Not long ago, CD-RW drives were too costly for all but mam-moth corporations, ivy-covered universities, and the planet's wealthiest residents. Now they are plentiful and affordable -- Apple is even building them into many of its new Macs. And you have a few choices when it comes to software: CharisMac's Discribe is bundled with Sony drives; Roxio's Toast comes with most others. If your Mac has a built-in CD-RW drive, it will work with Apple's free iTunes and Disc Burner, but you'll get the most out of your drive if you buy a full version of software designed just for burning CDs.
Two packages now available for the Mac are Toast 5 Titanium and Discribe 4. (NeroMax, the Mac version of the popular Windows program Nero, was released in May [too late to be included in this review].) Both programs have many more features than their free counterparts, including the ability to duplicate discs, burn cross-platform and bootable discs, and burn multiple sessions on a disc. But of the two, Toast has more to offer.
At Face Value
When you start Toast, you're greeted by a very refined, Aqua-like interface (a free OS X update should be available soon) with a few minor inconsistencies: similar commands are sometimes located in different places.
Discribe's interface is simpler but looks amateurish. The icon for choosing an audio CD is a poorly bitmapped picture of two eighth notes. And you have to set preferences for each CD you burn.
Under the Hood
Both programs support Burn-Proof, a feature that momentarily pauses your burn if it detects potential problems. Keep in mind, though, that your drive must also incorporate this technology -- not all do. In Toast, you make the decision to turn on Burn-Proof each time you start to burn -- important because you don't want to use it when burning an audio CD (interrupting a drive in process can result in audible glitches); in Discribe, you select the Burn-Proof setting (in the Preferences menu) independently. If your drive doesn't support Burn-Proof, Toast lets you adjust the RAM cache used in burning (to reduce the chances of dropping data), an option Discribe doesn't offer.
Toast lets you burn in the background, so you can surf the Web or perform other tasks while a burn is in progress. (This was available in version 4 but was not documented.)
Discribe lets you choose to verify the integrity of your discs before burning. Fortunately, the option is turned off by default, because verification is time consuming. In Toast, you must eject your disc within seconds after it's burned or it will automatically be verified. You can abort the process, but it's a hassle.
Toast supports most CD-RW drives. CharisMac lists about 200 supported drives on its Web site, but only 10 of them are FireWire or USB drives. (Discribe didn't recognize the 12x QPS FireWire drive or Formac's 16x FireWire drive.)
Bits and Bytes
Both programs can burn HFS and ISO9660 formats, Mac-PC hybrid discs, and bootable Mac volumes; Toast adds support for HFS+ in Mac and hybrid formats.
Toast also includes some functionality of the discontinued ToastDVD, so you can use it with DVD-RAM, DVD-R, and DVD-RW drives (including those in new Macs), too. And you can use Toast to make backups to Digital Linear Tape (DLT).
When you drag your data into Toast's main window, you see the size of individual files and their icons, but you see the true total only when you click to begin burning your CD. Discribe shows you file sizes and the disc total before you burn.
Play That Funky Music
In my mind, the coolest thing about CD-RW drives is being able to burn your own music CDs to play in CD players. Both Discribe and Toast let you do just that -- each with its own quirks, however.
With Discribe, you can drag only files to the CD window. If you try to drag a folder containing files, Discribe will change your disc to HFS format, treating all of your audio files as data. Toast has no such problem; it will even import only the audio in a mixed folder containing audio and text.
Toast can burn either AIFF or WAV files directly to CD. And it can convert MP3 files to the audio standard for CD players (16-bit, 44.1kHz, stereo) without having to expand them. That's great if your hard drive doesn't have an extra 600MB to 700MB of space per disc to handle the expanded files. (Burning compressed MP3 files at more than 4x, however, will result in unusable discs.) Discribe can handle both WAVs and MP3s, but it must first convert them to AIFFs.
Both come with utilities for recording analog audio -- such as LPs -- to your computer: Toast has CD Spin Doctor, and Discribe has Audio Scribe. CD Spin Doctor lets you hear what you are recording through your Mac's sound system. When finished, it displays the waveform of your file, which helps when you define and name your tracks. If you like, you can let the program define the tracks automatically -- it searches for places in the waveform where the signal goes flat. Spin Doctor even figures how much recording time you have left on your selected drive. Once you have a large file on your Mac, you can apply filters to clean up pops and clicks.
Made for TV
One area that Toast has all to itself is burning in the Video CD (VCD) format. Toast has long been able to burn VCDs -- about an hour's worth of 320-by-240-pixel MPEG-1 video that will play on most computers and newer set-top DVD players. But previous versions of Toast could handle only material in the Toast-Ready subset of the VCD format. Toast 5 accepts any White Book-compliant MPEG-1 file (White Book is the standard defining VCD). But that's not even the best part.
Toast 5 has a built-in MPEG-1 encoder -- the same technology in Terran Interactive's $599 Cleaner 5 (4.5 mice. ; Reviews, February 2001). So in addition to creating VCDs from existing streams, it can take any QuickTime file or iMovie and create a VCD from it. The process isn't very fast; encoding a one-minute QuickTime movie took 5 minutes and 45 seconds on a G4 and 15 minutes on a blue-and-white G3. But the encoder would cost a lot more purchased separately, so it's hard to complain.
Although a VCD's quality is far beneath that of a DVD, the only hardware you need to create one is a common CD-RW drive.Aqueous Interface: With Toast 5 Titanium, you can burn many types of discs, including Video CDs.Dutiful Scribe: Discribe gives you control of basic functions through a simple interface.