Software users often take comfort in pigeonholing software packages and CD/DVD recording software is no exception. Based on this type of thinking, one could say, Nero is the tool for the technically minded, while Roxio Easy CD & DVD Creator 6 is the tool for consumers. (True, Roxio has its own pro-oriented tool in CeQuadrat WinOnCD, but that product lacks the visibility of ECD or Nero, at least in North America.) Though there is a nugget of truth in generalizing Nero as a pro's preference and ECD as a consumer's choice, with the release of Nero 6 Ultra Edition, the line that had made it so easy to divide the two programs in previous versions has become somewhat blurred (and to a certain extent it already had begun to blur with version 5).
Much like Roxio, Ahead has decided to make its flagship product kinder and gentler for the average user. To this end, they have added a project launcher interface similar in many ways to Roxio's program selector. In addition, Ahead has decided (like Roxio) that recording CDs and DVDs wasn't enough for one program and has rebuilt itself into a digital media one-stop shop providing such new elements as Nero Vision Express 2, a tool for capturing video and creating DVD movies and slideshows, a DVD viewer (so you don't have to use a third-party viewer any longer), backup software, audio editing, enhanced MPEG-4 support (a feature they expect to take on greatly increased significance in the next year), and more.
While Ahead has for the most part maintained the flexibility and control that made Nero a favorite of more technical end-users in the past, by trying to cross the line into consumer-friendly tool, they have in some ways made the program more confusing to use. That's because those "friendly" features have been implemented to a large extent in an awkward fashion. There's certainly a lot to like about this program, but they need to work harder if they truly hope to make the leap to the consumer side, or to mix their two alter egos into one program. This review looks at some of the highlights of the latest version.
In an effort to give users control over the installation process, Ahead has divided the install process into a series of separate installations, the theory being that the users can pick and choose the items they want. Unfortunately, if you want to install the entire feature set, this process becomes tedious because as you complete each installation, you need to move down the menu, pick the next item, and go through the same process several times (and there is no system to tell you which ones you've already installed).
It would have made more sense to use an Office-like single installation interface (as Roxio did) where users can pick and choose the elements they want to install and can easily see which tools are already installed. While Ahead deserves praise for taking into consideration that every user might not want to install every piece in the package, they could have done a better job designing the installation interface.
That said, the applications installed fine on the test PC, a Sony VAIO Pentium 3 running Windows 98SE with 256MB RAM, with a Datoptic Speedzter 5 DVD Recorder used as the test recorder for both CD-R and DVD-R. Nero will run on all versions of Windows from 95B to XP (plus NT); minimum system requirements include 300mHz Pentium 3 for basic CD recording; 500mHz for DVD playback; 800mHz for video capture; and 1.6gHz for direct-to-DVD capture and recording; and 64MB RAM (128MB RAM recommended).
Is SmartStart a Good Start?
Although Nero still provides users with the ability to launch each program in the product separately, they have attempted to integrate the entire package into a single interface dubbed Nero SmartStart. This bone is tossed to the consumer side who want to see exactly what is included in the program; again, Ahead gets credit for effort, but the implementation needs some adjustment.
The interface opens with a set of icons with a single sentence for instructions. There is no additional Help available, which really should be a must if they want to make this attractive to a consumer audience. It's up to the user to figure out several key concepts here.
First of all, you need to run your cursor over each icon to display the various features associated with that choice. Next, you need to understand (so long as you have a CD and DVD recorder installed) that there are two small toggle switches at the top of the screen labeled CD and DVD, and you need to click the appropriate toggle to reveal the correct tools. In addition, there is another, not terribly obvious, button at the bottom of the window that allows you toggle between "Standard" and "Expert" modes. Clicking the Expert toggle allows you to see additional functions that Ahead has decided are too complex for the standard user. Unless you happen upon the button and view the tool tip, however, it's hard to tell it's there.
Finally, there is an Expand window button on the left side of the window. Clicking this button reveals a list of the full suite of tools. It might have been smarter to display this view as the default. It's important to note that Roxio had a similarly awkward interface in ECD 5 before opting for a more streamlined approach in the latest version. Ultimately, this menu approach needs some tweaking to be a truly useful integration tool.