Review – Using the Aleratec RoboRacer LS Duplex for the Mac to automatically archive your archive of photos and digital files!

One of digital photography’s greatest advantages is that it allows the portability of image files. Conventional analog film can live in only one place at a time, and the only way for it to live in a new home is to make a copy, which is always a degradation of the original. Yet portability is also a threat to one’s images, videos, and work, since once we leave the carbon world of physical form and enter into the atomic world where data has no physical form, then the approach that is taken to store, protect, and archive that data becomes a critical decision.

What is a photographer (or animator, filmmaker, illustrator, artist, or anyone else) who creates digital content that is large and needs long-term storage to do? The traditional answer by archivists is to back up data on three different media and keep migrating the data to newer forms of storage. The most popular format in use is a hard drive, which is affordable, can hold large amounts of data, and is very fast and easy to use. But, it has the misfortune of being a mechanical device, which is naturally prone to failure. The old saying among engineers tells us that it isn’t if a hard drive will fail, it’s when! Just as pressing is the choice of interface. In less than three years the use of the international ATA drive standard changed to the Serial ATA (SATA) standard, and seemingly overnight, the production of ATA drives was halted. Even if you have an old working drive, just finding a machine and an operating system that will properly access and mount the drive might also pose a problem. For now as long as we keep migrating data to new hard drives, we are somewhat protected, but they are still active media, which allows for corruption to occur. Hard drives are also fragile, and susceptible to voltage surges and the ever-present threat of viruses.

We would probably want to store data on a server somewhere, now somewhat hilariously nicknamed “The Cloud” to insure offsite storage. Lastly, we would burn our data to our trusty CDs or DVDs. Write-once optical discs are the most popular way to archive data for a variety of reasons. They are dirt cheap, have no moving parts, and are pretty much universal. And as write-once media, with proper storage, it’s almost impossible to corrupt the data once the burn is complete and verified. With the exception of the netbook or other highly portable laptops, most computers are sold with a drive that can burn discs, so the technology is mature, known, and stable. I’ve written in the past about the different media that one can choose to burn with and their respective qualities, but the basic fact remains that with memory cards surpassing 32GB in size, going out for the weekend with a camera means trying to burn multiple discs as back-up, which is just impractical and time consuming. Video capture creates an even larger file problem, so what to do? If only there was an automatic way to burn discs, say while you are sleeping, or lounging by the pool, or even stuck in traffic.

Bazinga! Robotic burners to the rescue! Robotic burners have been around for some time, with varying degrees of effectiveness, and with software that hasn’t always hit the mark. But now we are seeing burners that are increasingly easy to use, with the ability to automatically print labels, and work unattended. When Aleratec offered to let us work with their latest unit, the Aleratec DVD/CD RoboRacer LS Duplex for Mac and Windows, we thought it would be interesting to see how it worked in a modern digital content workflow. I knew it could duplicate discs, which it does splendidly, but what interested me was its ability to automatically archive and burn a large number of files. Could you take a large folder with 600 GBs of files in it and just walk away? Could you create a label that would numerically change as each disc is burned?

And the answer is … drum roll, please … a resounding “yes!” The RoboRacer LS Duplex is a gravity-fed device. Just place a stack of DVDs or CDs in the well at the top, and the RoboRacer slides them to the burner below. When the burn is complete, the unit slides them to the second burner for the LightScribe labeling to occur. On the Mac the software is Charismac Discribe 7 specially adapted for robotic burners, so the automated function is there from the start. The use of a LightScribe drive allows for labeling using special LightScribe media.

If you aren’t familiar with LightScribe, it is a technology pioneered by HP in 2004 and consists of a CD/DVD burner with a laser that burns on the topside of the proper media. I tested a LightScribe burner when it was first released years ago and found it an interesting idea, but not all that useful at the time. Why? The first-generation units had slow labeling speeds, with 30-minute-plus label burns not uncommon, and the graphic quality was limited. Compared to an inkjet label that could print in full-color in a few minutes, and considering HP’s licensing, one can see why it didn’t become popular. Soon, though, the use of labels on optical media proved a really bad idea. Discs covered with an inkjet label jammed in slot-loading drives, the ink tended to bleed over time. Worst of all, they slowly but surely began to damage the top lacquer layer, which leads to corruption of the data and ruined discs. Experts from the Library of Congress on down all advised against the use of stick-on CD labels.

Jump forward to today. LightScribe is much improved, robotic printers print directly on LightScribe media, and burn times have come down considerably. You can buy the media easily in different colors, from the big box stores or on the Internet. Because you never have to buy ink, LightScribe saves on ink costs. One interesting option is that you can add to the already burned label with additional burns. Because the inner hub of the disc contains precise locator information, the drive knows exactly where existing labeling has occurred, so it’s easy to add new data. Of course the old standby of manually labeling normal discs with an optical disc approved marker is fine as well, and you can purchase a wider variety of media (although not all of us have handwriting that is as legible as LightScribe text). By comparison, discs that I burned and labeled with a robotic inkjet printer several years ago have both faded and bled so that once sharp tight graphics are blurry with blacks actually showing yellowing around the edges and practically unreadable.

While no label technology is truly archival, with proper dark storage HP states that LightScribe labels should last indefinitely, but one should pay attention to storage since they are heat, light, material, and humidity sensitive. The HP Media Specs page answers the question, “Will the LightScribe image fade or darken over time or with exposure to light? LightScribe discs are optimized to ensure that the label surface lasts. Some minor fading may occur over time. To ensure the longest life for both the label and data, keep optical discs out of direct light.” The Verbatim Europe site goes into more detail, with a discussion that directs you to “Store your LightScribe discs in Polypropylene, Mylar, or Tyvek sleeves.” This helps avoid a chemical reaction that might occur that could cause fading. The LightScribe site states “The label will show no noticeable fading under exposure to indoor lighting for at least two years.” We all know that all recordable discs require proper storage, so don’t even think about leaving your precious archive of discs on your dashboard on a summer day!

It’s easy to burn labels with the RoboRacer LS Duplex. To use, you simply create a grayscale file with type, images, graphics, or a combination of your choice and then select it as your print file. You then have options for quality, which boils down to how important the quality of your label balanced against burn time. My goal was to identify each disc with clean clear type, so I opted for a normal quality setting. In practice, the quality setting is the contrast level, so a higher burn quality gives not only more complexity to the label, but a sharper image. To speed up the burns I skipped any graphics and used only type. I did utilize some high-quality graphics for discs I gave to others, and they looked just great.

Since the burn is from the center of the disc outward, my labels were created close to the center, and I used the auto numbering feature so that I had a sequential set of discs. You can start the numbering manually in case you need to start a sequence from a previous session. The media is available in different colors and your choice of DVD-R, DVD+R, and CD-R.

For Mac users, RoboRacer LS Duplex ships with a bundled copy of Charismac’s Discribe 7. In my first test I selected a folder at first with 20GBs of files, set the software to burn the data with the quality set high for the labeling, and let ‘er rip. I did this with both CD and DVD media, with the assumption that most folks will need the larger capacity of the DVD. Then I upped the ante a bit and tried a 50GB burn, basically starting the system, turning off energy saver, and letting it run overnight. In the morning, I had a nice stack of discs, neatly labeled, and ready to store. And as I bumped up the test size, the RoboRacer LS continued to be fast, reliable, and efficient.

Discribe has been around for a long time in the Mac community – long enough that somewhere I think I still have a floppy disc set for it. The program continues to improve and takes advantage of the robotic functions. The new version will do data spanning, so that it can automatically parse out the data to discs without the need for the user to figure out what will fit on each disc. The standard version has a 250GB limit, which for many folks will be more than adequate, but for the serious creative user it will possibly mean having to limit the burns. Charismac does have a solution, which is a paid upgrade to their “Enterprise Edition” which increases the maximum burn size past the 250GB limit. While the upgrade is named the “Enterprise Edition” the feature set seemed identical to the standard version when I tested it, with the exception of the higher spanning limit. Hopefully Charismac will eliminate this limit in the future since the RoboRacer LS Duplex is ideal for automated archiving use in addition to disc duplication.

One unexpected and very cool feature was the ability to load a stack of music CDs into the RoboRacer LS Duplex, and let Discribe automate the importing of that into iTunes. At last, your beloved stack of Milli Vanilli discs and your dad’s set of the entire collected work of Burl Ives CDs that you bought him when CD’s first came out, can finally have their digital debut in your iTunes library without any muss or fuss. I’m really serious about how great the ability is to load your CDs into the RoboRacer, set iTunes to import in the format and compression of your choice and then walk away. It’s quick, painless, and wonderful especially if you have been plugging away with a few CDs at a time! I’m working on a review of the newly released John Lennon solo re-masters and I used the unit to import the CDs as Apple Lossless files. I loaded the discs, walked away to make coffee, and by the time I was done all of them were ripped. Worked like a charm!

Mechanically the RoboRacer unit is well built, solid, and although I originally had some concerns about the plastic guides that hold the spindle cases where the finished discs collect, they worked fine without any problem. One thing I like about this design is that instead of a robotic arm that needs to move over to the input tray, pick up, and deliver the disc to the burner, move it to the printer, and finally back to the exit tray, the RoboRacer LS Duplex uses gravity to reduce the moving parts to a significant degree. It connects via USB and I found no connectivity problems with Discribe finding the unit.

I had lots of questions for Aleratec about labeling, how the software actually worked, write speeds, file prep, and tips and tricks. Aleratec was very responsive to my questions and I was able to get up to speed in a hurry. Their own guide was very helpful in setting up a personal workflow. One trick to remember is to use layers in Photoshop so that you can create a personal template. So, your name might be on one layer, and the subject of the burn on another, graphics or logo on another. Just select the layers you want to print, and the program will only print those layers. By keeping my label simple with no logos and close to the center of the disc, it took around five minutes to complete a good-quality label plus the time to actually burn the DVD. It works with JPEGs, TIFFs, and PSD files. This allows you to create a single Photoshop file with lots of layers and print only the layers you need.

Because the unit has dual burners, one drive can burn while the other drive labels, making it much faster than I expected when burning a series of discs. I tried a variety of designs in an attempt to speed up labeling, including putting type on a path, but it didn’t make that much of a difference. If you use the auto disc numbering function, which Discribe refers to as “Overlay Mode” you need to switch to “Full” mode, which extends the burn time to roughly 20 minutes but keep in mind that because this is happening in the lower drive, the upper is able to burn the content at the same time, so the labeling time doesn’t really affect productivity. The system’s ability to automate archiving files means that all you need to do is load up a stack of discs, select the content you want to burn, turn on disc numbering, lay in the graphics file that describes the content and then let it rip.

With DVD media lagging behind the size of our creative content, a tool like the Aleratec RoboRacer LS Duplex makes it easy to duplicate discs and burn an archive of your data no matter how many files you have been meaning to archive. It’s not enough to save your images on your hard drives or the “cloud” because you also need a stable media that is impervious to data corruption from electrical surges, head crashes, directory failure, and the host of conditions that lead to losing our digital memories, creative work, and data in all it’s form. Lets face it, except for those who have lost data, most folks just don’t find data backup that sexy, but we all need to do it properly, or else we will lose it. For some folks it’s priceless memories that are lost, for others it might mean the loss of income or their business, so instead of just putting it off and potentially making matters worse, try the automation made possible by the Aleratec RoboRacer LS Duplex, which comes highly recommended as a tool to make archiving effortless.

Harris Fogel, Posted 11/5/2010

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