It's easy to dismiss "CD burners" if you're not a Napster-loving teenager hooked on making compact disks of downloaded music files. But CDs are great for backing up data or critical programs. And if you're into digital photography, CDs will efficiently store all those images you've amassed. There's another reason to consider a CD burner: The software has become simple enough and the hardware prices--at $300 or so--low enough that almost anybody can both use and afford one.
Make sure, though, that your computer has at least 64 megabytes of random access memory (RAM) and a hard drive with at least 10 gigabytes of storage. You need the extra RAM to easily move the digital files to the burner. These files eat up a lot of computing power. Even with this much RAM, burning CDs is time consuming (five or six minutes for three minutes of sound).
You'll need to decide whether to buy an external burner or one that fits into your PC case. While comparable in price, external burners tend to be more reliable than their internal cousins. Also, external drives have the added benefit of portability.
The burner's "write speed," or how fast it can actually burn CDs, is crucial. Write speeds now range from 4x to 12x (the speed for older units is 2x). Faster burners cost more than slower, and in general, the higher the write speed, the better for music or photo files. For software and big data backups, pros prefer to use the slower 4x speed. Burning software files at high speeds (higher than 6x) often results in errors and can make the files unreadable. Music files come out fine, but audiophiles may notice tiny gaps in the data. For most users, 8x speed will be more than adequate, since you can slow down the burner if necessary. An entire 550-megabyte CD worth of music takes about 30 minutes to burn at 4x, and half that at 8x speed.
NASTY GAP. The burner you pick should have protection for "buffer under-runs," which occur when there's a slight gap in the data stream from your PC to the disk it is burning. These errors don't damage the burner but turn the CD into a useless coaster. Two standout burners with buffer under-run protection are the TDK VeloCD ($299) writer and the Plextor PlexWriter ($329). The Plextor also lets you do other tasks on your computer while you're burning CDs.
As a final step, consider the software you will use to manipulate your CDs. Many burners come with software, but you may consider buying some popular programs that have made burning super easy. Roxio's Easy CD Creator 4 ($69) is point-and-click software at its best. It lets you manipulate everything from .jpeg image files to video files and MP3 and other music files. For a cheaper route, the MusicMatch Jukebox has a free download version that is fabulous for encoding MP3s onto disk and for creating CDA files that car stereos can read. Gentlemen, start your burners!