March 2001|I've been a CD-R enthusiast for nearly four years now, but I must admit that CD-R printing—the practice of printing graphics and images directly onto printable CD-R media—has never stirred up much interest in me. Quite early on, I adopted the techniques of using sticky-label methods (one of my very first EMedia articles back in 1997 was an evaluative survey of such products) and felt-tip pens to mark up my CDs, and I've never really longed for anything fancier.
However, my excitement about reviewing MicroBoards Technology's Saturn II SP Publisher duplication unit—which comes equipped with a Primera Signature III CD-R printer—was genuine and palpable. The Saturn II SP (originally developed by Champion Duplicators, which was recently purchased by MicroBoards) is an automated CD-R "publishing system" featuring two 8X recorders, a 40X CD-ROM drive, a 6GB internal hard disk, an "input hopper" for loading blank CDs, a nifty "up-stacker" for storage of properly burned CDs, a "reject" bin, and, of course, the printer. Commands and procedures are accessible via an easily navigable digital menu. (A 12X version has been announced but was not available at the time of this review.)
The unit also comes with two manuals: a "quick start" guide for experienced CD-R folk, and a thicker, more detailed manual for novices. I'm no novice, but I found it necessary during testing to have both handy. The full version is invaluable because it addresses troubleshooting issues thoroughly—which, as we shall see, proved essential for addressing problems with the printer.
images all your own
It's possible to make your own images to be printed on CDs using the Saturn II SP, but there's a deluge of prerequisites. First and foremost, you need a Windows PC equipped with a CD recorder of its own so that you can burn your label-image files onto a disc to be fed into the system. That threw me out of the running right there, since the only working, recording-ready computer I had at my fingertips at the time I did my testing was an iMac. Thankfully, sample images are included on one of the CD-ROMs that came with the unit, and I was able to use them for testing. (Other considerations: label discs cannot be packet-written; the label files must be in the root directory of the disc, and they must be recorded in a closed session.)
I was eager to print my first CD, but my enthusiasm was dampened when it seemed all the problems I ran into using the Saturn II SP stemmed from the printer. When it worked, it worked fantastically—the full-color printing quality was superb, and the slick, professional look of the resulting CDs impressed me. But I found the printer's compatibility with the overall Saturn II SP unit only intermittently successful.
The manuals, to their credit, go into painstaking detail when discussing how to set up and align the printer properly. Basically, the printer tray when extended must line up perfectly with the input hopper, which drops discs into the tray as the first step in the production process. Even a slightly maladjusted printer, says the manual, will cause loading difficulties. I found this to be very true indeed, and the printer's fussiness regarding its interoperability with the main unit's disc-handling mechanism proved more than frustrating: it was at times almost maddening.
The first problem I ran into came up during the "autocycle" procedure. The manuals suggest running this process, which sends discs through the entire set-up without doing any actual recording or printing, before attempting any actual projects. I loaded up the input hopper with about 40 CD-Rs, and activated the "autocycle" menu. The unit loaded discs into the printer, unloaded them, and then ran them through the recorders before depositing them into the up-stacker or the reject bin.
Several discs went through without incident, but then the procedure literally ground to a halt when suddenly, on the eighth disc or so, the printer tray jammed up immediately after unloading the disc. A horrible noise resulted, and the autocycle process was aborted. It was necessary to turn the unit's power switch off and then back on in order to do anything else—which, in an actual burning situation, would effectively kill the project and necessitate a do-over.
I double-checked the printer's alignment and could see nothing wrong. I manually extended and retracted the printer tray without a problem. Then I tried the autocycle procedure again, and the tray jammed up again. Multiple attempts—all preceded by fine-tuning the alignment of the printer—invariably ended up with this kind of interruption somewhere along the way. None of my tests resulted in all 40 discs making it through the procedure.
This was troubling, but I went ahead with my other tests. I sent a single disc through an actual print-and-record process—duplicating the drivers disc that came with the unit—and everything performed flawlessly: I came away with a perfect duplicate (in terms of both appearance and disc content) of the original. Next, I tried another one-disc project, this time duplicating a 79-minute audio CD; again, the result was spectacular, with fantastic high-speed audio extraction and flawless 8X recording.
One feature I was eager to test was batch-copying, which allows multiple recording jobs in a single run. If you have five originals that you need to copy 15 times each, for example, you can simply place the first original in the input hopper, followed by 15 blank discs, then the second original, then 15 more blank discs, and so on. The recorders will check each disc to see if it can be read; if it can, it's assumed to be an original and will be copied. If it cannot, it's assumed to be a blank and the most recent original's content will be recorded on it.
Alas, I could not find the "Batch Copy" menu, and when I checked the manual's menu map, I found that the feature is "not available at initial release." Apparently, a future firmware update will activate this potentially very useful and attractive feature.
Operating modes that did work were "QuickCopy", "Start Copying", "Start Comparing", and "Start Printing". Most of these are self-explanatory, but it's worth noting that the "QuickCopy" command does not allow label printing, and despite its name does not permit straight disc-to-disc copying. The unit prompts you to insert the master disc into the designated CD reader, whereupon it extracts the information to the internal hard drive. It then ejects the master and starts making the copies automatically.
Another nifty feature is optional password protection, to prevent unauthorized access to the machine. The manuals warn that the password must not be forgotten; the only recourse in that event is to contact technical-support personnel, who will generate a "custom unlock code."
and in the end…
I did attempt some multi-disc writing projects—bypassing printing, as I was a bit gun-shy given my previous experiences. I turned off the printing capability, but was perplexed to find that discs were still being fed through the printer. So the same problems resulted, and a new one cropped up. Whereas originally the problem had come from the printer's unloading procedure, now the loading procedure was causing problems. Discs were not dropping into the extended printer tray properly, leading to yet more jams and procedure abortions. The problem was intermittent, but when it did occur it effectively stopped the project in its tracks.
The Saturn II SP has lots of potential; when things are working, its performance is close to stellar. The problems with the printer tray can likely be solved with some fine-tuning and adjustments, or possibly replacement of faulty components. I saw enough during testing to convince me that once the printer-related problems are taken care of, the Saturn II SP can live up to all its promises as a high-performance CD-R publishing system.