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Astarte’s Toast CD-ROM Pro 3.0 Review

Toast CD-ROM Pro 3.0 is easily the best general-purpose recording software currently available for the MacOS with enough polish, stability, and power to accomplish easily most professional, business, and hobbyist tasks.


Astarte’s Toast CD-ROM Pro 3.0

Hugh Bennett
CD-ROM Professional, December 1996

Over the past few years, German software developer Astarte GmbH has displayed its ability to write some of the finest CD-Recordable software offered for the Macintosh. The latest version of their flagship product continues the tradition. Toast CD-ROM Pro 3.0 impresses with its array of new features, additional device support, and an improved interface to further strengthen its position as the Macintosh CD-Recordable software of choice.

Toast is powerful and can record most common disc formats such as HFS, bootable HFS, hybrid, CD-DA, multisession, Enhanced CD, Blue Book-compliant CD Extra, CD-i, Video CD, XA, mixed-mode, and SCSI device copy.

Astarte recommends that Toast be used on a 68040-based Macintosh with 8MB RAM, System 7.1 or later, SCSI Manager 4.3, and a large fast hard drive. One exciting new feature in the software is an adjustable RAM cache that sets aside a portion of the Macintosh’s memory (1MB to 64MB) to supplement a recorder’s hardware buffer. The additional margin provided by the cache increases the tolerance of the recording process for fluctuations in the data transfer rate from slower or thermal recalibrating hard drives. The new feature allows recording under less than favorable conditions, such as writing discs with data pulled across a network. During testing, the additional cache proved itself admirably and permitted the recording of discs under conditions unthinkable with most recording software.

RECORDER SUPPORT AND DOCUMENTATION: A TRUE TEAM PLAYER
Toast 3.0 operates an impressive array of old and new 1X, 2X, 4X, and 6X recorders by Philips, Sony, Yamaha, JVC, Kodak, Pioneer, Ricoh, TEAC, and Matsushita, including rebrandings and variants. With previous versions of the software, support for new recorders was added quickly and religiously by Astarte, and the company promises to continue their efforts with version 3.0. Updates are made available for convenient downloading through their Web and FTP sites.

Tests conducted by recording a number of standard formats on an array of 2X and 4X recorders (Philips CDD521, Sony CDU-924S, Matsushita CW-7501, Ricoh RO-1420C, Yamaha CDR-100, and TEAC CD-R50S) were pleasantly uneventful and confirmed Toast’s ability to work as a team player. For unattended duplication tasks, Toast also controls disc autoloading devices such as Kodak’s Disc Transporter (SCSI) and the MediaFORM CD-2500 (serial), and supports autoloaders with no connection to the computer like OptoMedia’s Hawk and Soundman’s Jukebox. Several notable omissions, however, include the software’s failure to support CD-R-enabled jukeboxes and the SCSI 8mm Exabyte or 4mm DAT drives still used in some premastering circles.

Toast 3.0’s drive support capabilities also extend to help users circumvent a common shortcoming of Macintosh CD-R systems. Most currently available CD recorders function as standard — if somewhat slow — CD-ROM drives able to read a variety of disc formats, according to their individual capabilities. However, recorders are not supported by Apple’s standard CD-ROM extensions. For this purpose, Toast includes a CD Reader extension that functions well, plus a handy control panel that mounts sessions other than the last one on ISO 9660 discs as well as the ISO portion of an ISO 9660/HFS hybrid disc. With the driver installed, audio CDs can also be played using Apple’s standard-issue CD Audio Player control panel.

If there remains any doubt that Astarte has been paying attention to the concerns and expectations of its users, and working actively to fill earlier gaps in its offerings, users need look no further than the documentation that comes with the drives. Anyone familiar with previous versions of Toast knows that its documentation has always been sparse and crudely translated. Astarte has taken the manual seriously this time and has much improved it over previous versions. The manual now contains real world examples, troubleshooting and reference sections, and is written in clear English. An excellent “readme” file provides useful details such as a list of various recorders’ capabilities and limitations to help eliminate the trail of trial and error that often results from insufficient information.

INTERFACE SIMPLICITY, MULTI-PLATFORM FACILITY, AND OTHER EASE-OF-USE EYE-OPENERS
Toast now sports an interface that is much more “Mac-like” than last year’s model, with the added simplicity of “drag-and-drop” to accomplish most tasks. Something as straightforward as writing a disc in Macintosh HFS logical disc format is now as simple as selecting the HFS type from a menu, dragging the desired volume icon from the desktop into the main window, and pressing the record button. It is also now possible to select individual files or folders for HFS recording rather than copying entire volumes.

Another notable feature of Toast 3.0 is its ability to create System 6 desktop files for compatibility with older operating systems; the software also avoids copying volume-free space into the disc image, which shortens recording time. Toast 3.0 users will also be pleased to see that the program resolves aliases so original data is recorded instead of just the pointer. The software generates bootable CDs for Apple CD-ROM drives with auto-starting applications. Another innovative addition is a unique function that optimizes data on-the-fly while it is being recorded. Though system-intensive, optimization is extremely useful and allows users, for example, to write reliably from fragmented sources, write from start-up volumes with files in use, determine ideal block size so a disc can hold more data if small file sizes are used, and create CDs that mount more quickly and are more responsive by positioning files at the beginning of each CD sector.

ISO 9660 disc creation is just as clean and uncomplicated. Like the improvements made for recording in HFS, it is now possible to import and record files on-the-fly, rather than being forced to pre-build a physical image in advance. The process is also very fast. Even importing thousands of files takes only ten or twenty seconds on most system configurations. One new and particularly thoughtful feature is the software’s use of colored arrows as visual highlights for any files that have undergone name translation to conform to the user’s selected name restriction settings. Toast also offers control over disc geography, so it is possible to arrange the physical location of files on a disc and place performance-critical files near the inner hub where access time is faster. Regrettably, while the idea of letting users manipulate disc geography is nice, Toast’s clumsy implementation makes it awkward to place files, especially in complex or large file layouts.

Another format supported by Toast that is especially in demand in publishing circles is a shared hybrid where both HFS and ISO 9660 formats are combined on the same disc. This feature allows Mac users to see their standard icons and window positions while maintaining cross-platform compatibility and sharing common data, if requested, between operating systems. Both data types are created in their respective ways and shared files are quickly and easily selected inside the ISO 9660 assembly area from the Macintosh source volume.

Another key ease-of-use feature that will please those users who are interested in automating their recording chores is that Toast 3.0 is fully scriptable using AppleScript. For example, a script might be created to write a CD and then shut down the computer, or an application that records items dragged to and dropped on its icon.

MAKING TRACKS: IMPRESSIVE AUDIO RECORDING CAPABILITIES
One of the more sought-after features in CD-R software is the ability to create audio CDs for both personal listening and serious authoring purposes. Pure Red Book audio CDs can easily be created with Toast by dragging and dropping 44.1KHz, 16-bit AIFF or SoundDesigner II files (including index points) into the main window. Sound files can also be previewed to ensure they are the correct ones. And although mixed-mode discs are not as common as they used to be, there are still instances where they remain the best option. Creating them with Toast is a snap, and multiple audio tracks can easily be appended to any conceivable disc format.

Enhanced CD and Blue Book CD Extra (formerly CD Plus) discs, which involve recording Red Book tracks in the first session and data in a second session so that it will be invisible to audio players, are also supported by Toast. CD Extra is the official licensed standard from Philips and Sony, and Toast is currently the only Macintosh package that writes fully Blue Book-compliant discs either from manually assembled CD Extra directory structures or QuickTime Audio Containable (QuAC) files created with Apple’s Interactive Music Toolkit.

Although Toast has a lot going for it in the audio realm, there are a few areas that may be of concern, depending upon the type of project for which it is used. For example, as with previous versions, the software does not support common file formats such as PC WAV or raw PCM (Pulse Code Modulated), which makes cross-platform recording awkward. There are also no built-in digital audio extraction capabilities for creating audio files from Red Book CD tracks, so users must rely on the less convenient MacOS MoviePlayer or another audio utility. Additionally, although Toast can perform CD-to-CD copying of a few simple disc types, it cannot copy audio CDs. A more serious limitation, however, is its lack of support for Disc-At-Once (DAO), which is the preferred recording method when premastering material for replication. Without DAO, users are unable to alter the length of gap between tracks above or below the two seconds required by Track-At-Once (TAO). Fortunately, for professional audio work, Astarte recommends and offers a separate and more specialized program called Toast CD-DA.

In addition to its audio recording capabilities, Toast 3.0 features support for two of the more specialized disc formats, CD-i (Green Book) and Video CD (White Book). Toast accepts scrambled or unscrambled images generated by CD-i authoring systems and Video CD images from Video CD creation packages, as well as MPEG streams generated using Astarte’s M.Pack compression software. Toast and M.Pack do not offer full Video CD title creation functions, so discs created from M.Pack sources are limited to simple track playback access.

THE NEW TOAST OF THE TOWN: 3.0 BURNS WITH THE BEST
Toast CD-ROM Pro 3.0 is easily the best general-purpose recording software currently available for the MacOS with enough polish, stability, and power to accomplish easily most professional, business, and hobbyist tasks. Coupled with Toast CD-DA and CD-Copy, Astarte has assembled a formidable CD-Recordable arsenal. However, as good as Toast 3.0 is, it is not perfect. From a publishing or business user’s point of view, the principal deficiency is the lack of Disc-At-Once recording and the additional expense of buying Toast CD-DA and CD-Copy to perform a few tasks that should be integrated into the program.

There are a number of other lesser problems such as the slightly odd interface, weak disc geography manipulation, and the lack of audio CD-to-CD copying, but nit-picking does not do justice to the software. Registered users of earlier Toast CD-ROM Pro iterations should upgrade immediately, and knowledgeable users of competing packages have much to gain from succumbing to the temptation to switch allegiances, given the attractive $149 “crossgrade” offered by Astarte.

[Author’s note: I wish to thank the Eastman Kodak Company and Verbatim Corporation for providing the blank CD-R discs used during my review of Astarte’s Toast CD-ROM Pro.]


Beyond CD-ROM Pro: Astarte’s Supporting Cast

Astarte offers several other products with more specialized capabilities than Toast CD-ROM Pro. First is Toast CD-DA, a $499 program that assembles and writes Red Book audio CDs for professional projects. Accordingly, it records 16-bit 44.1KHz AIFF, WAV, and SoundDesigner II files in Disc-At-Once mode (if supported by the recorder), allows users to vary the length of the gap between tracks, imports SD II playlists, and regions and supports PQ subchannel encoding, such as UPC/EAN, ISRC, index points including offsets, copy-prohibit, and pre-emphasis flags.

CD-Copy, which sells for $219, is a complementary utility to both Toast CD-ROM Pro and CD-DA that is useful for duplicating CD-ROMs and extracting material on disc that would otherwise be inaccessible to Mac users. Designed for those who have a legitimate need to reproduce ROMs and get inside their guts, CD-Copy handles all common formats. For audio use, tracks may be selected with frame accurate settings and saved onto hard disk as stereo or mono 44, 22 or 11KHz (16- or 8-bit) SoundDesigner II, AIFF or QuickTime files. If desired, Q-subcode information like UPC/EAN media catalog numbers, ISRC codes and index points can be extracted. Other disc formats read by CD-Copy are saved as standard physical image files and once on hard disk (like audio files) can then be written to disc with one of the Toast products. When working with Video CDs, individual MPEG tracks may be saved as MPEG streams for use in other applications. CD-Copy includes many other useful functions for technical users like the capability to view a disc’s table of contents and display each sector in hexadecimal code. — Hugh Bennett


Companies Mentioned

Eastman Kodak Company
343 State Street, Rochester, NY 14650; 800/353-
4751; CIS—GO KODAK; http://www.kodak.com

Verbatim Corporation
1200 W.T. Harris Boulevard, Charlotte, NC 28262;
800/759-3475, 704/547-6500; Fax 704/547-6609


Toast CD-ROM Pro 3.0

Synopsis: Toast CD-ROM Pro 3.0 is easily the best general-purpose recording software currently available for the MacOS with enough polish, stability, and power to accomplish easily most professional, business, and hobbyist tasks.

Price: $359; upgrade $99; competitive upgrade $149

System Requirements: 68040-based Macintosh, 8MB RAM, System 7.1 or later, SCSI Manager 4.3 recommended

For more information, contact: Astarte GmbH, Weberstraße 1, D-76133, Karlsruhe, Germany; +49 (721) 985540; 612/483-5338 (U.S.); Fax +49 (721) 853862; 612/483-5448 (U.S.); http://www.astarte.de


About the Author

Hugh Bennett, editor-in-chief of Hugh’s News, is president of Forget Me Not Information Systems, a reseller, systems integrator and industry consultant based in London, Ontario, Canada. Hugh is author of The Authoritative Blu-ray Disc (BD) FAQ and The Authoritative HD DVD FAQ, available on Hugh’s News, as well as Understanding Recordable & Rewritable DVD and Understanding CD-R & CD-RW, published by the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA).

Copyright © Online Inc. / Hugh Bennett

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