6 of the best media burners for Linux
27th Sep 2009 | 09:00
Which disc-burning app should you trust with your data?
Back in the day, a custom audio CD with the best love songs made a wonderful Valentine's Day gift. Now she'd hardly be impressed.
You'd need to throw in the holiday videos and make sure it works on the high definition plasma to sweep her off her feet.
That might sound like a lot of work, but it's a job you can get done with almost any Linux CD/DVD burning app.
That's because most writing apps are equally capable of putting data on optical media as they are at retrieving it. And some apps don't just do brute force ripping – they also have decent transcoding abilities and give you quite a bit of control over the end result.
In addition to normal CDs and DVDs, almost all apps can handle rewriteable (RW) and dual-layer double-capacity versions. Although high-capacity discs and their respective Blu-ray and HD DVD drives aren't very common, if you own one, you can find at least a couple of applications for Linux that will put it to good use.
Since all distros come with a disc burning app, they get a lot of attention to make sure they integrate into their native environment and don't look out of place. When you put in a blank CD, the burner should pick it up and ask you what kind of data you'd like to burn.
Yet despite all the glitz, the same age-old tools are chugging away at the back-end, giving the front-end apps approximately equal powers. So, how do the various disc burning apps stack up against each other and which one should you trust with your data? Let's spin 'em up and find out.
Gnome fans have been looking for a competent alternative to the KDE-based K3b for a long time. Their current weapon of choice is Brasero, which stakes its claim to your hard drive space on being quick and simple to use.
It certainly succeeds in this goal – launching the app presents you with a few buttons to select the type of media you want to burn, categorised by projects. With one of these selected, all you need to do is add some appropriate files, review one or two options and you're done. Easy.
That's not to say that Brasero is limited, though. It can handle rewritable (RW) media and burn ISO, CUE, RAW and TOC image files. Even if you don't have a disc in the drive, Brasero can write an ISO image for you to burn to a physical disc later.
Audio CDs can be compiled from OGG, FLAC and MP3 files, which are automatically converted into audio CD format. You can insert a pause after each track, split them up manually, divide them into a fixed number of parts, or cut them at every silence. After splitting the tracks, you can remove and merge the various slices as you please. Brasero can also import tracks using an M3U or PLS playlist. Similarly, you can use Brasero to compile a video disc.
When burning video discs, you can choose to encode the video in a different format to the original, such as NTSC, or add an external MP2 or AC3 audio file. If you're creating a Video CD, you can choose between a VCD or an SVCD too. Brasero also supports multisession burning, and you can leave discs open for adding more data later on.
Beyond the burn
But Brasero can do more than just burn files: it can also simulate the burning process to test your setup and settings. Not only that, but it includes a simple cover editor that enables you to design the front, back and spine of a jewel case cover. This is simplistic, but you can add background images, and type text in various fonts and colours, which was sufficient for most of our needs.
However, we do have one niggle – instead of the graphical disc capacity meter used in every other app to visualise the used and free space remaining on the disc, Brasero simply displays the estimated project size.
Verdict - Brasero
Brasero still doesn't rival K3b for features, but it's more than adept at burning CDs and DVDs.
Price: Free under GPL
Before K-prefixed apps were in vogue, there was the X-series. These were lauded GUI apps that helped to reduce the number of tasks done on the command line. X-CD-Roast (XCR) is one such app.
It's come a long way since the 90s, but still carries a few remnants of its heritage. Firstly, it's light as a feather, which makes it ideal for older hardware. Secondly, you must launch it and configure it as root before others can use it, which is a throwback to more cumbersome times. This setup, although an inconvenient extra step, doesn't involve much work.
XCR also features some impressive user privilege management, which will allow or deny access to particular users on certain hosts, although that's probably overkill in most circumstances. Once the setup is complete, XCR is capable of writing and copying data to CDs and DVDs as well as mixed-mode and audio CDs.
In fact, the app garnered popularity for its audio CD ripping abilities thanks to the built-in cdda2wav utility. When creating an audio CD, you can drag and drop tracks into X-CD-Roast, but this only works with CD-quality (44.1khz, 16-bit, stereo) WAV files because there's no transcoder to help you.
Finally, you can create ISO images as well as multisession and bootable discs. XCR 's UI is helpfully straightforward too – the main window has buttons for duplicating a CD or DVD and creating a new one, which present more relevant options when you click them.
For example, when duplicating a CD you get buttons to verify tracks on the duplicated CD/DVD against the original. There's a usable online guide for an older version that's still mostly valid and lots of useful tooltips all over the place.
Verdict - X-CD-Roast
A lightweight app that's great for older systems, but hasn't quite kept up with more modern offerings.
Price: Free under GPL
Before Brasero usurped it, GnomeBaker was the burner of choice for Gnome users, and the best bit about it was its interface. It may no longer be the project's burning poster boy, but that same interface is still a triumph.
Buttons for common tasks, such as creating data CDs, DVDs and audio CDs, are right there on the main screen while less commonly used options, such as erasing rewriteable discs and burning CD/DVD images, are grouped inside a menu.
You can drag and drop files from Nautilus to create a data disc and burn it with a single click. GnomeBaker can also work with dual-layer DVDs, and copy data and audio CDs on the fly.
In addition, the program has quite a few features for advanced users. It enables you to save your progress when working on complex projects with multiple directories, for example, and you can also create ISO images to burn later. If your writer supports it, GnomeBaker can enable burn free protection. It also has the dummy write option to simulate the burning process.
Unfortunately, despite its heap of positives, there's a lot that's wrong with GnomeBaker. Take its audio CD burning process, for example – GnomeBaker can copy audio CDs, but it can't rip them. Similarly, although it can import M3U and PLS playlists, GnomeBaker appends the user's home directory to the path, rendering the feature useless.
Another discrepancy is multisession burning, which is listed as a feature, but not in evidence. Add to that the state of the documentation – there's none on the website – and a help system based on version 0.2 and you get the feeling that this offering is floundering.
Verdict - GnomeBaker
The only app in the Roundup that crashed regularly. It's been outclassed and overshadowed by Brasero.
Price: Free under GPL
Killer app isn't a term we bandy about much in these pages, but we'll make an exception for K3b. After all, it's been carrying that title since long before this release. Its list of competencies is long.
Firstly, K3b will happily burn and copy all kinds of single or multisession CDs and DVDs, and blank the rewriteable ones. It'll also encode your MP3 and OGG files into high-quality WAV format automatically, and burn them on to an audio CD. It'll do the same with your video files and produce a great video DVD.
Not only that, but K3b is as good at grabbing stuff off existing optical media as it is at putting data on it. As such, it will rip audio CDs and even multichapter video DVDs with consummate ease. The strength of K3b lies in the fact that it doesn't try to do everything on its own – it's folded the best tools for every task into its UI via plug-ins.
Cdparanoia and transcode are on board to rip audio and video, while Sox is tasked with converting between various audio file formats and normalising the volume of audio files to a standard level. There are also a whole lot of libraries, codecs and encoders for handling MP3, FLAC, OGG and MPEG formats.
The benefit is that you get the best of these tools from within K3b. So if you're ripping a video DVD, for example, you can change the dimensions of the video as well as the video and audio bitrate, use two-pass encoding for better quality rips and clip black borders. Moreover, to avoid buffer underrun errors, burnfree protection is included as well.
Still, K3b isn't without its weaknesses and top of the list is its infrequent update schedule. Sure, there are no stability issues with the program, but the KDE 4 version is still in the alpha stage and even getting that far required Mandriva to pitch in. And make no mistake about the K in K3b – it symbolises the app's bias for KDE.
You can run it under Gnome, but it'll need a lot of dependencies. For simple CD/DVD burning tasks, Gnome users should probably go with one of the native Gnome apps instead. In terms of documentation, K3b bundles a four-year-old handbook and the low-traffic forum has more questions than answers. But these are superficial scratches on a rock-solid app that demands your attention.
Verdict - K3b
K3b relies on a huge repository of apps, but it's the best at what it does and ideal for everyday desktop use.
Price: Free under GPL
Doing everything it can to justify the Pro label. Gear Pro is one of two proprietary burning apps in this test, and is the more senior of the pair. It's aimed at advanced users, so it's overkill for burning the odd CD or DVD.
It supports almost all sorts of CD/DVD burning media out there, but not HD formats. The interface isn't the easiest to navigate, and it stands out from the rest of the desktop. If you ignore all the options, you can still create a CD/DVD in a couple of clicks, but that would be missing the whole point.
After all, this is an app that can simulate the burning process, test media for its recording speed and do C2 error checking on the data if your drive supports it.
Gear Pro can create multisession discs with ease, as well as hybrid discs that contain audio data mixed with an ISO or UDF image. The tool lacks an audio CD ripper, but it can copy CDs and DVDs on the fly.
It can also format all types of discs using the following file extensions: ISO9660, Universal Disc Format, Rockridge and Joliet. Similarly, it supports lots of recording methods, including fixed and variable packet writing, which are ideal for reducing buffer underruns.
One of Gear Pro's highlight features – underlining its professional status – is its ability to create DDP master images to enable it to easily replicate all types of optical media. It can also take charge of a media changer via its jukebox feature and control the autoloader to replicate discs automatically.
In terms of documentation, the help menu mentions a bundled user manual, but it doesn't exist. However, there's some basic information on the website, and the app itself is littered with lots of helpful and detailed tooltips.
Verdict - Gear Pro
This app's ideal for replicating optical media and a must-have if you've got media changers.
Nero Linux 3
The second proprietary app here is the Linux cousin of the popular Nero burning software. It's similar to Nero for Windows, but looks at home on Gnome thanks to its GTK 2 foundations. The interface is polished, and you can create a CD or DVD in a couple of clicks by dragging and dropping files from Nautilus.
However, Nero's most exciting feature is its support for Blu-ray and HD DVD media, with the ability to copy and create multisession discs of these formats. It also features some impressive audio processing powers, bundling an encoder that can transcode files into FLAC, MP3, MP4, WAV and OGG.
For certain formats, such as OGG, you can also choose the type of bitrate encoding, quality and sampling rate. Not only that, but Nero has a CD ripper that can save tracks from an audio CD into one of these formats and you can create M3U or PLS playlists. When burning, Nero automatically encodes MP3 and OGG files into high quality WAV format for audio CDs.
Unfortunately, video DVD creation is less impressive. Nero can't convert movies into the correct format to create a movie DVD and insists you use the pre-prepared Video_TS folder for burning a video disc. In terms of buffer underrun protection, Nero comes with an UltraBuffer feature, which uses physical RAM in addition to the buffer on the DVD writer.
And in true Linux-style, Nero has an extensive CLI, which makes it possible to script operations such as burning and copying discs. All this is backed by tooltips in the app and a detailed PDF user guide.
Verdict - Nero Linux
If you've paid for a Blu-ray drive, it's worth shelling out a little more for Nero Linux.
Price: £13.99 including VAT
The winner: K3b - 9/10
K3b is the undisputed champion of burning apps on Linux. It's been challenged over the years by a number of competitors, but they've all had their molars punched out before the sixth round. That said, K3b is currently at its weakest and most vulnerable.
It's barely running on KDE 4.2 and it can't yet handle Blu-ray and HD DVD, so is that a sign that it's on the way out? Well, no – not exactly. Work on a KDE 4.2 version is under way with a bit of monetary assistance from Mandriva, and Blu-ray media isn't yet cheap enough to displace DVDs. So the onus, as it always has been, is on the competition to dethrone K3b.
As we've seen, nothing quite matches up. However, Gnome users can pin their hopes on the young Brasero, which is the rightful successor to the ageing GnomeBaker. Brasero's simple interface does enough to satisfy everyday desktop needs and has plenty of nice touches. Unfortunately, it's just not quite the one-stop shop that K3b has become, especially with its current inability to rip audio CDs.
Proprietary apps will always find it extremely difficult to justify their position on a platform overflowing with powerful open source software. Gear Pro is the only tool here that's designed for heavy-duty tasks such as CD/DVD mastering and replication, but it's overkill for simple everyday desktop burning tasks.
Nero Linux on the other hand is designed for the desktop user. The interface is polished, and it's the only burning app that can handle Blu-ray and HD DVDs. But since Windows users get their copy of Nero (one that also includes a video player, image editor and more we might add) for free with their drives, why don't we?
Finally, there's the lightweight X-CD-Roast, which suits a niche, but does little to attract anyone else. So, it's business as usual – K3b rules supreme and Gnome aficionados have a functional alternative that does enough to oppose it.
Meanwhile, we're off to plant a rainforest to negate the carbon footprint of all the CDs and DVDs flamed for this Roundup.
First published in Linux Format Issue 123
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