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Our Discs are Sealed
Posted Dec 1, 2003 Print Version     « previous Page 2of 5 next »

Various disc decorating requirements demand that labels be available with a wide range of surfaces to accept output from all manner of devices, including color lasers, inkjet printers, and resin-based solid ink systems. White matte labels are the most affordable and (depending upon the vendor) come in both universal versions and other varieties optimized for use in particular types of printers. For the more image-conscious, gloss surfaces are also available. Inkjet printers, designed as they are to work with paper stock, have come a long way in recent years. It is not surprising, therefore, that glossy labels produced by the latest top-end models can achieve the best-looking print results of any technology.

Beyond simple background canvases, adhesive labels themselves can often steal the show. For example, Avery, Fellowes/ Neato, and Memorex offer specialized products with eye-catching finishes, including transparencies, metal foils, and holographic patterns, while Imation promotes the fashionably irradiated look of its glow-in-the-dark offerings and Verbatim markets labels mimicking the appearance of vinyl records.

Basic matte white labels are the least pricey and range from 10 cents each in high volume to 45 cents in small quantities. At between 30 cents to $1.15, photo-quality inkjet label costs reflect greater manufacturing expense (with enhanced sales margins) while holographic selections carry the premium price of $1-$1.28 each.

Still To Be Neat: Inkjet Printers
A little over ten years ago, inkjet technology was first harnessed to print directly onto the surface of CD-R discs. The first truly practical desktop labelers, inkjet printers have since been widely adopted and celebrated for their low equipment cost as well as impressive color-imaging capabilities.

Historically, all inkjet disc labelers were simply off-the-shelf consumer or office paper printers modified by third parties to physically accept discs. In adapting mass-market units, manufacturers keep hardware costs low and print quality improving by sharing in the massive research and development efforts of others. More recently, several leading inkjet printer manufacturers have themselves either openly entered the disc market or are now actively assisting others in the development of CD/DVD-capable devices. This growing list of companies now includes Primera Technology, Rimage, Microboards, Verity Systems, and luminaries Epson America and Hewlett-Packard.

These units require using specially coated "inkjet-printable" discs to work their magic. Compatible CD-R media is now offered by most brands including Verbatim, Memorex, and Imation, as well as commercial names such as Taiyo Yuden and MBI/Glyphics. DVD±R printable discs, on the other hand, are still difficult to source. Typically coming with silver and white surfaces, discs with attention-grabbing finishes are also starting to appear, including Verbatim's Digital Vinyl CD-Rs (which look like 45 RPM records), as well as hub-coated alternatives.

Basic device design has not changed much in recent years, with units employing either manual caddy or mechanized trays to be hand fed or attached to automated labeling, duplication, and publishing systems. Depending upon the unit and resolution, throughput now varies from one to four minutes per full-surface disc. Technical underpinnings range from 1200 to 5760dpi, 3- to 6-color palettes, and 2- to 18-picoliter droplet sizes. Operating costs run anywhere from 20 to 50 cents to print a full-surface disc.

Although the onslaught of engines with more and more impressive specifications continues for paper and photo applications, some disc-labeling companies maintain that these are a mixed blessing for them. For example, faster operation and additional colors are obviously meaningful for most tasks as they enhance image quality and increase throughput. However, "droplet size is irrelevant" according to Primera vice president of sales and marketing Mark Strobel. "Everyone acknowledges that you must use high-quality photo paper to make any difference, but the top of an inkjet-printable CD or DVD isn't the same thing." And with little impact on image quality, Strobel points out that using higher and higher resolutions just slows things down. "This seems like a giant step backward to us," says Strobel, "especially when a full CD can be recorded in less than three minutes."

Instead of pursuing purely technical improvements, some manufacturers are now concentrating on expanding the market for disc duplication and labeling systems. For example, Primera's newly updated Bravo II seeks to bring automated production down to the level of just another desktop peripheral with a more accessible price, smaller size, and friendlier disposition.

And destined to take disc printing to a larger market (but not to pursue it as an end in itself) is Epson America, the first mainstream printer manufacturer to enter the fray. Its latest Stylus Photo 900 and Stylus Photo 960 (see sidebar, page 5) are multifunction units augmenting their conventional paper and digital picture output with direct CD and DVD labeling capabilities. "We're not inclined to make a dedicated printer just for discs," says Parker Plaisted, a product manager for Epson's specialty photo printer group. "We're really focused on extending paper printers to CDs. We see it as a differentiating feature."

While Epson takes the direct approach and offers its own disc-printing products, Hewlett-Packard seems content for the moment to work behind the scenes, assisting others in developing their own devices. Over the past few years, HP's OEM division has actively supported integration of its inkjet printers into third-party disc-labeling solutions, including Rimage's Liberty, Microboards' Print Factory ( and Verity Systems' OptiPrinter. In addition to its technical expertise, partners are also benefiting from HP's assistance with market research and access to its vast experience says Jim Lewis, vice president of marketing for Rimage. "HP has caused us to rethink the market and look at new opportunities."

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