Review: DiscMakers ElitePro1 CD/DVD Duplicator
Posted Oct 3, 2003

Synopsis: DiscMakers ElitePro1, a 100-disc autoloading duplicator with an inline Primera inkjet printer, has brains to burn, building a 1gHz processor right into the unit along with the familiar robotics, bins, and the ubiquitous Sig IV printer. It's got rock-solid software, too, with Padus' estimable DiscJuggler running the show. But this smarter-than-the-average duplicator also requires Mensa-like smarts—or Job-like patience—to get things going, requiring pinpoint alignment to position its output spindle. But once you resolve those out-of-box issues—with help from DiscMakers excellent tech support team—you've got a fine and efficient machine on your hands, a near-perfect CD and DVD duper.

Here's a thing I haven't seen before in a duplicator: a CPU is actually built into the DiscMakers ElitePro1, DiscMakers' 100-disc autoloading CD/DVD duplicator (and I'm guessing the rest of the line). Not that I haven't heard of such things before, but when I have, it's been a hopelessly out-of-date chip running the show, like a 386 or some other fossil. But this is the first CPU-equipped duplicator I've encountered that could be accurately described as having more than half a brain, at least to my knowledge, which kind of makes you wonder how much of its brain a duplicator actually needs to use to get its work done. In any event, the gray matter churning away in there is a 1gHz Intel Celeron chip, and 256MB RAM on somebody's mainboard (I don't know that I'd be able to pop this thing open to get a gander inside).

That's an exceptionally intelligent move, I'd say—packing in a dedicated system—as loads of those duplication demons issue from hooking into machines that don't meet minimum system requirements, or use too much of what they've got picking up other passengers on the bus, and stopping at every corner when some inane, tertiary function rings the "stop" bell.

Rearward, you've got the typical external features of a mainboard—parallel and serial ports, keyboard and mouse ports, FireWire ports, USB ports, a couple of NICs, even built-in sound. So, aside from the connections that must be made on the duplicator proper, all you need to do is plug in a mouse, keyboard, and monitor (all included), and you're almost done with setup. The ElitePro1 does leave a pretty good-sized footprint, but because there's no tower involved—that is, you won't be running a SCSI or FireWire cable from your PC or Mac to a standalone duplicator—you actually end up saving room on the desktop.

Day One
Hardware assembly is different, but not at all difficult. The printer—a Primera Signature IV, as near as I can tell (there's nothing emblazoned on it to indicate as such), well-reviewed in these parts a couple years back—fits neatly in its ordained position; the three slim rods constituting the input bin are already in place, a vessel waiting to be filled; the reject and output poles are where they ought to be, output about 100 discs high and reject about 10, as if to say this thing's gonna work, man, check it. The pick arm doesn't come attached to the screw, or the "CD lift mechanism," as the literature calls it. You have to do that yourself, but it's no big deal. It's a simple matter of holding the pick arm onto the screw, then inserting two small black rivets on either side of the arm.

Three things jump out at me right here. First, the pick itself is fixed out at the end of the arm, which, given the design, probably won't really matter once duping gets underway. Second, there's a rubber band—I should say "gasket" or "o-ring," but my journalistic imprimatur compels me to be honest—wrapped around the pick; I don't know if it's there to protect the inner polycarbonate, or if it's there offering resistance to something mechanical that slides down to open the pick, then slides up to close the pick. In the name of science, I'll be taking that off for you, to see what's what, but I have to do that last, just in case I can't get the rubber band back on. Third—and this has bothered me ever since I met duplicators—the output spindle is a spindle, not a bin. Let's see just how many discs go flying off, hole having missed the pointy stick by an eighth of an inch. It's particularly irksome here, as a bin would fall well within the arc of the fixed arm, and wouldn't interfere with any drive trays.

Twenty bucks a man came up with the spindle idea, and has watched it perpetuate itself all across the duplication market in phallic glee. (Or maybe he just got a patent on it, thought better of the strategy later, but kept it to himself when the cash started rolling in.) Seriously, guys, go read some Cixous, if for nothing else than to prevent people from stepping on disc-ridden floors. Shattered polycarbonate is sharp and can hurt the tootsies, not to mention the toches if you've got to park yourself on the floor there to adjust the thing.

The DVD-R/RW drive—a 4X Pioneer DVR-105—connects to the built-in mainboard via FireWire, which is fast becoming the standard interface for duplicators in this post-SCSI century. I can't see exactly how it's happening (it's sort of dark in there), but it looks like there's some ATAPI-to-FireWire converter connected to the rear of the drive, the FireWire port being the prominently visible thing, with a little note next to it reading "FireWire to PC." The read drive is out front, a step up to the patio, and has nothing to do with the duplicator, really, unless you're burning on-the-fly, and want your master there. Two external pegs hold it in place, so it's easy enough to swap out for a faster or different optical machine.

A standard six-pin mini DIN cable connects the printer to its control unit within the duplicator, and a plain old printer cable connects the Sig IV printer to the parallel port on the mainboard. After that, it's the familiar three power cables into the strip-monitor, CPU, printer-and we're ready to boot.

Now, in fairness, I'm going to mention here that no duplicator—or CD printer, for that matter—has ever worked for me straight out of the box. There's always something: for no good reason, a drive tray opens smack into the pick arm, then the pick arm freaks out and travels upwards only to hit its head on the printer tray that's also decided to open for no reason, the output discs don't hit the spindle, the pick arm goes a solid 45 degrees past the input bin and desperately, pitifully tries to grab something from the deck. Click, click, click, always, always something.

And the ElitePro1 out-of-box experience is no exception. One good thing so far: it prints, but not without a small battle. What it printed has been described by one person as "totally juvenile," and sent another person to the floor laughing. I won't tell you what it says, or what the graphic is, but believe me, it's unflattering, and it's inspired by Day One with the ElitePro1.

Here's what happened in my first efforts with the ElitePro1, to the best of my understanding: during calibration-there's a little diagnostic/calibration utility on the hard disk called "ACC" (Autoloader Control Center)-every single disc hit the floor, natch. Typically, with other duplicators and their calibration software, you actually get to see calibration as it's happening: the arm moves an eighth inch this way, a quarter inch that way. That wasn't happening here. After about a hundred software tries, I finally resorted to adjusting the spindle manually. Seriously, I had to grab the spindle and bend it toward where the arm mandated it should be. A message to DiscMakers and much of their competition (you know who you are): Stop with the output spindles, please.

Padus' DiscJuggler—good, solid multidisc duplication software—worked just fine, but the duplicator didn't. When I finally got everything going where it should—input to printer, input to drive, drive to output, etc.—I couldn't burn diddly, not from an image, not on-the-fly, not from a single drive to image to CD-R (I'll be darned if I stick a piece of pricey DVD-R media in there until I get the robotics in line). I could print, and did, from the input bin, but that's it, and that was a chore. 

Day Two
It works now.

If something doesn't work, I usually shut down, hang around for five, then boot again—it's amazing how many problems that's solved in the past. This power-down around, I'm not kidding, the printer drive tray ejected as the machine spun down. That's when I quit, in righteous blessed holy fury.

Today, I wiped the machine clean, uninstalling everything, hardware and software, then I reinstalled everything (set a region code, even, to see if that would do anything). I also poked around in the BIOS for anything amiss, making a couple changes there.

Then something magical happened. And it does seem like magic, when a high-capacity autoloader really unloads, Pro1-style.

Still a little nervous, I ran 50 discs through the test cycle—here, a simulation of an image-to-CD-R dupe—and all 50 made the output spindle, no rejects. Then I proceeded to a 50-disc master-to-media test cycle, placing the master in the front drive. Once again, 50 through, burned clean, no rejects.

Girding my loins, I tossed the real job into the input bin, pulled up an image, and dictated a graphic for the printer and jumped headlong into a Test, Write, Verify, Print Job. All the discs made it to the output cycle, no rejects. No stopwatch on this one, so I can't give you an exact time, but this thing flew, from an eyeball assessment. Of course, you know it takes a little while to get a freshly burned CD or DVD printed out, but during a protracted autoloading dupe (particularly with DVDs, which take longer to burn), that doesn't usually make much of a difference.

I'm getting good printed dupes now that land on the spindle, time and again. My best guess as to the earlier problems is this FireWire jury-rig at the rear of the DVD-R/RW drive. Getting an optical drive to register at all is quite an accomplishment, especially with Windows (the ElitePro1 comes loaded with Windows XP Home Edition—they shoulda gone Pro); throwing in another broker can only end in tears.

I'm not going to touch the rubber band, I've decided. If Windows can be held together by a rubber band, so can a pick. I figure, too, you can get a new rubber band down at the hardware store for 35 cents, should your old one break.

The literature gives me to understand the ElitePro1 is "Field Upgradeable"—that is, you can stick a second recorder in it, or swap drives out, whatever tickles ya. That sounds cool, I guess, but I don't know if I'd want to mess with an upgrade. Given the bottlenecks printing can introduce when you do high-speed duping on anybody's box, and the usual lag time for media (and we're referring to DVD media, in this case) and drives to advance reliably enough, speed-wise, for professional and commercial applications, we'd do well to satisfy ourselves with 4X DVD duping for quite some time. The 16X and 24X CD recording that come with DVD burners is hardly state-of-the-art, of course, but if you've got the patience to set up one of these three-headed hydras, you can certainly wait five minutes for a CD-R to burn while it struts its multi-taskin' stuff.

School Daze
We're all here to learn, right, in the name of science, and the lesson here is a pretty simple one. Things change, things stay the same. Duplicators have gotten faster and smarter, we've seen some fine, efficient, innovative implementations, and the ElitePro1 is one of them. Mind matters, in two senses: it's nice to have some brains in the machine, as DiscMakers has astutely deduced in putting a powerful processor chip in the ElitePro1; you've also got to have a good head for this stuff as operator, because installation and initial operation are still the beasts they always were, especially when so much hinges on the pinpoint accuracy of spindle placement, printer alignment, software integration, and such. CD and DVD burning, rudimentary duplication, and—finally, at long last—printing are bashing their way into the mainstream, oceanic consumer market, as well they should. And taken independently, they're all within reach of said consumer, financially and intellectually; likewise that consumer's repurposed corporate or studio counterpart, whose foreknowledge of CD production technology may be similarly limited.

But automated operation that integrates these three functions—at least the first time you try and assemble the pieces of any given system—takes substantial IT know-how, patience, and preferably, some familiarity with the task at hand, if only to keep you from chucking the thing out the window. The good news is, if you can get past the frustration and the defenestration fantasies, you've got quite a bit to look forward to. And the ElitePro1 is a fine case in point.

Except for that alignment-insistent spindle (and probably XP Home Edition), the ElitePro1 is theoretically perfect. Let's again mention it does end up working, and it does what it's supposed to—up to speed and spec—but I truly feel for the guy who's never seen a duplicator before and encounters the same problems I had with it. Another bright note is that DiscMakers has a great tech support team, so never fear, Harry in Human Services, help is but a few minutes on hold and a soothing walk-through away.

For More Information, Contact:
DiscMakers, Inc., www.discmakers.com
$5,290 (as reviewed);$4,690 (CD-R); $5,465 (DVD+R)

System Features (as reviewed):
• 1gHz Intel Celeron processor
• 256MB RAM
• Pioneer 4X DVR-105 DVD-R/RW drive
• Padus DiscJuggler software

Other Companies Mentioned in this Article:
Padus, Inc., www.padus.com
Primera Technology, www.primera.com