Burn 'em if you got 'em.
That's the attitude of the hundreds of thousands of music lovers who have cast aside their cassette decks and replaced them with one of the most desirable - and useful - PC accessories of the year: the compact disc recorder.
Most CD burners aren't much to look at: a simple rectangular box with a slide-out CD-sized tray. Thanks to an innovative process that involves heat and laser beams, this magic box can transfer just about any data in your computer - music, games, spreadsheets, a few novels - onto a disc that looks like any other CD.
Only months ago, these sophisticated peripherals were priced beyond the reach of the mass market. But they've since come down in cost - for both add-on CD burners, which cost $250 to $350, and the blank discs. Many new desktop computers, even some low-end (read: under $1,000) models, now come with CD-recorder drives built in.
Just about any digital music file that floats around in cyberspace can be captured on a CD recorder (CD-R is shorthand for these products; CD-RW, for rewriteable, indicates the machine can accommodate discs that can be written and erased over and over). This includes MP3, the Internet formula that compresses music for easy download to a PC. And copying an existing CD to a blank -or "ripping," in the vernacular - is now only a matter of a couple of mouse clicks on the simplified "jukebox" software that comes with virtually every recorder.
So mainstream have CD recorders become that there's one integrated into a new Philips mini-stereo system, the kind of product designed for people who think turning on a light switch is a technological achievement.
The less-than-$600 FW930R package also includes a multidisc CD changer, a dual-well cassette player, speakers, AM/FM tuner, even a clock.
And so unthreatening now is the prospect of recording on a disc - video as well as audio - that Sony's new $1,300 Mavica digital camera uses a miniature CD-R disc - 3.5 inches across - to record quality pictures. Each $4 disc can hold up to 160 high-res images.
While manufacturers of CD burners seek to appeal to a wide demographic, it's teen-agers and young adults who are tuned into burning.
"I make mixes of my music so I don't have to listen to what I don't like," says Jim Browning Jr., a 14-year-old from Miller Place, N.Y., who got a burner for his Compaq computer for Christmas. Jim copies from his CD collection of Metallica, Limp Bizkit and Korn, but says, "I don't download music anymore. After all this stuff with Napster, I had a problem with it morally."
While it's not uncommon for kids to make CD copies for their friends, Jim says, "My dad doesn't like that." Jim's CD mixes, and the program backups he records, are for his own use.
Compact-disc recording formulas, as we noted above, come in two flavors: a CD-R disc that cannot be erased once it's burned, and a CD-RW blank, which can be copied over time and again.
Almost all current recorders can produce both kinds of discs, but be aware that 1) because of the way the disc is burned, rewriteable discs cannot be played in many older CD players; 2) they take longer to copy, or "write," than CD-Rs; and 3) they cost about $3 each, compared with less than $1 for a blank CD-R.
Recordable discs are sold as 650-megabyte blanks (74 minutes of audio) and 700 megabytes (80 minutes).
And while we're dealing in this story mainly with recording music, CD burners can also back up and archive scads of data, from images and photos to video, and umpteen pages of text; most software that comes with the recorders can accomplish all these tasks. Even so, buyers should consider upgrading the software to access special features. Our favorite for Windows-based PCs is Easy CD Creator from Adaptec, which is bundled with some burners, including TDK's VeloCD.
Burners also come as stand-alone components, designed specifically for integration into home stereo systems: no wiring, unscrewing or other opportunities for self-immolation.
Philips, Harman Kardon and Pioneer, among other companies, make these units, which are about twice the price of computer-based CD burners. The advantage: You don't need a computer. A disadvantage: You must use the costlier "audio" CD blanks that are required for these machines; the price - about $3 each - includes royalty fees paid to artists for copying their music.
Most CD burners can easily double as CD-ROM drives. And some companies offer external burners that only need to plug into a USB or serial port.