Burning in your own CD-ROMs is now fast, idiot-proof and completely affordable, thanks to the latest CD writing technology.
Cut my own CD-ROMs? Who do they think I am – Polygram? A year ago, that would have been a perfectly justifiable reaction to the idea of investing in CD-writing equipment. But the price of CD writers and blank discs has plummeted, and homemade CD-ROMs are now a simple, cost-effective and versatile tool for distributing multimedia marketing material, swapping files internally and backing up data.

The option to produce CD-ROMs in-house could not have come at a better time for companies that send out large amounts of information in brochures or on floppy disc. Floppy discs are becoming obsolete, their 1.44 MB capacity barely enough to store one high-quality digital photo, and the only other disc-reading device universally fitted to personal computers is the CD-ROM drive. Of course, the new-fangled digital versatile discs hold about seven times as much data as a CD, but recordable DVD is not here yet and is likely to be expensive when it does arrive.

Home-grown CD-ROMs are also the cheapest way to store and distribute large amounts of data. They hold up to 650 MB, so a designer's revised CAD file, or QS's bill of quantities can be put on disc and popped in the post for less than £1.

Getting going

Any firm that wants to emulate Polygram must first decide what kind of disc it needs – either CD-R or CD-RW.

Gold-coloured CD-R (compact disc recordable) make permanent recordings. These are widely available in any computer store for less than £1 each. Information can be burned into them by upping the power of the laser that usually reads the disc. They can be read by any CD drive.

Bluey-green CD-RWs (RW for rewritable) have a layer that changes colour in response to light and allows data to be recorded. Switching the laser to a higher power erases the dots, so information can be recorded, erased and re-recorded almost endlessly. However, these discs cannot be read by some older CD-ROM drives, so if you are using them to distribute data, make sure the recipient is properly equipped. They are also more expensive, costing about £3 each.

To find out how home recording works in practice, I borrowed a CDD 3610 CD-ROM writer from Philips (a range of manufacturers produce alternative models). It is an external unit, so you don't have to take the top off your computer, but it adds yet another power cable to the spaghetti piling up at the back of the machine, and occupies the parallel printer port. Although the printer can be plugged into the back of the CD-ROM unit, it can be difficult to get working this way.

The speed of a CD-ROM writer is measured in multiples of the standard CD speed, so a 2 × 2 × 6 drive would write and rewrite at double speed, and read six times faster.

CD-RW writers are available at all computer stores. Prices range from £180 for a 2 × 2 × 6 unit to £350 for a 4 × 4 × 16 unit.

An external unit may be best value for users who will only write the occasional CD-ROM, but if home-made CD-ROMs are going to be a part of daily life, it is worth installing an internal drive. Philips, Yamaha and Hewlett-Packard have all launched drives capable of recording at four times the usual speed. Prices are in the same range as for external units. Alternatively, anyone buying a new PC should consider specifying an integral CD-writer.

Adaptec has also launched a new connector card for £40 that allows external CD-ROM writers to be connected using the SCSI interface. This speeds up the process and frees your printer port as well.

Next on the shopping list is software. Many CD-ROM writers are supplied with the budget version of Adaptec's Easy CD Creator, but it is worth getting hold of the Deluxe edition, which is faster and has more features. It costs £70. A few CD-R and CD-RW discs, plus some blank labels, and you are ready to go.

The write stuff

The actual process is simple but time-consuming. For archiving material on to CD-RW, drag and drop the files on to the unit's icon – it is labelled "drive E" in my computer. Anyone who just wants to back up the day's work could leave a disc in the recorder and copy to it regularly.

Creating an unalterable CD-R is just as easy, although it does require some thought. Files must be assembled in a playlist; pressing the button starts the process.

If you are doing the recording in several sessions, the second session must include a pointer to the first or the CD-ROM drive will not read it.

The final step is to design and print sleeves for the plastic jewel cases and labels for the discs. Easy CD Creator includes software with ready-made templates, but loading text and graphics can be fiddly. Printing the disc labels is the easiest part of the process, but it is essential to apply them accurately. This can be done by eye, but packages such as the £23 Hewlett-Packard CD Labeller ensure good results every time.