DirectCD and PacketCD turn 2.0

Writable CD, software-free: DirectCD and PacketCD turn 2.0

Robert A. Starrett

Packet writing has enabled new and useful tools that allow CD media to be used for non-traditional applications. Backup products like Seagate’s Backup Exec for CD-R/CD-RW and Dantz Retrospect are two excellent examples of the use of packet recording to move CD media into new application areas.

But by far the most widely used and popular applications of packet-writing software are those that make recording to CD seem software-free, like writing to floppy disks or hard drives. Two widely installed packet tools, DirectCD and CeQuadrat’s PacketCD, eliminate the software learning curve that has made CD recording a relatively high-maintenance storage option by enabling drive-letter access to any packet-enabled CD-Recordable or CD-ReWritable drive. Thanks to packet-writing tools, users can move files to and from the CD media just as they would with a hard drive or floppy. In the case of CD-RW media, users can actually erase files and thus re-use space on the disc–all without the interface intricacies of traditional premastering software and the capacity-consuming overhead of multisession writing.

Another great thing about packet writing is that buffer underrun, that frustrating occurrence that plagued many CD users in the past, is eliminated as a possible error because of the way packet writing works. According to the CD-UDF standard–the file system used by DirectCD and PacketCD–“The file system is almost completely underrun-proof. The only parts that must be recorded without an underrun are the two volume descriptor sequences. As these structures are no more than five sectors each, this should not present a problem.”

But how clear is the packet-writing message to date, and how well are the tools living up to their ground-breaking promise? Is the popularity of these programs due to their stability, performance, and usefulness, or are they so widely installed only because one or the other comes bundled with just about every writable and rewritable CD drive sold today? The case to be made for these tools in their 1.0 incarnations was a little weak, mostly because of their lack of support for true direct-overwrite capability on CD-RW media and some early-version instabilities and incompatibilities.

Smart Storage’s FloppyCD, an evolution of the CD-R Extensions software the company has been bundling with JVC CD-R drives for years, approaches the capabilities of DirectCD and PacketCD, but finds its primary implementation in JVC drives and on network systems as a component of Smart Storage’s SmartCD network recording management tool. With FloppyCD/SmartCD aimed squarely at alternate channels, Adaptec and CeQuadrat carry the torch for direct drive-letter access to CD-R and CD-W, with no other major players competing for the desktop market at this time.

And in the products’ 2.0 incarnations, it’s hard to argue that DirectCD and PacketCD don’t carry that torch proudly. With improved stability, greater interchangeability, and–most eagerly awaited of all–the ability to rewrite CD-RW media file-by-file, these products more than earn their place on the desktops they (often incidentally) land on. But which packet tool to pick? Well, it depends…

PACKET-TO-PACKET COMPATIBILITY: A KEY CONCERN

The real impetus for the development of packet-writing products was the approval by OSTA, the Optical Storage Technology Association, of CD-UDF, a subset of the UDF (Universal Disk Format) standard agreed upon by OSTA in 1996. Even though either DirectCD or PacketCD or both apparently take some liberties with the UDF specification, since their discs are only interchangeable under certain circumstances, it’s a good bet that future versions will clean up these incompatibilities, whatever their origin.

But what are the consequences of current compatibility shortfalls? Imagine, a year or two down the line, a packet-packed world with packet-written CD-R discs on every desktop and the majority of PC users employing one tool or the other regularly, but not both. What happens if you use PacketCD and your cousin uses DirectCD? Can you exchange discs and read and write to them? The answer is yes and no. Interestingly, there is quite a mix of phenomena that can occur when exchanging discs between the programs. The best case, and some comfort to users, is that both programs will read and write to an unclosed disc formatted by the other program after the first data has been written by the program that formatted the disc. PacketCD can write to a disc that has been formatted but not written first by DirectCD, but DirectCD will not recognize or write to a disc that was formatted by PacketCD, unless you have first written data to that disc with PacketCD. To move discs from PacketCD to DirectCD, you must format the disc with PacketCD, then write something to that disc with PacketCD. DirectCD will then recognize the disc and use it as its own. The other option is to format with DirectCD, then transfer the disc to a PacketCD machine which will recognize and use the disc without the necessity of having to write data to it with DirectCD first. In other words, you can format and write data with DirectCD and then add data with PacketCD, then go back to DirectCD and so on. The reverse is also true. A disc formatted with PacketCD and with the initial data written with PacketCD can be added to by DirectCD, then written and read again by PacketCD, then written and read by DirectCD again.

So, it appears that a disc, once formatted and written in either program is UDF-compliant. But it is the way that each program goes about preparing a written disc for access in a regular CD-ROM drive that creates some of the compatibility and interchangeability problems.

ADAPTEC’S DIRECTCD 2.0: INTRODUCING CD-RRW (RANDOM REWRITE)

Installing DirectCD is straightforward. The program comes on two floppies or on CD as two directories, Disk 1 and Disk 2. Once installed, a reboot is required. Once rebooted, the machine loads the DirectCD driver on startup, giving you a small CD recorder icon on your Windows 95 toolbar. Unlike PacketCD, DirectCD will also work with Windows NT. To invoke the program, double click on the toolbar icon and the DirectCD main screen appears.

The Next button takes you to the Drive Information screen where you can choose which recordable or rewritable drive you want to use, assuming that you have more than one drive installed. Here you can also look at the drive properties dialog, which has been enhanced by the addition of two folder tabs applicable to DirectCD. The standard Windows used and free space is shown on the first tab, but the two additional tabs are Settings, specific to DirectCD, and DirectCD Wizard. The settings tab shows the drive make and model, the type of drive (CD-R or CD-RW), the firmware revision, the SCSI target ID and LUN, and the type of media inserted. In this dialog, you can change the read and write speeds of the currently selected drive.

Clicking the Wizard tab allows you to set DirectCD options. These options let you enable ISO 9660 capability, land toggle the display of certain banners and screens that signal certain DirectCD events, such as the startup banner and the Eject Disc Wizard.

Clicking the Next button from the Drive Information screen takes you to the Format Disc screen, which gives you the option of formatting the disc for DirectCD or leaving it alone in case you are going to use the DirectCD drive with a standard premastering application. Formatting a CD-R disc takes 15 to 20 seconds. Once formatted, the disc is ready for read/write access through DirectCD. The only visual indication that a drive contains a DirectCD disc is the volume label that you give the CD during formatting. This requires you to enter a volume label that clearly identifies the disc as a DirectCD disc, especially if you have many CD recorders or drives attached. Otherwise, it is easy to forget which drive is a DirectCD drive and the drive icons do not give you any indication.

Once formatted, the disc is available for reading and writing through DirectCD, and the process is simple: drag and drop files as you would to any other storage device. You can also save to the disc from Windows programs, such as Word, which will now show the DirectCD disc as a floppy drive icon in its Save As dialog.

CEQUADRAT’S PACKETCD 2.0: USE WITH UDF

Like DirectCD, PacketCD installs quite easily, but the way it presents itself to the user is somewhat different than DirectCD. After installation and upon startup, the program displays the PacketCD banner while it loads its drivers. If a blank disc is in a drive that has been designated as a PacketCD drive, the PacketCD Formatter screen pops up. If the inserted disc is a CD-R, this screen gives you three options, Format as PacketCD for CD-R, Start WinOnCD, CeQuadrat’s premastering software and Just Leave the CD in the Recorder. If the inserted disc is a CD-RW disc, this screen gives you four options titled so verbosely they read like country western songs: Format as PacketCD for CD-R, Format as PacketCD for CD-RW, Start WinOnCD, and Just Leave the CD in the Recorder. Choosing Format as PacketCD for CD-RW triggers the format function, yet fails to inform the user that the process will take approximately 40 minutes. A confirmation dialog that indicates formatting is indeed underway would be helpful at this point, if not essential. Formatting CD-RW media as CD-R allows you to format the discs more quickly. A CD-R-formatted disc will then act like a CD-R disc instead of CD-RW. Files written to the disc cannot be physically erased from the disc; only their references in the Table of Contents can be deleted.

Formatting a CD-R disc takes about 20 to 30 seconds. Once formatted, the PacketCD drive icon appears with a yellow disc instead of a silver one, easily distinguishing the PacketCD drive from the other CD icons and making it unnecessary to use a volume label that is descriptive of a PacketCD disc to tell whether one is inserted in a drive. PacketCD, like DirectCD, can handle multiple CD-R and/or CD-RW drives at the same time. Each attached writable drive will be PacketCD-enabled, and each time you insert a blank CD-R or CD-RW disc into a writable drive, the program will prompt you with its formatting options. If a non-blank CD-RW or CD-R disc, or a CD-ROM is inserted, the drive, upon refresh of the window, will revert to the silver disc icon. The program gives you the option of excluding drives from PacketCD, so you can insert blank media in those drives for writing with other CD-R programs without facing the ordeal of the formatting prompt.

PacketCD also adds two folder tabs to the Properties screen for each enabled drive. These tabs are PacketCD and Device. The PacketCD tab shows a history of the writes to the disc and allows you to mount write sessions that were,, made with previous versions of PacketCD. The Device tab shows the model, vendor, firmware version, and type of drive. This dialog lets you set the read and write speeds of the device and exclude a device, from PacketCD control. When PacketCD is installed, it adds an additional program, PacketCD Formatter, to the Windows Start/Programs menu. The PacketCD Formatter allows you to format discs in any of the connected drives. This is useful if you do not want to leave audio insert notification on. Both PacketCD and DirectCD are somewhat schizophrenic within the CD arena. Both reference their companion premastering programs, but WinOnCD and Easy CD Creator both request that you turn audio insert notification off, while PacketCD and DirectCD both prefer to have it on in order to automatically recognize blank discs when they are inserted.

CHOOSE ONE, NOT BOTH

The main difference between DirectCD and PacketCD is that while DirectCD is able to close a disc in such a manner that it can be read by any standard CD-ROM drive and then reopened for further writing by the DirectCD program, PacketCD requires a UDF driver to be installed on any non-PacketCD-enabled machine that is used to read the disc. Luckily, the PacketCD disc has an ISO portion that contains the driver and explains in a Readme file the necessity of the driver and how to install it. Rebooting is required after installing the driver. Once rebooted, the disc can be read in any CD-ROM drive, even on another machine. If you are trying to read the disc on a CD-ROM drive on the same machine that you installed PacketCD on, the driver is installed automatically during the main installation routine.

The bottom line in the 2.0 revisions is this: Both programs install easily and perform well, can exchange discs under the circumstances described earlier, but they are unlikely to coexist on the same machine. In fact, the CeQuadrat UDF reader driver conflicts with DirectCD, or the other way around, depending on your point of view. If you install one of these programs, do not try to install the other on the same machine.

Here’s hoping future versions of both programs will comply more closely to the UDF standard, eliminating the disc interchange problems that continue to hinder both tools. Until then, use and enjoy the convenience of one or the other, but a big-blue-screen-of-death curse on anybody who tries to use both.

RELATED ARTICLE: Companies Mentioned in This Article

Adaptec, Inc. 691 South Milpitas Boulevard, Milpitas, CA 95035; 408/957-4546; Fax 408/957-6666; http://www.adaptec.com; INFOLINK #400

CeQuadrat USA, Inc. 1804 Embarcadero Road, Suite 101, Palo Alto, CA 94303; 415/843-3780; Fax 415/843-3799; http://www.cequadrat.com; INFOLINK #405

Smart Storage Inc. 100 Burtt Road, Andover, MA 01810; 508/623-3300; Fax 508/623-3310; http://www.smartstorage.com; INFOLINK #415

Robert A. Starrett (bobs@cdpage.com) is a contributing editor for EMedia Professional, co-columnist for THE CD WRITER, and an independent consultant based in Denver, Colorado. He is the co-author of CD-ROM Professional’s CD-Recordable Handbook.

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