Ink jet labeling--Not perfect, not bad

SAN FRANCISCO (03/26/2004) - Let's face it: Creating labels is a chore. Getting the alignment right, designing the label, entering the data ... it's yet another thing you have to do if you want your discs to wear something more specific and visually appealing than a hastily scrawled "Vacation Photos 2003."

Last month, I examined four labeling kits that include software, adhesive labels, and label applicators. For the most part, they weren't worth the bother.

Hewlett-Packard Co.'s forthcoming LightScribe technology, which will burn a label directly onto media, sounds promising, but it's not here yet--and when it does arrive, it will take up to 20 minutes to burn a monochrome, full-disc label onto a disc.

So my quest for a simple way to create labels for my ever-mounting pile of discs continues. This month, I decided to give Epson America Inc.'s US$230 Stylus Photo R300 printer a whirl. This ink jet printer is one of Epson's second generation models that supports printable DVD and CD media. It did well on our general printing tests, ranking fourth on our April 2004 Top 5 Photo Printers chart. But how does it deal with the realities of disc labeling? Surprisingly well, as I found in my hands-on tests.

Photo Printer Does Discs, Too

The R300's included Epson CD Print applet is markedly improved from its predecessor, offering greater flexibility in design without becoming overly complex. Text handling is awkward, though. For example, you can't directly change text sizes or colors; you have to enter a separate dialog box. And you can't create multiple lines of circular text. But adding and positioning background images is easy, and if all you want to do is create a label that describes the content on the disc, this applet will do quite nicely.

I was impressed by how well the software and the printer worked together by default: When I examined the label I printed on Verbatim Printable DVD-R media, the background image's alignment was within a millimeter or two of what I designed on screen--and I didn't have to futz with calibration settings (a frequent hassle when dealing with adhesive labels).

Less impressive was the printer's disc handling. It's easy enough to mount a disc on the included tray, which you then insert halfway into the front-accessible slot. But the loading mechanism proved finicky. I frequently had to remove and reload the tray, then reset the printer's Maintenance button.

This annoyance aside, I found myself enjoying the process more and more with each disc label I created. Creating a full-disc label with a 3-megapixel digital image as the background took just over 3 minutes--a reasonably short enough time that I didn't begin to feel antsy.

The printed output on discs was smooth, and dried quickly. The end result was eye-catching, too. I'm sold on the idea of creating labels that use background pictures to help describe a disc's content--for example, an image of a gymnast for a gymnastics competition recorded from TV, or a vacation photo for a disc containing digital images from a trip.

Not Quite Label Magic

The Print CD applet from Epson is quite usable, but it can only design the label that goes on the disc. Sadly, there's more than this to labeling: You need accompanying inserts for the CD or DVD jewel case, too. So as good as the Epson applet is, you'll still need to look elsewhere for help completing your labeling job.

As of this writing, only two third-party labeling packages--Roxio Easy Media Creator 7 ($85) and SureThing CD Labeler ($30)--support Epson's R300 and its sibling, the R200. Epson says other popular disc burning packages, including Ahead Software's Nero 6 Ultra Edition (our recent Best Buy in an April 2004 burning software roundup), will eventually support these printers' direct-to-disc printing capabilities.

I didn't get a full-blown copy of SureThing's latest kit in time for this review. But Roxio's Label Creator, which is included in Easy Media Creator 7, represents a vast improvement over previous labeling components included in earlier iterations of the company's software. I still wish certain things were easier to do, and it took a little fooling around to get the hang of the interface, but I found much to like.

For one thing, Label Creator has integrated label layouts, so if you populate data on the disc label, it transfers to a corresponding text field in the jewel case insert and booklet layouts, too--assuming you've gone through the complicated process of selecting the layouts you want to create before beginning your label.

Another neat feature: The software can auto-populate labels based on what it deems "Smart Content," picking up certain information stored on the disc itself, such as track lists for Audio CDs, the disc's title and contents, the number of files, and more. This is particularly handy for quick-and-dirty labeling. It's not pain-free or seamless yet, but it's a step in the right direction.

Printing on the Epson R300 is easy--you just click the Print to Disc check box in the printer dialog box, and the label is printed accordingly.

Special Media Required

Of course, to use the Epson R300 printer, you'll need printable media, offered by Verbatim and other manufacturers, that has a specially coated layer designed for absorbing printer inks. I used Verbatim media for my tests and was generally satisfied with the results--although I did see some patterning in the full-disc image, which was due to the disc's surface coating.

Another caveat: The image was easily smudged when it came into contact with water, even after drying for more than 15 hours. This could pose a challenge if you use a cleaning solution to remove dust or dirt from the underside of a disc: You'll have to be careful none of the solution comes into contact with the labeled side. And though things went smoothly for me, I have heard anecdotal reports of slow drying times, smudging, and ink bubbling with some discs.

You can't always find printable media on store shelves, but you can order it online. Surprisingly, pricing is only minimally higher than it is for standard media. For example, average prices run about $35 for a 25-disc spindle of printable DVD media, and $45 for a 100-disc spindle of CD-Rs. That's about what you'd pay for regular discs.

The Epson R300 may not be the ultimate solution for disc labeling, but it does offer an attractive alternative to adhesive labels. It comes closer to hitting the mark than most options currently on the market--especially when paired with Roxio Inc.'s Easy Media Creator 7 software.

I already have a perfectly good ink jet photo printer, but I'm wondering whether the R300--glitches and all--is just the excuse I need to upgrade.

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