The CD-ROM has nearly replaced the floppy disk for the mundane but essential task of loading software on a computer.
With the floppy drive all but relegated to the dustbin, the CD-ROM has evolved into the CD-R, or CD-recordable, and the newer and more potent tool, the CD-RW, or CD-rewriteable.
The CD-RW drive, usually called a CD burner, is this year's accessory of choice. It can create a virtual warehouse of text: 650 megabytes to be exact, enough to hold several shelves of novels. It also can hold video and photo files, feeding the boom in digital cameras.
But probably the No. 1 reason for the CD burner's popularity is the musical element it adds to the computing experience. Now, anybody can produce CDs filled with the tunes they want to hear, in the order they want to hear them -- and do it easily and inexpensively.
The CD burner, standard equipment on many new computers, costs $200 to $400 when bought as a stand-alone item to attach to older computers via parallel, Universal Serial Bus or other high-speed connectors. The CD-R discs cost about $1 and can be used only once. CD-RW discs cost $3 or more and can be recorded on about 1,000 times.
The record-your-own boom has been fueled by the Internet, where thousands of songs are available for download in the form of MP3 files. MP3, which stands for MPEG-1 Audio Layer-3, is a format for storing compressed, or squeezed, versions of music tracks.
An MP3 file, about one-eighth the size of an uncompressed recording, lets PC users save dozens or even hundreds of their favorite songs on their computers' hard disks, leaving room for e-mail, spreadsheets and text documents. MP3 files also can be stored on CD-RW discs and converted to a format that allows them to be played in boomboxes and personal CD players.
A PC user with a standard CD-ROM and a CD burner is equipped to create small silver discs containing 74 minutes of songs from existing CDs or from MP3 files.
A CD burner comes with software to guide you through the process. The basic procedure is similar for all CD burners, but the software may have different features. For this article, a Hewlett Pavilion computer with an HP CD-Writer Plus CD burner was used.
Here's how it works:
Begin the recording session by placing a disc in the CD burner and launching the software. The program will ask if you are using a CD-R or CD-RW disc.
The HP-CD Writer program displays a screen divided into two windows. The upper window is the Windows Explorer, where files are stored. The lower half is the Data CD Layout, where files are copied.
Using the mouse, highlight the desired music files in the top window. The software will prompt you to pick a title for the disc you are creating. After dragging your musical choices to the lower window, the computer "burns" your new disc.
If you change your mind, you can erase and add songs.
Copying songs with a CD burner takes a little time and preparation, as with most PC tasks. Depending on the number of songs or videos copied, the process can take from a few minutes to a half-hour.
But spending a few minutes with the burner's manual will help you avoid confusion and aggravation once you begin. Before long, you'll feel like a pro.