The emergence of waterproof printable DVD and CD media in mid-2006 did much to bring the inkjet disc-printing world into focus. Much of this is a matter of perception overwhelming reality; inkjet-printed media was never as susceptible to smudging in everyday use as its critics would have you believe, and its water resistance always held up pretty well under reasonable real-world circumstances. But there was a sense, as Imation and Taiyo Yuden introduced their water-resistant media brands–the matte-finish AquaGuard and the glossier WaterShield, respectively–that if inkjet printing had a golden age in its future, that age was drawing nigh.
Of course, the usual caveats attendant to the announcement of new optical disc technologies applied: there would be at least a couple months’ lag time between the announcement of the discs and the actual ship date, and the discs would be neither widely available nor anywhere near as cheap as their market counterparts for some time to come.
Nonetheless, it seemed pretty evident that these new water-resistant media technologies would have a demonstrable impact on the DVD/CD duplication and printing markets, unlike equally hyped print technologies that continue to "introduce" themselves to the market in small quantities (and isolated implementations) years after their initial announcement. One strong indicator of the impact that the water-resistant inkjet media would have came from Primera Technology, the small/midsize disc-publishing market leader, which effectively mothballed its thermal printer, the Inscripta, at the same time the water-resistant media was introduced. Traditionally, one of thermal disc-printing’s advantages over inkjet disc printing has been its proven permanence and water resistance. The arguments in thermal’s favor didn’t go away with the advent of water-resistant inkjet discs, but the arguments against inkjet became a little less relevant. Around this time Primera also backed off to some degree from promoting its Accent Disc Laminator.
Mark Fritz wrote the definitive article on the advent water-resistant media on EMedialive in August 2006; while all the indicators of its potential impact were in place, it didn’t really have a market yet. When initial shipments came, the quantities were small and the media was expensive, but as of this writing (late September 2007), discs are widely available, and we’re looking at price points that, if not quite comparable to other high-quality inkjet-printable discs, are now in the ballpark. On Meritline.com, I found hub-printable 16X Taiyo Yuden WaterShield discs, in 100-disc spindles, for $59.99; the most comparable non-waterproof brand, 16X Taiyo Yuden silver hub-printables, were selling in 100-disc quantities for $39.99. Meanwhile, on several sites, such as proactionmedia.com and mediasupply.com, I found AquaGuard discs in 45-disc spindles for $33. More on how these discs fared in our tests later in this review.
Given that all the pieces are now in place for waterproof media to bring inkjet printing to a new level of professional reliability, it seems an opportune time to take a look at the media along with a prominent automated solution for duplicating and printing DVD and CDs, Primera’s Bravo XR Disc Publisher. The Bravo XR is similar to the popular Bravo II in that it’s got a 25-disc capacity and comparable robotics (as well as expandable capacity via a kiosk attachment), but its signature enhancement over the Bravo II is that it ships in a solid, blue-glowing case that gives it the look and feel of an even sturdier and more reliable desktop office production appliance, and supports rackmounting and stacking for higher-volume production shops looking to build capacity incrementally.
Setup and Installation
Truth be told, my experience testing DVD/CD duplication and publishing systems over the years has been a mixed bag. I’ve tested 10-disc towers that started with 3 dead drives and went downhill (fast) from there; I’ve seen robotic systems that petulantly threw bad discs on the floor; automated units that used output spindles (instead of bins) that would have taken nanosurgical precision to align and calibrate properly; and quite a bit in between. I’ve also had vendors who claimed to have been shipping systems for months ("We can’t build ’em fast enough!") come up mysteriously unable to assemble one functional unit for a reviewer who’s going to tell 30,000 readers how the product performs.
But rarely—especially with a robotic system—have I received review product that performed as advertised right out of the box. And in that respect the Bravo XR is definitely the exception. The setup process for this unit was as simple as what you’d expect of much more basic devices, like a desktop photo printer with no robotic components. Literally all I had to do was install the print cartridges, pop in the input and output trays (these are interchangeable and can be removed and replaced at will when adding or removing discs), plug in the unit, attach it to my PC via USB, and install the software. And even though I had to install two applications—the PrimoDVD mastering/recording solution and the SureThing labeling utility—this process was nothing like the there-goes-the-afternoon ordeal of some other recent installs, like Adobe Production Premium CS3 (well worth it in retrospect, though it hardly seemed so at the time).
You also have to do calibration and diagnostic printing as with any print device, and set your print parameters, but this is no different from setting up a product like the single-disc, print-only Epson R200 or 300 series printers. Incidentally, if you are an Epson user like me (I use an R220 for one-off jobs), prepare to make some print-parameter adjustments from what you’re accustomed to with the Epson. I routinely use 20mm as my inner diameter for hub-printable discs, and even though that’s probably coloring outside the lines a bit as far as what’s generally recommended, the printed ink all stays right where it should. Not so with the Bravo XR; I had to edge that diameter out to 22mm (represented as 220 .1mm units in the Disc Publisher XR Properties menu; see Figure 1, left) to ensure that no stray ink would end up splashing in the clear plastic hub area inside the white ring that gives hub-printable discs their extra printing real estate. Here you’ll also want to make some choices about print quality; I did my first rounds of testing in the 1200 dpi Presentation mode, which is all you’ll need for anything you produce for in-house use, but for discs you print for a client, you’ll probably want to ratchet quality up to 2400 dpi Super Photo mode, which delivers some eye-popping results, especially with Primera’s TuffCoat-branded (and augmented) WaterShield media. The 2400 setting takes about twice as long to print a full-bleed image on a disc, and will use more ink, but it’s worth it for professional product. Finally, you’ll want to make sure you select Color + Black for your ink cartridge; Black only is fine for monochrome printing, but if you select Color only, your blacks will come out blue. Also note that if you’re already working in PrimoDVD or SureThing and you try to change print properties through the Printers & Other Hardware window in the Windows XP Control Panel, the settings you select won’t take effect on your current job. You’ll need to access the preferences from inside the SureThing labeling application to ensure that your changes get made.
Though the Bravo XR’s robotic arm does a little stutter-stepping routine when you first launch a job, after that the system performs its tasks with great efficiency. If you’re duping and printing your discs as part of the same job, the Bravo XR will burn the first disc (the single Pioneer burner is 16X-capable, but even with 16X-certified media, its write performance averages out around 8X, which puts full 4GB+ DVDs in the 8–9 minute range), move it to the printing tray, then load the second disc, and print the first disc while the second one is printing. (If you don’t want the Bravo XR to print and burn different discs at the same time, you can switch a setting in PrimoDVD, but I can’t imagine why you’d want to do that.) For full-disc burns and full-bleed photo-quality print jobs, the printing really only adds a few minutes to the process in total, regardless of how many discs you’re producing. Though Super Photo 2400 requires close to 4 minutes to print a full-bleed photographic surface, you make that time up while the next disc is burning, and the more data you’re burning to disc, the closer your burn-and-print time will come to the BravoXR’s burn-only pace.
The only real drudgery in disc production comes before you start the dupe-and-print process. For DVD production, it’s highly recommended that you don’t try to "Stream" a disc into the duplication process—that’s old-school CD recording speak (as preserved in the venerable PrimoDVD mastering tool) for recording directly from a disc. The preferred option is to create a "global master" (a .gi file produced by PrimoDVD)—even if it’s only a temporary one, and burn from that. For a 1.1GB DVD project, this turned out to be a 20-minute process on my 3.6GHz single-processor laptop with 1GB RAM; for a full disc, it took over an hour. But after that, except for the extremely rare bad disc, which the Bravo XR slides out through a mail slot in the case in a relatively dignified manner (and PrimoDVD dutifully reports as it continues the job without hesitating), it’s pretty much smooth sailing. As with other host-supported disc publishing systems, the PrimoDVD/Bravo XR is a resource hog, so unless you’re working on a Duo Core system with 2GB RAM or more (which I didn’t test on), you’ll also want to minimize other activity on your host system while the Bravo XR is doing its job.
The PrimoDVD interface can take a little getting used to, with its tiny icons and odd terminology, but it’s got a fairly helpful wizard and a solid manual, and there’s no mistaking the familiar red record button (Figure 2, above). Printing or not printing a copied disc is a simple matter of checking a box, and one nice feature is that you can launch the bundled print application, SureThing CD Labeler, directly from the main PrimoDVD interface.
The SureThing labeling application is fun and easy to use. You can easily import custom backgrounds or choose among the graphic library that ships with the application, add and manipulate text, and apply text effects. For most of my projects, I created the label first in Photoshop, text included, and simply tweaked the positioning inside the SureThing application (Figure 3, above).
Of course, the other key test with any production system—besides usability, print quality (see print performance section), and speedy performance on simple jobs—is reliable performance on unattended high-volume work. While the Bravo XR isn’t equipped for real high-volume work without appendages like the kiosk attachment that expands its capacity to 50 discs at a time, for most of us in the event video world, having a system that can pop off 25 discs without our intervention would be a substantial improvement, and a reasonable number for the kinds of projects we do. To see if I could get the XR huffing and puffing, I saddled it with a 100-disc CD-R job to fulfill a duplication project that came in shortly after I got the system for review. It handled the job with aplomb, completing the four full sets of 25 (duped and printed at Super Photo 2400) in just under two hours each, with a very short interval in between the first two sets (just time enough for me to slip another 25 discs into the input tray).
Print Performance and Proofing
But the real thrill in doing this review was testing the varieties of waterproof discs Primera sent against my own ready supply of standard-issue hub-printable inkjet media. Keep in mind that I don’t use the cheap stuff except for throwaway jobs—by and large I use Taiyo Yuden, Verbatim, and Ritek, and my current collection of inkjet CD and DVD media is all Taiyo Yuden hub-printable white. Also keep in mind that by and large I’ve always been pleased with the results I get with these discs, and usually when I’m displeased it’s because of print malfunction (I’ve had some nasty experiences using off-brand inks with the Epson R220, for example) that has little or nothing to do with the media itself. I’ve never found standard inkjet media terribly scratch-sensitive or water-smudgable in everyday use, so what I found most stunning when I first used the water-resistant discs is simply the way they looked when I pulled them out of the Bravo XR’s output tray.
Figure 4 (above) shows a comparison of the glossy-finish WaterShield DVD-R media (left) with the same image and print job (SuperPhoto 2400 setting for both) applied to a standard Taiyo Yuden white hub-printable disc (right). The disc on the right looks fine (although the photo doesn’t really do either disc justice)—the black printing is full and rich, and the other text and graphical elements are clear—but the gorgeous glossy finish on the WaterShield disc looks like it’s been run through a laminator. So for me, the argument in favor of these discs starts before you ever bring water- and scratch-resistance into the equation, since as I’ve said, in my experience, standard inkjet-printable discs from top manufacturers do fine in everyday use anyway. But I’d be the last one to stand in the way of scientific inquiry, so I subjected all three media types to the grueling EMedia Labs "10 Seconds in the Sink" test (formerly known as "Five Seconds Under The Faucet").
Figure 5 (above) shows the results. WaterShield (left) retains its glossy finish, and AquaGuard (center) its impermeable matte, but the standard Taiyo Yuden (right) is a washout. I’m not sure what this proves, since, as Primera’s own Mark Strobel remarked in Mark Fritz’s EMedialive article on waterproof discs, "People don’t take these discs in shower," but there you have it. Though I have no intention of washing my discs with the dishes anytime soon, I'm switching to WaterShield based on glossy finish alone. So, whether or not you expect your clients to scratch and soak their wedding DVDs–or anything else you dupe and print for them, whether you’re shooting stage events or taking in duplication projects on the side–there’s a clear imprimatur here for those doing inkjet-based disc production: WaterShield discs have set a new standard for professional sheen with inkjet-printed media. And Bravo’s Disc Publisher XR is a fast, efficient, rock-solid automated system for producing these eminently deliverable discs.
Stephen Nathans-Kelly is editor-in-chief of EventDV.