treat it as any other drive in your system. DirectCD locks the disc in your drive to prevent accidental ejects. Because of the formatting required, DirectCD discs are not readable in other CD-ROM drives. When ejecting a DirectCD disc, you are given the option of leaving it as-is, or converting it to ISO 9660 format, which will close the session and allow it to then be read from any CD-ROM drive. If you choose to leave the disc as-is, it will only be readable on CD-R/CD-RW drives running DirectCD. If you format to ISO 9660, the disc will be readable on standard CD-ROM drives. The downside of this is that formatting to ISO 9660 consumes another 22 MB of space for the first session and 13 MB for each additional session. As you can see, it's best to use as much of the disc as possible in a single DirectCD session or else you start filling much of the disc with format conversions, leaving less space for your data. It is worth noting that CD-RW discs do NOT support the ISO format; only CD-R discs.
When using CD-RW discs, the formatting process takes about 25-45 minutes to complete. When formatting a CD-RW disc that has been previously formatted, you can choose either Quick format or Full format. Quick format takes a few minutes to complete writing the DirectCD file structures to the disc, but not verifying the physical condition of the disc. Full format can take up to an hour to complete, since it configures the disc to receive data, verifies the physical condition of the disc surface, and writes the DirectCD file system structures to the disc. If using CD-RW discs, you also have the choice of enabling data compression on the disc. Once a disc is formatted with compression, it can only be written to on other drives in other systems if DirectCD 3.0 is installed on the system.
DirectCD includes a CD-RW Eraser, a simple, intuitive program that takes about 1-2 minutes to erase a CD-RW disc, and ScanDisc, a utility very similar to Windows' ScanDisk that searches for and repairs errors in the disc sectors.
Take Two: Take Two is a nifty imaging/backup utility that works with your CD-R drive. Upon launching the utility, you select the source of your backup and the destination, and then you start the backup process. It's very simple. You can selectively back up partitions or backup your entire system. Take Two automatically calculates how many CD-Rs you'll need and prompts you to place empty CD-Rs into the drive when necessary. The process is very automated. The speed of the backups and restores depend on the write and read speed of your CD-R drive. In my experience with an 8X CD-R drive, imaging a single, half-full 2 GB partition took nearly 9 minutes. Because Take Two compresses the image as it writes, it was able to fit the entire partition into 600 MB on the CD-R, and it wrote right at the drive's maximum 8X speed. Take Two uses DirectCD's packet-writing technology and UDF v1.5 file system, so you can use Explorer to access your compressed backup. Even though the backup is compressed, your files are all there and fully accessible, just like they are on your hard disk. You can even selectively copy from CD-R backup to hard disk. Nice!
In order to do a complete system backup, you must create an Emergency Boot Disk. This process is also fully automated. All you need is a blank floppy disk and the ability to follow simple directions. Depending on the size of your system (all of your hard disk partitions), you will need anywhere from one to twenty or more CD-R discs. This might take awhile, but it is a very simple process. In fact, about the only negative I could find with this imaging process is the relatively slow speed. Even at 8X, you will still be limited to less than 1.2 MB/sec writes. If you only have a 4X burner, you'll be shuffling along at 600 kb/sec. When restoring, you boot your system off of the boot disk, which contains all necessary DOS drivers for your CD-R drive, insert your first CD-R backup disc, and start restoring. Because the process involves imaging, your system is restored exactly as you backed it up, including all partition information for your drives. Overall it is an excellent tool for backup, although it might be more useful for backing up selective files and folders for users with extremely large, filled hard disks.
Adaptec has certainly come up with a comprehensive package in Easy CD Creator 4 Deluxe. Because of the extreme amount of programs included, there will probably be something you never use or have an interest in. In my opinion, however, this is better than a lack of features, which is an unfortunate fact with some software packages.
I only encountered a single bug that was not fixable with a software update and found many of the utilities genuinely useful or at least interesting. The meat and potatoes of this package, Easy CD Creator and DirectCD, are what most folks will be buying this for, and in these areas, the program offers an outstanding array of features and functionality, with minimal downside. For a suggested retail price of $99, Easy CD Creator 4 Deluxe is well worth the money for those in the market for quality CD-R software.