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EMedia Review

Hugh Bennett

synopsis: A dependable performer with a broad range of capabilities, the cdDIRECTOR is a credible first effort by MediaFORM to enter the custom disc production arena. As might be expected of any initial product offering, the cdDIRECTOR is admittedly a little rough around the edges and not as polished a turnkey solution as some of its more pricey competitors. The system's strengths include SmartDRIVE2, drive-enhancement features such as a handy copy protection scheme; SmartPRINT, a disc-alignment feature for silkscreening acuity; and the reliability, easy accessibility, and business-card disc compatibility of its autoloading mechanism. It also boasts a Java-based client for remotely controlled job definition and submission, one of the most innovative ideas to hit CD production in a long time. Shortcomings of the current product include some inflexibility in its software interface and the system's lack of scalability. However, while the current system may lack some expandability and elegance, it does afford unprecedented cross-platform and custom integration opportunities, not to mention superbly reliable disc output in testing, at an attractive price.

price: $24,999-$39,999

MediaFORM, Inc. USA
400 Eagleview Boulevard, Suite 104
Exton, PA 19341
Fax 610/458-9554

Rimage Corporation
7725 Washington Avenue
South Minneapolis, MN 55439
Fax 612/944-7808

Sanyo Electric Co., Ltd.
Information Systems Division

November, 2000 | The cdDIRECTOR is a major departure for MediaFORM from its traditional line of standalone CD duplicators into the emerging market of network-based custom disc production systems. Rather than making many copies of an existing CD like a duplicator, custom disc production systems are designed to create one or more CDs from scratch using data drawn from across a network. Suitable applications might include everything from creating discs for distributing check images, monthly banking statements, and client billing records to customized software patches, syndicated radio programs, and even custom-recorded audio CDs from orders taken over the Internet. On a more mundane level, the cdDIRECTOR, much like a shared laser printer, can provide any mid- or large-sized office with a centralized, controllable and cost-effective method for creating CDs. And for those occasions where existing CDs simply need to be duplicated, the cdDIRECTOR will also oblige.

installation and design

Each cdDIRECTOR system consists of a robotic disc autoloader with three or six 12x4x32 recorders and a color thermal transfer CD printer. Housed inside the autoloader cabinet is a standard PC-compatible with 128MB RAM running Windows NT 4.0 Workstation and seven hard disk drives (one 10GB drive for the operating system and control software and one 4GB drive dedicated to each recorder). If needed, an optional $1,999 upgrade is available to boost the system to a 600mHz Pentium III processor with 256MB RAM and a 20GB main hard drive. Although required for operation, a monitor, keyboard and mouse are not included in the package, the reason being that, more often than not, these are more easily obtained and serviced locally.

Off-the-shelf units come configured with a 10/100Base-T Ethernet card for network attachment but, given the cdDIRECTOR's standard PC architecture, the system can be theoretically connected to any topology (Gigabit Ethernet, Token Ring, ATM, FDDI) with the addition of the appropriate hardware and software. It is important to remember that solid network design is critical to establishing optimum system performance given the number and size of files that can be submitted for processing to the cdDIRECTOR. Due to the involved nature of PC networks, MediaFORM sensibly recommends professional installation of all cdDIRECTOR systems. Complete setup and user training is available from the company for $1,000 to $1,500 per day.

In terms of its mechanics, the cdDIRECTOR uses the same reliable pick-and-place disc-handling system as MediaFORM's CD-3706P standalone CD duplicator [See review in June 2000, pp.72-74]. A straightforward vacuum picking design, the cdDIRECTOR's disc autoloader comes equipped with removable 200-disc input and output spindles as well as a small fixed spike for handling rejects.

Among the autoloader's many virtues are its easily accessible spindles, physical compatibility with smaller diameter (80mm) and business card CD-R discs, and a reputation for excellent reliability. While not factors in every application, some of the autoloader's shortcomings are a lack of a reject spike overflow sensor, and insufficient disc capacity for high-volume, lights-out operation. Unrefined cabinet construction, significant fan noise, and utilitarian design conspire to make the system more suited to placement in the back room rather than in the front office. MediaFORM has a well-deserved reputation for not resting on its laurels and thus plans to address some of these issues in the next generation of products.

A completely redesigned $39,999 cdDIRECTOR2000 (scheduled for release by the end of the year) was first previewed at the June 2000 REPLItech exhibition in Miami Beach, and will offer expanded 500-disc capacity, eight 12X recorders, and a thermal transfer printer all housed in a more attractively integrated package. Future plans call for models offering 16 recorders or eight recorders and two printers.

The most heavily promoted features of the current cdDIRECTOR involve the capabilities of its SmartDRIVE2 (customized Sanyo CRD-RW2) CD-R/RW recorders. The first is a watermarking technology that encodes, for quality control and authentication purposes, digital fingerprints into all discs produced by the equipment. In addition, a copy-protection scheme can also be added to CDs as a means of deterring unsophisticated copying attempts and, as well, SmartMedia will optionally prevent the cdDIRECTOR from writing on blank discs that have not been pre-prepared with a user-defined code. While copy protection is currently available, watermarking and SmartMedia have yet to be fully implemented.

Disc labeling is accomplished by a rebranded version of Rimage's Editor's Choice-winning Perfect Image Prism thermal transfer printer [See review in June 1999, pp.82-87]. In addition to 300dpi three-color and monochrome (black, blue, or red) printing, the cdDIRECTOR offers the optional capability of aligning its printing output with partial images already silkscreened on the surface of the disc. Standard on the six-recorder cdDIRECTOR, and available as a $2,499 option for the three-recorder model, the SmartPRINT system employs an optical sensor to detect a small high-contrast mark users have previously silkscreened near the inner radius of their discs. This feature, combined with a motorized clamp located on the reject spike, is designed to rotate the disc into the correct orientation before printing. During testing, SmartPRINT performed as advertised by accurately aligning 100 discs while taking, on average, 11 seconds to detect the orientation mark and spin the disc into place.

taking care of business

As is the case with any network device, new users must first be logged into the system before using the cdDIRECTOR. This is easily accomplished after launching the main application and by creating profiles specifying classes of users and their permissions on the system. This includes the maximum number of discs and individual requests to make discs a user can submit per day/month/quarter and the production priority that they can assign their jobs. After defining class permissions, individual users are then entered into the system by relevant details including name, password, user class, and full contact information.

The cdDIRECTOR application is organized into a logical sequence of cards accessible by tabs at the top of the screen. Most jobs begin by creating and saving a label to be printed on the surface of the finished discs using the built-in label designer. The label designer gets the job done by allowing basic text to be inputted and graphics imported and proportionally resized. In situations that require more complex designs, users can create labels using any third-party graphics software and save them as a standard PRN file.

The cdDIRECTOR premasters ISO 9660, bootable, and Red Book audio discs from scratch. Other Mode 1 discs (HFS, UFS, ISO 9660 with Rock Ridge extensions, etc.) can also be written if the system is supplied with physical image files created using most recording software (Toast, GEAR, etc.). During authoring, the contents of the CD are specified by dragging and dropping the appropriate files and folders in an Explorer-like environment. The cdDIRECTOR software can even accommodate dynamic situations in which the contents of directories are constantly changing. Creating a disc is a snap after some practice, but users will find that files can't be moved between directories once imported into the CD creation window and that error messages are unnecessarily obtuse.

As it stands, the standard features of the cdDIRECTOR software should realistically serve most needs. However, a few features missing from the mix that may prove significant to certain applications include the ability to address the Primary Volume Descriptor (PVD), manipulate disc geography, select the level of ISO 9660 compliance, author mixed-mode formats, and fully edit the PQ subchannel (ISRC and UPC codes, index points, copy-prohibit flag, etc.).

After creating the label and selecting the files to be recorded, the order is easily submitted for processing by completing the next card in sequence. The job is given a name for tracking purposes, the username and password are entered, as are the paths for the various components of the job and what actions are to be performed (copy, verify, print, simulate, protect, archive, align). Once submitted, jobs are tracked on a clearly laid-out status screen which displays the cue of pending, running, and complete tasks. Statistics are also saved by the system as a Microsoft FoxPro database file.

During three weeks of continuous testing, the cdDIRECTOR didn't miss a beat while processing 1,500 discs of various sizes. In terms of system performance under ideal conditions, the six-recorder unit produced roughly 36 unlabeled 650MB discs per hour or 26 discs with monochrome labels. At the other end of the spectrum, the count was approximately 80 unlabeled 50MB discs per hour or 48 discs with monochrome labels. Generally speaking, the lack of fully asynchronous operation and the high ratio of recorders to printers make the cdDIRECTOR a better candidate for applications which continually write larger sets of data.

JAVA client and API

Although users can operate the cdDIRECTOR from its main console, the system really shines when controlled remotely through the supplied client application or a user-designed program. Unlike most competing systems which are tied to the WinTel platform, the cdDIRECTOR's client is Java-based and operates from any computer located on the network (be it Windows, Mac OS, or UNIX) that is running a standard Internet browser. Currently, only the latest versions of Netscape are officially supported, but Internet Explorer 5.5 also worked well during testing.

The Java-based client offers a quick way of defining and submitting jobs to the cdDIRECTOR. Labels are created through an integrated tool; the contents of data or audio discs are defined; and jobs are assigned a priority, given a name, and sent along for production. Without a doubt, making use of a Java client is one of the most innovative ideas to hit CD production in a long time, since it provides a cost-effective solution for any sized network and provides unprecedented cross- platform opportunities.

During testing, the Java client performed admirably, but it's obvious that more refining is necessary. Currently, the interface is not as user-friendly as it needs to be for the benefit of unsophisticated users and, as well, a few essentials are missing. These include the ability to remotely submit images created by third-party premastering software (important for Mac OS and UNIX users), better label editing, and the ability to use standard PRN files in place of Java client-created labels. However, what the cdDIRECTOR may lack in polish it makes up for with its ability to be easily integrated into custom applications through its straightforward Application Program Interface (API). Using the primary job components, which simply exist as standard ASCII text files, companies with computer programming resources should have a field day controlling the cdDIRECTOR from their own software.

the bottom line

A dependable performer with a broad range of capabilities, the cdDIRECTOR is a credible first effort by MediaFORM to enter the custom disc production arena. As might be expected of any initial product offering, the cdDIRECTOR is admittedly a little rough around the edges and not as polished a turnkey solution as some of its more pricey competitors. The current product is also not scalable, so its suitability to given tasks depends upon examining the particular application. However, while the current system may lack some expandability and elegance, it does afford unprecedented cross-platform and custom integration opportunities at an attractive price, all of which make it well worth considering.

Hugh Bennett (hugh_bennett@compuserve.com), an EMedia Magazine contributing editor and columnist for The CD Writer, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems (http://www.forgetmenot.on.ca), a company based in London, Ontario, Canada offering CD and DVD-ROM recording, replication, and consulting services as well as CD-R/RW and DVD-R/RAM hardware, duplication systems, software, and blank media sales.

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