Review: Aleratec Tower Publisher LS
Posted Sep 8, 2006

Most studios have (or should have) a duplicating tower on hand for short-run DVDs. A two-to-four-bay tower is an incredibly handy tool, providing instant custom samples for prospective clients. Aleratec's Tower Publisher LS ($1,049), with LightScribe drives, raises the standard in duplicating towers.
     The Tower Publisher adds two compelling features over the simple tower duplicator: job queueing capability and LightScribe labeling. In working with the videography staff of Digital Generation, we came to fully appreciate the value of queueing up complex jobs into the Tower Publisher. Ordinarily, one of the editors would have to change focus from what he or she was doing in order to set up a duplicating job—how many copies and how many discs—then change focus again later on at the end of that job in order to set up the next one. Finally, they had to go through yet another change in order to focus on making labels for those discs.
     With the Droppix software included with the Tower, the editors could make these duplication and labeling decisions once, then just assign the jobs into the tower's queue. (The software allows for mixing both label and copy jobs—including making two copies of one, three of another, a label or two for a yet another.) After that, users would only have to feed discs into the tower as it completed the jobs without having to worry about which job was which. When working against a deadline, this alleviates a lot of babysitting of the duplicator and avoids those distractions.

What's in the Box
The Tower Publisher itself is a sturdy, metal-cased four-drive unit with two cooling fans and a USB 2.0 connector. The unit also ships with the Droppix Label Maker and Recorder software, a one-page basic startup guide, a ten-page manual, and a three-foot USB Type A to Type B cable.

If you are already familiar with burning DVDs, the startup sheet should tell you all you need to know about using this system. It covers the important difference between a single-drive and a multi-drive recorder: how to record and/or print four discs simultaneously. However, for those new to the process, Aleratec includes a profusely illustrated guide that takes you step-by-step through the duplication and labeling process showing each screen in the software. Kudos to Aleratec for supplying this helpful tome rather than the usual skimpy manual.

As a duplicating tower, the Aleratec unit is a superb performer. The four internal Lite-On SHW-165H5S DVD recorders are top-rated for good reason. In our tests, they cranked out four 2.6GB DVD+R discs in an average of 8:09 each—some of the fastest times we've seen in a DVD recorder—while doing this simultaneously with all four discs.

These Lite-On units support the full range of DVD media including Dual Layer DVD±R:

The Tower Publisher does differ from standalone duplicators in that it requires a host PC (running Windows XP) to manage it. But this allows the unit to burn four discs simultaneously, as opposed to a standalone four-drive system where one drive would host the master disc, thus limiting the unit to a three-disc simultaneous burn unless the operator staged the disc image to an on-board hard disk first.

We were somewhat surprised to find that we could not make a direct duplicate straight from a DVD from our test Fujitsu's internal drive to the Tower Publisher. We first had to create an image file of the disc then make copies from that. (Perhaps this is to prevent throughput problems in handling four drives.)

figure 1Working with the Droppix Software
The Droppix software bundled with the Tower Publisher includes three separate tools:

• Label Maker Advanced
• Recorder for Towers
• Management Console

Label Maker Advanced, Recorder for Towers, and Management Console. The Label Maker Advanced impressed us. In testing, we were able to load a previously created design and print it using Label Maker Advanced without looking at the manual. It was virtually drag-and-drop into Label Maker; no need to recreate the design at all.

The Recorder for Towers handles all the typical recording chores—data, audio, video, images, etc. The software delivered on all counts, although working with the tower it was not as intuitive as we would have liked. For instance, jobs being sent to multiple drives need to be sent to the "Management Console" rather than to the specific drive(s).

In addition, disc images have to "loaded" into the recorder first, before you specify the job for the queue. You can't simply select the image and tell the recorder to make so many copies of that image.

The Management Console should probably be called the "Job Management Console," since it handles the label and recording jobs queued up to the Tower Publisher.

It does not, as the name might suggest, manage the hardware itself.

Like a print queue, the Management Console allowed us to monitor job progress on each drive, cancel jobs from one or more drives, or remove the job completely.

If we wanted to quibble, we might ask why the Recorder for Towers and the Management Console are two separate pieces rather than one. It would seem much simpler to integrate the two. Otherwise, the software was very satisfactory.

figure 1LightScribe Labeling
Four-drive towers are ubiquitous these days, and most are functionally quite similar. Where the Aleratec unit stands out, of course, is in its software and LightScribe labeling abilities. LightScribe technology is an ingenious innovation, letting you create a permanent label on a CD or DVD using the same laser that records the data. Pretty cool, since this saves on most of the costly consumables associated with inkjet disc-label printing, other than higher-priced media. LightScribe disc-printing requires special LightScribe media, and for that you pay a premium. Once you adapt to the LightScribe approach, it is a valuable option for labeling.

There are two drawbacks to overcome with LightScribe. First, the special LightScribe media is just now becoming widely available in DVD flavors. Second, it takes longer to label a LightScribe disc. Figure about half an hour for a top-quality, full-disc image. In fact, our tests showed that even a very basic label, such as adding the date to a LightScribe disc, took 4 minutes and 30 seconds.

A more appealing full-disc image took 15 minutes using the software's "Draft" setting, but as the image on the left in the figure shows, this setting isn't very satisfactory at all. In fact, it is more like a "watermark" than a label. The image on the right shows some improvement; this is the "Normal" setting.

figure 1We were only able to produce an image of acceptable quality after switching to the "Best" setting, which took about half an hour to print the full-disc image shown on the left in this figure. Even then, contrast is not that great.

Fortunately, there's a way around this. The LightScribe system can accurately register the image on the disc for repeated passes. (Each pass will increase the contrast.) As the figure shows, after three passes at the "Best" quality setting, we were able to achieve the stunning image on the right, with high contrast and sharp detail on CD discs. Granted that these passes took time (totaling about 90 minutes), but since we could queue these up in the software, it was simply a matter of starting the jobs, then pressing the "Close" button on each drive as the tray popped out with the unfinished disc in it to produce four equally well-labeled discs.

LightScribe's developer, Hewlett-Packard, recognizes this issue and has released an "enhancement" to their software which boosts the contrast. We found that using this enhancement increased the time for "Best" quality discs by about 10 minutes—bringing the total print time up to 40 minutes per disc—and yielded an image that improved somewhat over the half-hour version. However, this difference did not seem significant, and we'd still need an additional pass or two to produce a quality label.

There's an additional consideration with using LightScribe and DVD discs. Since all DVDs include a transparent layer (unlike CD discs) where the LightScribe label is burned, some designs seem "hazy" while others appear to have a quasi-3D effect. Our tests showed that choosing a good DVD LightScribe design isn't simply a matter of duplicating a CD design (i.e., the same design that will work on a CD won't necessarily work on a DVD), but will require some tests to achieve the right effect.

All of this might suggest that the LightScribe option is a hassle. However, with a bit of preliminary rethinking, and finding a formula and sticking to it (which is an approach more suitable to disc-labeling than other parts of the production process), it is actually a good option for labeling. With either CDs or DVDs, the dramatic three-pass LightScribe label is a classy touch—either for internally distributed or systematically archived discs or Work-in-progress samples for clients (perhaps saving the full-color discs for the final product).

By thinking of LightScribe not as a spur-of-the-moment tool, but rather as the means to create a stockpile of impressively pre-labeled DVD-Rs to record with later on, it becomes a valuable addition to the studio. (Any specific customizing of the label such as adding the client's name or date to the disc could then be done at recording time since those only take five minutes.)

If the Tower Publisher were a simple duplicator, it would be a pricey, if solid, solution. Its LightScribe option is a valuable add-on, albeit not one suited to all applications. LightScribe is certainly not the right option for making quick color labels on a disc or one-off duplication jobs. For that an Epson Stylus inkjet printer or basic duplicator might be the better solution.

However, LightScribe capability is neither the only nor the most significant distinguishing factor of the Tower Publisher; it's the flexibility and job-queuing capabilities that the software provides. For studios with multiple or complex duplication jobs, the Aleratec Tower Publisher's combination of LightScribe technology and queueing capability is the answer, making it a great time-saver and a great way to impress clients.

Thanks to both Digital Generation for field testing the tower and to Verbatim for the LightScribe DVD+R Version 2 media used in our tests.