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Trace Affex CD-Artist Inkjet CD Printer

Jeff Partyka

Trace Affex CD-Artist Inkjet Cd Printer
synopsis: The Trace Affex CD-Artist is an excellent CD printer that tested beautifully; print quality was sharp and most impressive, and delivered reliably and time-efficiently. With a list price of more than $2000, the unit is a bit steep for those to whom pretty CD labeling is little more than a luxury. However, for businesses or similar operations that can afford it, and for whom a clean, professional look on distribution media is a plus, the CD-Artist makes a great addition to the equipment arsenal. Its ease of use and impressive full-color performance make it well worth considering, and its Mac-friendly disposition stands out among the current CD printer crop.

price: $2495

Trace Affex, Inc.
151 East Brokaw Road
San Jose, CA 95112
888/872-2388
408/441-8040
Fax 408/441-7259
http://www.trace.com

August 2001 | When I was a child, I developed a mild fascination with certain kinds of graphic arts that never really left me. I can remember, for example, poring over the jackets of my parents' record albums as they played, enjoying them almost as much as (and occasionally even more than) the music itself. The graphics with which music is packaged became an important part of the whole listening experience, and has remained so–which is, perhaps, one reason why I've never really abandoned vinyl records.

The graphic possibilities of compact disc packaging are more limited, but that hasn't stopped people from trying to make them eye-catching as well. Even in the world of CD-R, in both business and hobby-oriented environments, plenty of packaging and labeling products have been developed and sold. They range from the easily affordable (sticky labels) to the more exotic (thermal and inkjet printing, silkscreening). The Trace Affex CD-Artist printer falls into the latter category, in price more than any other area; it's hard to imagine that many casual hobbyists will cough up what this unit costs just to make their home-burned CD-Rs look pretty. But the CD-Artist makes very pretty discs indeed, and even small businesses that use CD-R as a distribution medium will find its features, ease of use, and super performance very attractive. What's more, its Mac compatibility gives it built-in appeal to graphic design and advertising types–not just because they tend to be in Mac shops, or because they'll appreciate its aesthetic strengths, but because Mac-friendly CD-R printers are increasingly few and far between these days.

The CD-Artist is a front-loading inkjet printer with steel rack and spur gears, and is based on the micro piezo-electric inkjet technology of Epson's popular Stylus Color 740 printer. It uses tiny ink-jet droplets (6 picoliters) for four-color printing at 1440 x 720dpi. It prints on any CD-R disc with an inkjet-ready printable surface. Its serial, parallel, and USB ports provide compatibility with Windows 95, 98, and NT PCs, and Macintosh G3, G4, and iMac computers. Printer drivers for all these are supplied. (Trace Affex also offers the CD-Artist Series Business Card Kit, sold separately, for printing on printable ink-jet CD-R business "cards"; this feature comes fully integrated in a model called the CD-Artist Plus.)

The CD-Artist comes with blank cardboard "discs" for testing purposes–a real must–and templates for popular software programs to aid in label design.

have we met before?

I happen to use an Epson Stylus Color 740 as my home inkjet (paper) printer, so before receiving the CD-Artist, I was already fundamentally familiar with the unit, its buttons and features, and its general ability. But even those who have never laid eyes on an Epson before will find the CD-Artist a cinch to use. There are only three buttons on the front of the Epson unit: on/off, ink-load, and paper advance (or, in this modified version, tray reset). Installing the ink cartridges is a simple matter of tearing a strip of protective tape off the cartridge and popping it into the unit as detailed on the underside of the printer's fliptop cover. Press the ink-load button to get the initialization procedure underway (sometimes the procedure needs to run more than once, a minor annoyance), and you're ready to print.

I did my testing with an indigo iMac DV via its USB port. I used both Adobe Photoshop and QuarkXPress software to design my labels. Templates and artwork examples are provided, but I preferred to make my own designs from scratch, using scans I made myself as well as several photos and clip-art samples downloaded from the Internet. The cardboard blanks that come with the unit really come in handy for this; it's a piece of cake (and a great relief) to make sure the design is centered and arranged properly before committing it to an actual CD-R when you can make a few test prints first.

That said, you will more than likely blow a disc occasionally. Cartridge ink loading is a procedure that must be repeated regularly to maintain optimum print quality, and it's easy to forget. You may print six discs in a row and on the seventh notice that the colors all printed fine, but nothing black came out at all. Another push of the ink-load button fixes the problem, but you're out a disc. It's not easy to find a middle ground because running the ink-load procedure too often will unnecessarily waste ink.

when I paint my masterpiece

To print, you simply place a disc in the CD-player-like tray and hit the "Print" command in your software program. Depending on how busy your design is (as on all inkjets, detailed graphics will take longer to print than simple text-based designs), you wait either one or two or several minutes...and voila, your masterpiece presents itself. Accord- ing to the CD-Artist's user manual, the unit can print 30 CDs per hour at 720dpi, and between 10 and 17 CDs per hour at 1440dpi. Testing revealed these figures to be generally accurate.

Once everything was up and running, the possibilities started rushing to the surface. I could use my scanner and plaster my cat's (or my wife's, or my own) face onto a pile of blank CD-Rs. I could download a nifty picture of the Rolling Stones and print it onto that killer Stones mix I just made. I could scan in the label or sleeve of an LP I just transferred to CD-R and emblazon that on the finished product. Or, I could simply print sharp, colorful text listing the contents of my CD-R. The ideas were exciting, as was the ease with which they were realized with the CD-Artist.

I experimented with many types of designs, and the CD-Artist faithfully and consistently produced beautiful end results. Print quality was sharp and most impressive, even using the tiniest .JPG files and the smallest, narrowest text fonts. Colors appeared vibrant, if a bit dark at times (what looked bright blue on my screen often printed as a dark navy). Occasionally, lines would be apparent through areas of solid color, but running the ink-load procedure again took care of that.

The illustrated user manual provides clear instructions and handy tips for both Windows and Macintosh users. For those planning to design their own labels using the software of their choice, measurements are provided to aid in setting up custom templates and designs.

pretty CDs–for a pretty penny

For CD-R hobbyists, the only real caveat with the CD-Artist is its cost. With a list price of more than $2000, the unit is a bit steep for those to whom pretty CD labeling is little more than a luxury. However, for businesses or similar operations that can afford it and for whom a clean, professional look on distribution media is a plus, the CD-Artist would make a great addition to the equipment arsenal. Its ease of use and impressive full-color performance make it well worth considering, and its Mac-friendly disposition stands out among the current printer crop.

As a hobbyist myself with a CD collection made up increasingly of ugly, Sharpie-decorated CD-Rs, I appreciated the CD-Artist's ability to spruce up my music library. I still don't think CDs can hold a candle to vinyl LPs in visual attractiveness, but the CD-Artist can help close the gap.


Jeff Partyka (jeffp@lycos.com), a former associate of EMedia Magazine, is a Microsoft certified systems engineer (MCSE) currently employed at Lyra Research Inc. in Newtonville, MA. He is also an audiophile and amateur recording artist.

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