If you want prettier labels than a few hastily-scrawled words to keep your CD archives in order, check out one of these CD printing solutions.

As the use of recordable DVD and CD media increases, it's becoming more and more important to employ a tight regime of organization to your collection of discs. There's nothing worse than having to stick a stack of discs in the computer one by one just to see what's on them.

Nobody wants to end up with a ton of CDs and DVDs with no moniker, and no clues as to their contents. But what are the best options available to mark up your discs? There is of course the low-tech marker pen approach. But who ever has one of those to hand? CD markers, in the Digit office at least, are as hard to come by as a free lunch.

However, if you want to use a marking pen to scribble a quick label on the top of a disc, manufacturers and the National Institute of Technologies say to avoid a pen based on alcohol or a solvent, as these materials could eat into the disc's surface.

Label-creation software

There are more interesting options. Various software programs for creating disc info that you print onto adhesive labels are available. Most media-burning software includes a labelling component, except perhaps the stripped-down software that ships with most DVD drives. If yours lacks this feature, don't despair: There are a handful of stand-alone labelling applications from companies like Avery, Fellowes, Maxell, and Meritline.

However, both built-in labellers and separate applications often have Byzantine interfaces that make them frustrating to use. None of the standalone applications can automatically populate your label with the information for the data you've just burned to disc, such as music tracks and titles, video chapters and titles, and data file names. This is true even among most labelling components integrated into suites. For example, Ahead's Nero 6 Ultra Edition does auto-populate, but only for audio CDs, and Pinnacle's Instant CD/DVD auto-populates for DVD video content only. Without this key feature, creating a label takes a lot of time - especially if you're putting a hundred-plus MP3s on a CD.

There are some concerns about the adhesive labels themselves. Even though many third-party packages include a gadget to apply labels, you still have to take care to apply the label evenly and smoothly, with no air pockets. Otherwise, the label could cause an unequal distribution of forces on the disc as it spins in the drive, which in turn could cause the disc to shatter while spinning at high speeds.

Print labels with your inkjet

Introduced last summer, Epson's Stylus Photo 900 was the first consumer ink jet printer to include a dedicated CD/DVD tray for printing directly on a disc's surface. Epson has since released the Stylus Photo R300 and the R300M, both of which support printing on optical media. To use these printers for labelling media, you'll need to buy printable discs such as those offered by Maxell and Verbatim - when they're sold in a spindle, printable discs don't cost any more than standard media). Plus, you have to use Epson's included utility, CD Print, to design your label - which means you're stuck entering all of the disc's contents manually. You're out of luck if you were hoping to use a third-party application.

There are additional limitations. For example, the Stylus Photo 900's label-printing software cautions you to wait at least 24 hours before using your disc in a CD or DVD player.

Thermal Printers

For years, high-end duplicators from Microboard, Primera Technology, and Rimage have offered professional-looking thermal printing on discs. But these costly duplicators are targeted at businesses with high-volume production needs: Primera's Bravo Disc Publisher, for example, sells for about £1,395 plus VAT.

Casio has brought basic thermal disc printing to the masses with its £85 plus VAT CW-75 Disc Title Printer. This compact printer resembles Casio's label printer, with its small, greyscale LCD and QWERTY keyboard. But the CW-75 prints directly onto discs, and it's nothing fancy. You're limited to just eight lines of text above the disc's hub, and eight below.

CD or DVD burners that label the discs aren't quite here yet, but they're on the way. Hewlett-Packard is readying a DVD burner that includes labelling capabilities. The company's new LightScribe technology lets you use the burner's laser to etch a label onto the top of LightScribe media.

The process isn't easy to control, says Daryl Anderson, inventor of this promising technology. "LightScribe-enabled media comes with a thin layer of a photosensitive dye that has a high-contrast change from its initial state to its activated state," he says. "At the centre hub is a ring with 'control features,' a bar-code-like reflective ring that's embossed into the disc at the time it's moulded using polycarbonate."

The control features on the disc serve as the control centre for the LightScribe burn process. "They look at the orientation of the disc, so the drive knows where the disc is, rotationally, as it's labelling," explains Anderson. This built-in intelligence means the drive can resume burning the label as needed, which is particularly handy should you want to add new song titles or file names to the label at a later time.

"The drive looks at the control features and gets information about the media that it's dealing with, so it learns about the safe operating parameters for that given media," continues Anderson. From there, he says the LightScribe component of the firmware "takes the information from the control features on the media and information about the drive capabilities and melds that together to control the burning process - the imaging process in the drive - in an optimal fashion." Among other things, the firmware controls the laser and the spindle speed.

How LightScribe labels

The printing isn't controlled by the strength of the laser. Instead, it's how long the laser hovers in a specific spot on the disc. "As you concentrate more and more spots in an area, the darker an image would be," says Anderson. He explains that the process is analogous to half-toning in greyscale images on ink jets and monochrome lasers.

The initial generation of LightScribe drives will support burning labels at 4x, meaning it will take about 20 minutes to create a full-disc label. HP plans to halve that time by the end of the year, Anderson says. HP plans to license LightScribe technology - the first announced software licensees are MicroVision and Sonic. We'll have to wait to see how well LightScribe lives up to its hype.