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Product Review: Dymo DiscPainter (CD/DVD Printer)

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If you're a photographer, videographer, filmmaker or actor, you may burn a lot of CDs or DVDs on your computer. After all, there's something nice about giving clients and prospects a tangible disc, rather than sending them clicking off to a website or handing them a USB drive (more expensive, and more likely to get lost).

But what about labeling the disc -- do you scrawl a title and your name on the disc with an ugly black marker? Many people do, but it's not a very professional look. Other people use Lightscribe, a process that burns text on the front of a compatible disc in an odd, reflective way. You end up with silver on silver (or gold on gold) lettering and outline drawings. Still others use a standard inkjet printer to print directly on the disc, but these have disadvantages too (discussed below). Another option is adhesive labels, but these look cruddy, are hard to align on the disc, and can peel at the edges or develop bubbles.

There's finally a better approach -- a special disc printer called DiscPainter, from Dymo (maker of label printers, label makers, and other products). It's a compact and attractive device that looks like some kind of CD reader, though it isn't. There's a tray you drop the disc in, and a clear window that allows you to watch some of the printing process. The printer, which uses ink jet technology, actually prints on the disc while it spins, a clever trick. The whole process takes about 1-3 minutes, depending on the ink density and quality level you select. I got nice results with settings that took a little over a minute to print. It's easy and quick, and almost silent.

A real strength of the product is the Discus design software that's included (compatible with XP, Vista, and Mac OS X 10.3/10.4/10.5). It offers enormous flexibility. To start, you can set one of 350 predefined backgrounds - musical notes, Koi in a pond, an orange slice, a skyline, etc., most with vibrant colors - or just choose your own photo as a background, or leave the background blank.

On top of the background, you can drop one or more photos on your disc design and arrange them manually, or you can choose from 5 different collage layouts (circles, flower petal designs, or a grid), then drop your photos into the layout. You can customize the layouts too, by choosing how many photos should be included, their size, spacing, and several other attributes. Very cool indeed.

One disappointment though: The collages are not editable after completion -- in other words, once you click Ok, you can't make further changes to the collage. Also, you can't save a collage until you've completed it (the Save command is inexplicably grayed out). That means that if you create a collage with a dozen photos, you've got to spend some time getting each of the photos selected, positioned and sized just right - it could take you 15 minutes or more - yet you can't save your work while you do so, and you can't change your mind or make adjustments once you click OK. This is a strange and severe restriction.

Text is also easy to customize (and doesn't have limitations on editing or saving). Naturally, you can select any font on your system, set the size, spacing and color, and choose bold and/or italic if you wish. Shadows, glows and outlines are also possible. But, more interestingly, you can set the text direction, make it curve, run it in a clockwise or counterclockwise spiral or even arrange it like spokes of a bicycle, all with a single click. In each of these cases, you can set things like spacing, radius, angle, curvature, and so forth. The result is a playful and creative approach to text that's just right for a round surface.

Also included is a gallery of legalistic symbols -- copyright, trademark, and even the CD and DVD logos found on commercially printed discs. Keeps the lawyers happy. (I should know.) These are in addition to the various symbols and foreign characters that are included already in most fonts. Another nice feature: you can import file names from a folder, or track names from a file. That makes it easy to print a list of files or song titles on the disc.

Finally, if you're in the mood to draw, the Discus software also incorporates a paint feature that lets you create arcs that conform to the curvature of the CD/DVD, as well as rectangles and squares, ovals and circles, lines and polygons. There's also a paintbrush, spray can, paint bucket, eraser, and a stamp tool with over 1,000 predefined stamps (birds, animals, flowers, plants and all sorts of random things ranging from sushi to horseshoes). An optional grid and rulers make placement easy.

Overall, the program is easy to use if you're the type who likes to play around and learn as you go. Unfortunately, there's no printed or pdf manual for the software, so you need to rely on the program Help menu (which is pretty good, but not a substitute for printed documentation). There ought to be a manual, and also a creativity guide with samples of clever things to do, and how. (There's no hardware manual either, other than the Quick Start, but that's almost all that's needed.) The program has a few quirks; for instance, there's a Print Setup button and a Print Setup item in the File menu, but tech support told me to ignore both of them and use the on-screen program settings instead. So why are they included? Tech support was as mystified as I.

Once the design is done, it's time to print. You'll need inkjet compatible CDs or DVDs (full-size or mini). These are available in white or silver. White gives the most natural results, especially if you use one of the pre-supplied backgrounds. Silver may be better if you're using one of your own photos as a background, since the colors in a background photo sometimes are a bit washed out when printed on a white disc. For some reason, the pre-supplied backgrounds don't wash out this way.

The wash-out may relate to the fact that the ink cartridges are three-color. In other words, there's no black ink, so black has to be created by mixing all three color inks. This is not always satisfactory. Black text looks perfectly fine, but the results weren't so good when I tried to print a picture of myself in a dark charcoal suit, black shirt, and black and white tie, against a black background. You can see the original picture here. I happen to think it's kind of spiffy.

What printed on the disk, however, was a little too 1980's for my taste: all of the blacks printed as chocolate browns, for no apparent reason. I don't even own a suit that color, and if I did I wouldn't admit it. As an experiment, I also tried printing a solid, all-black disc -- not that you'd be likely to do this -- wondering if I'd get something that looked like a melted Hershey bar. Surprisingly, no. Instead, I got a reasonable approximation of black: a color somewhere between navy blue and gray.

Caveats aside, the images from the printer are generally quite good. The ink doesn't come cheap though. It runs $39.95 per three-color ink cartridge, but the manufacturer estimate is 100 full-color discs per cartridge. That's about $0.40 in ink on each disc. Ouch! (Thankfully, the unit is supplied with a full-size cartridge, not a pint-size "starter" cartridge.) Printable CDs and DVDs are also slightly more expensive than non-printable ones. Still, if creating a professional image is part of your job, those costs are certainly worth it.

Another ouch is the price of the printer itself. At $279.95 MSRP, this unit isn't for the one-disc-a-week crowd. If that's you, an inkjet printer that includes a CD/DVD adapter tray will be adequate, and costs much less. But using that setup is awkward. The tray has to be aligned just right, levers have to be flipped to tell the printer that you're printing on a disc rather than paper, and it's generally a hassle. Even more importantly, the disc design software supplied with an inkjet is unlikely to match the capabilities of Discus. For instance, I looked at Epson Print CD v. 1.50E, and was not impressed. Discus was clearly designed with creativity in mind - and so was DiscPainter.

So, for a professional, the best choice is DiscPainter. It has quirks, but it's not hard to love the output. Lightscribe, adhesive labels, and black markers just don't cut it, and conventional ink jet printers aren't quite right either. If you're a creative professional -- and/or frequently burn one-off CDs and DVDs for business purposes -- then you probably need a DiscPainter.