LightScribe: HP’s Clever Twist on the CD Burner


Do you remember this little marketing slogan? No? Well, I can’t say I’m entirely surprised. But I’m also a little sad. That was one of the taglines of LightScribe,
a direct-disc labeling technology developed by Hewlett Packard and first released commercially
in 2004. What is it? Well, it’s a really clever twist on an already
common technology. LightScribe used existing optical drive technology
to burn monochrome images onto the label side of optical media, either CDs or DVDs. That’s right, it’s optical media time
again here at Technology Connections, where our mission is to stay timely and relevant. *beeper noise* Oh, excuse me I need to take
this. [to non-existent assistant offscreen]
Uh, can I borrow your phone? Jokes aside, I actually really, really like
the idea of LightScribe, and I think it’s an absolute shame that it didn’t take off. We’ll soon see that it’s not too surprising
it didn’t, but let me explain why I like it so much. LightScribe is a perfect example of my favorite
kind of innovation. Take a thing that currently does a thing,
and make it do more things or different things! At their core, LightScribe enabled optical
drives are pretty much identical to any ordinary CD or DVD burner. See, you already have a high-powered laser
that’s able to write readable data on a little plastic frisbee, so why not use that
same laser to burn images onto the other side of that plastic frisbee? And that’s roughly the exact question that
Daryl Anderson, lead engineer of the LightScribe project, probably asked when he first thought
up the product maybe. The bottom side of any writable optical disc
is already a marvel of engineering, with heat-sensitive dyes or even advanced polycrystalline alloys
that darken when exposed to the heat created by the laser light, therefore allowing tiny
little marks to be burned into the surface. These translate into the data that is actually
on the disc. If we’ve made materials that will get darker
when exposed to intense laser light, what’s to stop us from doing the same thing on the
top side of the disc, for making an actual label? Well, not much. In fact, only a small modification was needed
to turn an ordinary optical drive into a Lightscribe drive. And you can see it just here. This little doo-dad allows the drive to see
the rotational position of the disc. See, for writing data to a disc, its geometric
position is pretty much irrelevant. Molded into the plastic of the disc is a spiral
pregroove containing the ATIP, which stands for Absolute Time In Pregrrove. This not only guides the laser as it writes
data to a blank disc, but it also keeps the disc spinning at the correct speed relative
to the data being blasted onto it by the writing laser. And staying at the correct speed is all that
matters, really. The data can be placed arbitrarily along the
disc as far as its physical location goes, and so long as it reproduces the correct sequence
of zeros and ones, the correct data will be read. However, to make an image using a single light
source on a rotating disc, the disc’s exact position needs to be determined. This little guy works with the LightScribe
media to do just that. A LightScribe disc looks just like a regular
disc, except the top is almost entirely devoid of writing, save for a little bit of brand
and format identification in the center ring. But you’ll also see this little barcode
looking thing between the spindle hole and the writable portion of the disc. When the disc is placed upside down in a LightScribe
enabled drive, the barcode will line up with that scanner thing. Now the drive can know the disc’s absolute
rotational position so it creates a proper image, and not a spirally mess. That barcode also encodes information about
the label surface, which is pretty important particularly because of the difference between
CDs and DVDs. Ah, let’s talk a little bit more about the
disc itself. The top surface of most lightscribe discs
is this light tan color. The color comes from the material used in
the top coating, developed by Dr. Makarand Gore. Just like the dye coating on the underside,
this coating will get darker when it is heated up by the laser. But, it differs from the dye layer down below
in that it gets much, much darker, almost black. Through a simple labeling utility, you can
create simple text listings, or even beautiful monochrome pictures like this one. [pregnant pause] Well now, this is beginning to highlight the
problems of lightscribe, but before we get too far down that particular rabbit hole,
let’s take a look at how this works. I’ve taken the cover off of this slim drive
so we can see it in action. I’m having it make a simple label with the
word “Test”. First, you can see the scanner activating
to read the barcode on the inner ring. Once I started the printing process, I was
extremely surprised at how slowly the disc spins when it’s being labeled. Look at this! This is nuts. Luckily, we can see the laser shining through. Notice how it flashes briefly at a higher
intensity. This is it burning the letters onto the disc. What’s interesting here is that the laser
is switched on at all times. I’m not sure if any LightScribe drives were
made that could only burn CDs, so I’m wondering if we’re seeing the red laser diode for
DVDs burn with a steady glow, and the flashing is the high intensity infrared laser diode
blasting the disc with energy. ♫ low fidelity guitar music ♫ Perhaps we’re only seeing one or the other, ♫ the music returns briefly ♫ but in either case, this suggests that the drive is actually
looking at the surface of the disc, perhaps simply for focus, or maybe it actually checks
what it’s laid down. Whatever it’s doing, I still can’t get
over how slowly the disc is spinning! That’s a surprise. But maybe not. I’ll explain in a bit. With the disc completed, we can now take it
out and sure enough, there’s the word “Test” just like we expected. But there’s more weirdness in the LightScribe
universe. Like the stark difference between CDs and
DVDs. I’ve created a basic label and I’ve burned
the same thing onto a CD-R and a DVD-R. You might notice that they look mostly similar,
but the DVD label is almost… blurry looking. This is an odd quirk in the Lightscribe universe,
as DVDs and CDs were made very differently. Well, OK, all DVDs and CDs are made differently. In a CD, the data layer is actually barely
below the label side of the disc. The laser in a CD player is shining through
almost the entire thickness of the disc before the reflective surface bounces it back. But in a DVD, the data layer is actually in
the middle of the disc. You can see this even with standard DVD movies–the
disc has a seam down the middle, as it’s made in two halves. CD’s don’t have this seam, as they are
a single sheet of polycarbonate. Now for some reason, in LightScribe DVDs,
the label coating isn’t simply placed on the top of the disc. Instead, it’s sandwiched between a top clear
layer and the data layer beneath it. And this is why a LightScribe drive needs
to know if this is a DVD or a CD–the drive will focus at different depths depending on
which type of media is used. This always struck me as kinda odd, as what’s
to stop them from putting the same CD-style label coating on the actual top of a standard
DVD-R? Putting it in the middle like this meant that
all LightScribe DVD labels looked a little soft compared to those of CDs, however it
does appear to increase contrast slightly between light and dark, but that could simply
be down to the particular discs I’ve got here. That said, there was an advantage to this. Firstly, the label surface is more protected
in a LightScribe DVD because it’s not exposed. And secondly, a fairly common occurrence with
LightScribe media is for a white powder to form on top of the black portions of the label. This was simply a side-effect of the burning
process and it was purported to be a harmless crystallization of the label layer, however
it would get on your fingers if you touched it and wasn’t really pleasant looking on
the disc. With a DVD, that happened much less frequently
due to the protected and sealed nature of the label, and even if it did, at least the
powder wouldn’t get all over your fingers. So, how do you actually create a LightScribe
label? Well first, you need to make sure that you
have both LightScribe media and a LightScribe enabled optical drive, plus the necessary
LightScribe system utilities and some sort of program for creating labels like this Nero
Smart Essentials thing. You know, easy. But assuming you have all of that ready to
go, it’s pretty simple. The Nero software is about as user-friendly
as can be for 2004-ish, and it does something that at first seems really really weird, but
you will quickly learn is totally understandable. I’ll add a text box and as soon as I do
so, that box becomes a… crescent? Erm, OK. Well, from here, I have a pretty good degree
of customization. I can choose my typeface, its font size, bold
and italics, its justification and all that, just like a basic word processor. And then I hit OK, and it gets wrapped around
that crescent thing. Well, I can turn that off by unselecting the
“Bend” checkbox, and now things look a little more normal. Let’s just do some quick customization here,
maybe add a little something extra, and now I think that’s a delightful design, worthy
of a LightScribe label. So now, I’ll grab my CD which already has
my Awesome Mix 2006 on it, and I’ll pop it upside-down into the drive. I can now burn the label. So, I hit the little button, and now I can
select between “Draft, Normal, and Best”. I can even get a preview of what this will
look like on the finished disc, a handy little feature. Of course, I don’t settle for less than
the best, so I’ll hit Best, and now here’s where LightScribe’s weaknesses really come
into play. It tells me this will take about 15 minutes. Well, that’s a lie right there. This is gonna take more like 23 to 25 minutes. Yeah, LightScribe is anything but fast. But that’s not unexpected. Remember one of its design goals was to avoid
reinventing the wheel and use existing optical drive technology. And for the most part it did. But, let’s think for a moment how limiting
that was. The laser in a CD burner is normally focusing
its power onto a microscopic spot, so all of its power becomes concentrated and realistically
the laser doesn’t need to be all that powerful. But if we’re trying to draw with it, we
don’t want it to be focused onto a microscopic point that we can’t see. When burning a label, a LightScribe drive
actually defocuses the laser so that the point it’s burning is larger (and actually visible). But that means that the disc has to travel
more slowly, as we now know, WAY MORE SLOWLY, because with a less concentrated spot, the
energy is more spread out, and the laser can’t heat the label as quickly. Bummer. And, because the drives were only lightly
modified from standard optical drives, the discs could only spin in one direction. That might not seem like a limitation, but
that’s precisely why the label-making program would bend the text by default. See, the time it takes to burn a label is
directly dependent on the range from the inside boundary to the outside circumference that
is being used. And by being used, I mean AT ALL. Even if just a thin line is drawn from here
to here, the label will take 25 minutes to create. This is because it can’t just rock the disc
back and forth to make that line. It burns the label just like it burns data,
so it has to follow a spiral starting from the inside boundary and going all the way
to the outside edge. Remember that Test label? It spent the majority of the time with the
laser off, and because it can’t just skip the blank parts of the label, it takes a long
time to write just a single word. But the drive CAN skip blank sections along
the disc’s radius. So, if you bend the text into a ring, then
only this region is actually being used. So the drive can skip all this, burn from
here to here, and then it’s done. And here’s how that comes into play. This disc here, even though it’s just a
small amount of text, took about 25 minutes to make. The text gets very close to the inside edge,
and continues almost all the way to the outside edge. So even though none of this space is being
used, the laser still had to travel over all of it. But this disc, with much more written information,
only took about 10 minutes. All of the text is contained between these
two boundaries, so the inside portion could be skipped, and the drive didn’t need to
burn anything past here. So, to save time, the program is always going
to encourage you to bend the text like this, as these labels can me made in as little as
5 minutes. If you’re OK with 12 point font, this can
get down to 2. With that limitation, though, how attractive
is the system, really? Sure, this is more legible than a sharpie,
but if you want to make … professional looking labels like this, you’ll be spending at
least 15 minutes each go, and probably more. You could save some time by selecting either
the “draft” or “normal” settings, but those sacrifice burn intensity and/or
resolution and will produce a lighter image. And the lengthiness of the burn process isn’t
the only weakness. You may have noticed how low-contrast this
atrocity was. Ignoring the fact that it’s a monochrome
image (c’mon, we’re not making miracles here) this is a rather low-contrast affair
even when burned on the “best” setting. LightScribe looks pretty good with black text,
but introduce images and things get less optimal. In order to look their best on a LightScribe
label, the image should be adjusted to have borderline extreme contrast, an adjustment
that is unfortunately omitted from this labeling utility. And the image quality concerns don’t stop
there. Look a little more closely at these labels
and you’ll see that the text isn’t entirely aligned right. There is a slight shifting going on at many
points. Some of this is likely down to my particular
LightScribe drive, but the format was prone to this happening from time to time. I’ve even had a few discs come out as a
complete mess, likely due to a dirty barcode ring. This is real, by the way, this is supposed
to have words on it. And here’s one image abnormality that’s
appeared on every single LightScribe disc I’ve ever made. You can see the actual spiral pattern of the
laser’s travel in solidly dark portions. Of course, I think that’s pretty neat but
let’s be honest, it’s a flaw. You’re probably thinking of another flaw
to LightScribe that kept it from reaching mass popularity: Cost. LightScribe drivers were probably stupid expensive,
and the discs? Pfft, waste of money. Actually, no. The drives themselves were barely any more
expensive than standard drives. Even in the early days, there were plenty
of LightScribe enabled drives that actually cost less than standard drives from some competing
manufacturers. Remember, there’s not much different about
a LightScribe drive, and HP was happy to license it to many manufacturers. By 2005, 6 different drive manufacturers had
signed on to make LightScribe drives. And the media was a bit more expensive than
standard blank media, but honestly not by much. Assuming you were sticking to mainstream brands
and not bargain basement specials, an equivalent LightScribe disc from the same manufacturer
was only about 20 to maybe 50% more expensive. It’s hard to make a comparison now because
LightScribe is pretty much dead, but I recall that a spindle of 50 LightScribe DVDs was
about $30, and CDs were between $22 and $25. Honestly that seemed very reasonable to me,
especially because there’s an added cost to either paper labels or inkjet-printable
CDs. Oh, paper labels. Ugh. How I hated paper labels. That was the single greatest advantage of
LightScribe in my eyes, as they worked great in cars. A CD with a paper label never behaves too
nicely with the slot loading players in cars or many Apple products back when they included
optical drives and headphone jacks. LightScribe discs just looked great without
any compatibility issues, and everyone who I ever gave one to was impressed with them. So really, it’s just a little sad that no
one cared to use them more. But, I understand. A sharpie and a cheap CD is pretty sufficient,
particularly since so many burned discs were just throwaway affairs to begin with. And there were still more problems with LightScribe. The label surface is pretty susceptible to
wear (in CDs anyway), and it can fade quickly if left in direct sunlight or exposed to extreme
heat, and over a period of years the label will fade regardless unless cared for. They can last a long time if cared for, though. These backup discs for my netbook (that’s
right, netbook, remember those?) are around 7 or 8 years old now and the labels look fine. Granted, these are DVDs with the inherent
protection of the top surface layer. Where is LightScribe today? Officially deceased. You knew it was coming, didn’t you? HP officially ended LightScribe support in
2013 by removing its website and even going so far as to say “you can find the software
you need somewhere else, not here.” And while you can still get LightScribe drives
and media, it’s pretty much new old stock only at this point. Today, you can find the LightScribe utilities
you may need at lightscribesoftware.org, a website run by Steve Nelson who is really
going out of his way to keep LightScribe support going. And indeed, I owe him thanks, as I needed
to download the system utility to make the discs for this video. But before it died, LightScribe was improved
by offering discs in other colors, but that was about all the innovation it ever received. If they could have gotten a full label done
in 5 minutes, I think it would have fared better. But then again, that would probably require
a much stronger laser than what’s in a garden variety optical drive, making the drive much
more expensive, and further limiting appeal. Oh well, it was neat while it lasted. Thanks for watching, I hope you enjoyed this
look into what I honestly feel like is perhaps the most underappreciated development in optical
disc history. I don’t know what could have been done to
make LightScribe a little more popular because let’s face it, how often did you even want
to make a nice label for your angsty mixes? And if you needed to make discs professionally,
it’s just far too slow and by that point you would be wiser to invest in some sort
of screen printing setup or even just having ordering discs to be commercially pressed. It was always going to be a niche product,
even though it was pretty neat. As always, thank you to everyone who supports
the channel on Patreon, especially the fine folks that are scrolling up your screen. A lot of channels here on YouTube need to
rely on outside sponsorships to stay possible. But thanks to the amazing support of people
like you, this channel doesn’t. If you’d like to become one of these awesome
people and help support the channel, and get behind-the-scenes access, sneak peaks, and
other perks, please check out my Patreon page. Thanks for your consideration, and I’ll
see you next time. And now, the outtro music. ♫ suspiciously smooth jazz ♫ A bonus fact about LightScribe: Because of
that barcode thing, the disc actually has a natural orientation. This means you can add something to an already
labeled disc simply by burning something onto it in the unused area. So, my Awesome Mix 2006 can be amended with
a warning for non-awesome people. Also, this allowed you to burn the same label
again, which would make it a little darker, but with repeated burns slight alignment errors
would compound and make the image increasingly blurry. LightScribe was not the first direct-disc
labeling product, nor would it be the last. In 2002, Yamaha had developed the disturbingly
named [email protected] (pronounced “Disc Tattoo”) –uh that’s terrible– which could etch
a sorta-label on the bottom side of a CD or DVD in the unused data portion. Um, lots of problems there, you can’t use
it unless the disc isn’t anywhere near full, the “label” is on the bottom side so not
really a label, and also these weren’t radically easy-to-see because the dye layer isn’t
meant for that. Nevertheless, it was briefly a thing, but
had very little support. NEC would later use Yamaha’s patent on [email protected] (seriously, that’s an awful name) to create LabelFlash, which was a direct competitor
to LightScribe. This came out in 2006, with the discs having
a bright blue label on top. It fared even worse than LightScribe, probably
because it was a later format with less manufacturer support, the discs were way more expensive
than LightScribe media (like 2 or 3 times more expensive) and it also was limited to
DVDs only. And I’ll leave you with something that I
can’t demonstrate unless smell-o-vision takes off. LightScribe media has a very distinctive odor. Crack open a fresh spindle of LightScribe
discs and you’ll be greeted with a not-unpleasant but certainly unnatural mild chemical smell. The best way to describe it is, I think, musty
crayons. Yeah, it’s a little musty but also plasticy
and like hot wax. Musty crayons. I actually kinda like it, but I have a feeling
it’s not exactly healthy.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright © 2019 Geted Tabs Online. All rights reserved.