A CD-R or CD-RW drive is a dumb device, which the operating system sees as just another CD-ROM drive. Using the drive to burn CDs requires special application software to enable writing, which may be bundled with the operating system or CD writer. Other than the drive itself and the discs you use, the most important element in obtaining fast, accurate burns is the software you use. Two major types of software are used with CD writers:
Used to create a CD in a continuous batch mode operation. Premastering software allows you to duplicate entire discs, sessions, or tracks, and is most frequently used to replicate audio and data CDs or backup files from the hard drive. You can also use premastering software to assemble custom audio CDs that comprise individual tracks from several audio CDs or to create CDs that contain your own data with a layout that you define. Roxio Easy CD Creator is the most commonly bundled premastering software for Windows, but we much prefer Nero Burning ROM.
In addition to batch premastering, which all burners support, some burners support packet-writing mode. In simple terms, packet writing extends the Orange Book CD-R multisession specification. With early burners, you had to record the entire disc in one continuous operation. Orange Book Part II allowed keeping a volume open for multiple recording sessions. Packet writing goes further, allowing a session to remain open while adding discrete packets. Packet-writing software allows the drive to be addressed as just another Windows volume, much like a gigantic floppy disk. You can create, delete, and rename files and folders by using drag-and-drop or other standard Windows methods, including saving directly to the CD-R(W) disc from within programs such as Word. Roxio DirectCD is the most commonly bundled packet-writing software, but we much prefer InCD.
Alas, the rapidly dropping price of CD burners has led some vendors to scrimp on the software bundle. Rather than include mainstream full-function packages, they instead supply simple, proprietary individual applets that perform basic functions. Although these applets are generally usable, you'll want one of the mainstream packages to get the most from your drive, so when comparing prices, include the cost of buying both a premastering application and a packet-writing application in the cost comparison. If your drive does come bundled with mainstream applications, always visit the software vendor's web site immediately to check for updates before you use the drive.
In addition to the third-party software that is supplied with the drive, do not overlook proprietary software. Some vendors, notably Plextor, supply a wide range of powerful and useful utilities with their drives. Although these utilities are Windows-only and typically support only that manufacturer's drive, they often provide enhanced capabilities not available in the third-party applications.
Recent Linux releases include all the tools you need to premaster discs, although this software takes the form of the "building block" utilities cdrecord, mkisofs and cdrdao, and GUI frontends such as X-CD-Roast, gcombust, KonCD, and Gnome Toaster rather than integrated applications such as Easy CD and Nero Burning ROM. Still, all the tools are present, and burning CDs under Linux is easy enough, albeit a bit Spartan for the taste of many Windows users. For all of that, our first attempt to burn a CD under Linux succeeded, which is something we can't say for Windows.
One of the most important and frequently overlooked aspects of CD burner software is firmware, which determines the capabilities and compatibility of the drive. Good drives allow user-installable firmware updates. Good makers supply firmware updates as necessary to keep their drives current with changing conditions and standards. For example, a newly introduced disc type may require a different LASER power and write scheme than media supported by the existing firmware. If your drive's manufacturer makes the required update available, you can install it yourself and use that new media. If not, you're stuck with an increasingly obsolescent drive that may ultimately become unusable when the media it supports are no longer available. Note that most drives that do not support packet mode cannot be upgraded by a simple firmware update. Packet writing requires specific physical drive capabilities, and drives that do not have those capabilities will never support packet writing.