Synopsis: With its well-balanced ratio of recorders to printers, excellent incremental scalability, the attractive redundancy of multiple optional autoloaders, versatile multiplatform control software, and its peerless DVD label output, the Protégé II is a genuine digital studio thoroughbred. Of course, it also has the usual accompanying quirks—a trying personality at times, occasional software bugs, case design that still needs work, and the inevitable high capital cost. But all in all, it's the best in its class.
By incorporating a new generation of robotics, updated software, and the latest version of its groundbreaking Everest photorealistic printer, Rimage's new Protégé II DVD sets a new standard for serious duplication and publishing equipment.
Like its predecessor, the Protégé II is a two-piece affair with the PC sitting separate from the disc autoloading mechanism. Completely redesigned, the autoloader houses two CD-R or DVD-R recorders, vertical transport robot, disc carousel, and either a PrismPlus! thermal transfer or Everest II re-transfer printer. Depending upon the configuration, up to four autoloaders (totaling eight recorders and four printers) can be managed from just one console. The well-appointed system reviewed here came equipped with a Dell Pentium 4 running Windows 2000, a 15-inch flat-panel monitor, two industry-standard Pioneer 4X DVR-A05 DVD-R/RW recorders, and the spiffy Everest II. Make no mistake about it, however, the Protégé II doesn't come cheap: CD-R systems start from $21,450 and DVD-R from $23,850.
At first glance, the most obvious physical improvement over the previous Protégé is the new autoloader enclosure, complete with swinging front door, removable top, and hinged side access port. A welcome step up, the new housing will help to keep out prying fingers and reduce printing nightmares caused by dust and debris accumulating on disc surfaces. Like a lot of pretty designs, however, the new case still comes up functionally short. For example, its lid must be removed (and perhaps even be discarded) to allow side access for Everest II's ribbon changes, and attending multiple units placed side by side remains clumsy.
That aside, the unit's disc-handling system has undergone major and welcome renovation. With four deep holding bins in its carousel, the Protégé II now boasts respectable 300-disc capacity and—thanks to a new mail slot feature—can accommodate 400 discs when used in kiosk applications. Disc picking speed has also been boosted significantly, and the previously optional Perfect Print label alignment feature now comes standard.
Many of Rimage's systems are integrated into custom applications using optional development tools that speak to the power and versatility of the system. However, in the more conventional desktop situations, users will be content to take advantage of the latest version of Rimage's included OfficeNet Software Suite. Thus empowered, the Protégé II operates either locally at the console or remotely across a network using the supplied QuickDisc client. It features a drag-and-drop interface to create common CD formats and UDF DVDs, copy existing discs (read using Protégé II recorder), attach labels, and juggle projects.
Perhaps QuickDisc's most impressive trick, though, is its multiplatform personality thanks to a native PC version supporting Windows XP, 2000, and NT, and a nifty Java version embracing Mac OS 10.2, Linux, and Unix. PC label creation is conveniently taken care of by the included CD Designer application, although other operating systems require using third-party software to generate PDF files. One time-saving feature is the ability to create a shared network library of standardized labels incorporating fields to be filled in (like any form). During testing, both versions of QuickDisc worked well, hitting most of the functional high points (although they are not as intuitive as they should be). However, the interface of the core production software running on the controlling PC desperately needs a major facelift before it can join civilized society.
Everest II: The Sequel
In addition to its buff new body and advanced software, the Protégé II sports the latest and greatest Everest II disc label printer. Building on the success of its predecessor [See Bennett review, March 2002, http://188.8.131.52/emedialive/Articles/ArticleReader.aspx?ArticleID=5191 ] the Everest II does a respectable job of addressing several first generation shortcomings by improving on its print quality and output speed while at the same time reducing consumable cost.
Like its predecessor, the new model uses re-transfer thermal technology to produce indelible photorealistic labels (black, grayscale, CMY, or CMYW) with a resolution equivalent to 160 lines per inch (LPI). Unlike CDs where silkscreening is the norm, quality offset printing is expected in the commercial DVD world. As it stands today, only the Everest II is capable of producing offset-level results on the desktop. Impressively, depending upon the type of image produced, label quality has perceptibly improved through the introduction of a more refined "best" mode and with advancements made to laying down light and solid colors, as well as with more consistent edge-to-edge printing. Room for improvement still remains, however, when it comes to color matching, text printing (which is still often grainy), black richness, and the imperative-to-use discs with pristinely clean surfaces.
Pay to Play
Thanks to its more elaborate re-transfer system (that consumes both colored ribbons and transfer rolls), the Everest has historically been expensive to operate compared to competing thermal transfer and inkjet printers. To narrow this gap, rather than increasing the number of discs that can be labeled by each ribbon or roll, Rimage opted simply to lower the cost of each item. Currently, transfer rolls are priced at $80 (down from $92 to print 1,000 discs), black ribbons $49 (down from $74 to print 1,000 discs), CMY ribbons $125 (down from $185 to print 500 discs), and CMYW ribbons $140 (down from $199 to print 375 discs) each. After factoring in the price of the transfer roll, the cost is now 13 cents to print a monochrome black label, 33 cents for CMY, and 45 cents for CMYW color. All a significant improvement over the previous 17 cents, 46 cents, and 62 cents each respectively.
Over and above its unquenchable thirst for ribbons and transfer rolls, the original Everest also required using discs with specialized surfaces. The same remains true with the Everest II. As before, for labels to adhere properly, disc surfaces must possess certain mechanical and chemical properties. Crystal and inkjet surfaces work reasonably well, but by far the most attractive results are produced by smooth silver or white thermal transfer discs with coated hubs to allow for uninterrupted full-surface labeling. Disappointingly, the present range of suppliers for such media is still limited. Hub-coated CD-R media is currently available from SKC Media, Hi Space (MPO), and MAM-A (formerly Mitsui). Users can purchase DVD-R from Verbatim and MAM-A; hub-coated Taiyo Yuden media is still only on the horizon.
Be aware, however, that all hub-coated discs aren't created equal. For example, during testing, labels printed on MAM-A DVD-R discs proved perceptibly superior to those put down on similar Verbatim media. This is due to MAM-A's more thoughtful design that employs an entirely flat dummy substrate and extended reflective layer to avoid ringed shadows in the hub area. So expect to pay a premium for discs truly intended to take full advantage of the Everest II's impressive capabilities.
With the consumable price drops, the Everest II is now a fiscally credible contender for producing color labels (using non hub-coated discs). At 33 cents per CMY color print, the Everest II's output is now actually a few cents cheaper than that of Rimage's thermal transfer PrismPlus! (really only good for spot color work). Also, for full-surface high-resolution labels, the Everest II comes close to those produced by inkjets and without inkjet-printing's limitations (smudging, reduced packaging options, susceptibility to humidity, etc.). High-volume monochrome labeling chores, however, still strongly favor using thermal transfer units such as the PrismPlus! for seven cents a copy and MediaFORM's Spectrum2 at 5.5 cents (especially when combined with the option to use much cheaper lacquer-coated media).
Compared to the original Everest, Rimage has significantly ratcheted up printing speed in the new model, but only depending upon the task performed. For example, due to software limitations, the Protégé II can't achieve full Everest II speeds when conducting print-only jobs. Under these conditions, with a CMY ribbon installed, the printer took a disappointing 99 seconds in its "best" and 76 seconds in "normal" (most likely to be used) modes with subsequent copies of the image taking the very same amount of time (Rimage advertises 60 seconds).
When labeling after writing, however, the story is much improved since the software takes full advantage of the Everest II's ability to begin printing on its transfer roll before the next blank disc is inserted. In this situation, labeling time can be as little as 35 seconds depending upon a disc's place in the queue. Rimage failed to include a full set of ribbons with the test system so it wasn't possible to establish monochrome black or CMYW operating speeds.
Of course, these numbers don't take into account disc handling or recording time. In the real world, to locally image and record ten identical 700MB and 350MB CD-R discs, it took the Protégé II 35 and 18 minutes respectively. Adding full-surface CMY labels only marginally increased these times to 37 and 20 minutes. As can be expected, 4X DVD-R throughput was much slower taking 2 hours 15 minutes and 1 hour ten minutes to process ten 4.7GB and 2.35GB discs, respectively. The addition of a label slowed this further to 2 hours 17 minutes and 1 hour 12 minutes respectively. And topping off the testing, it took 20 minutes to simply label 10 discs with the same full-surface image.
The Bottom Line
With its well-balanced ratio of recorders to printers, excellent incremental scalability, the attractive redundancy of multiple optional autoloaders, versatile multiplatform control software, and its peerless DVD label output, the new Protégé II is a genuine digital studio thoroughbred. Of course, it also has the usual accompanying quirks—a trying personality at times, occasional software bugs, case design that still needs work, and the inevitable high capital cost. But all in all, it's the best in its class.
For More Information Contact:
Rimage Corporation, www.rimage.com
$23,850 (DVD-R); $21,450 (CD-R)
System Features (as reviewed):
• Dell Pentium 4 running Windows 2000
• Two Pioneer DVR-A05 DVD-R/RW drives
• Everest II printer