When it comes to speed, power, and timely support for the latest technologies and drives, Ahead Nero Burning ROM has no peer in CD/DVD mastering software. And while the previous versions' slightly eccentric interface and mediocre documentation have made Nero difficult to use and learn, this version solves all that. As of version 5.5.9, the program's optional Nero Express front end makes it as easy to use as any competitor. Throw in helpful audio-editing and label-creation components, testing and image-mounting utilities, and the company's new NeroVision Express video-capture/VideoCD-authoring program, and you have a powerful mastering suite for only $69 ($49 download).
The $69 boxed retail version of Nero arrives on two CDs: one containing the mastering software, InCD packet-writing software, and utility apps; and the other with a recent addition to the Ahead product line, the NeroVision Express video-capture/movie-authoring program. You can also download Nero from the company's Web site, although it will remain in demo mode until you purchase a serial number for $49. Help files (referred to as language packs on the Web site), InCD, and NeroVision Express still come free with the online version, but they must be downloaded and installed separately. One gripe: although installing from CD is the usual choose-a-location-and-click-OK affair, it would be quicker with an option to install all of the programs at once.
There are three ways to go about any task in Nero: you can use the older, powerful but slightly daunting interface with its separate layout and file browser windows; use the Nero wizards that step you through tasks with the older interface; or opt for Nero Express--a separate, kinder-to-beginners program that also steps you through the disc-creation process and utilizes the same Nero burning engine. Nero Express even provides separate routines for creating MP3 and WMA audio discs. (In reality, MP3 and WMA discs are nothing more than standard data discs containing those types of files, but it's a thoughtful nod to neophytes who've heard the terms misused.)
Nero offers three interface choices, including this classic version...
...a helpful, wizard-driven update to the classic look...
...or the all-new, ultraeasy Nero Express.
As you learn more about disc creation, you'll probably opt for the older interface, which, though quirky and counterintuitive in spots, puts every option in the disc-burning universe within easy reach. Our biggest complaint concerning the older interface is that there simply isn't enough room for its two-pane, directory-tree/directory-contents file browser to function efficiently. A normal, single-pane Window's Explorer-type file browser would require far less scrolling and display information more usefully.
From creating standard audio and data CDs to burning VideoCDs, Super VideoCDs, and DVD movies, Nero can handle nearly every known disc-mastering task. It also offers support for CD-R, CD-RW, and double-density CD media, plus all five of the DVD disc formats: DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM. Nero also updates itself regularly to include support for the latest CD and DVD burners, so if you buy a new drive, odds are good that the program already supports its technology.
Want to burn any type of disc known to man? Start here.
Nero offers full support for creating or burning image files, large single files created from all of the small files that you want to burn to disc. Image files are handy when you need to burn multiple copies of a single disc or distribute the contents of a CD across a network or the Internet. Many Linux distributions may be downloaded as image files, for example. Ahead even includes a utility called ImageDrive that lets you mount both Nero's proprietary images and standard ISO images so that they appear as normal CD-ROM discs from within Windows Explorer. You'll also find an excellent audio editor for tweaking, converting, and adding effects to song files (it's not pro-level audio software, but it's more advanced than we've seen in most other authoring apps), and there's a powerful and intuitive disc-label/jewel-case-insert designer.
Nero will also rip audio files from CD and encode them to WMA, MP3, MP3 Pro, and MPEG-4 AAC (Advanced Audio Codec). Alas, all except the WMA encoder are demo versions that are either time limited, restricted to 30 or 50 uses, or both. You can download an unlimited $19 MP3/MP3 Pro encoder and/or a $15 AAC encoder from the company's Web site, but if you just want unlimited MP3 encoding for less money, you can find it in Stomp's $39 RecordNow Max.
A new audio editor lets you tweak, convert, and add effects to song files.
Ahead has also included rudimentary backup capabilities in Nero, though they are extremely limited compared to those in programs such as PowerQuest Drive Image 2002 and Norton Ghost 2003. You can burn or restore a Nero hard drive backup only under Windows, for example--no other operating systems. In addition, a Nero backup won't include some operating system files that are in use at the time of backup, it doesn't support NTFS partitions, and you can burn a backup to only CD media--not DVD recordable or rewritable. Nero's utility is fine for backing up a small data partition, but it's not much use otherwise.
Unfortunately, the NeroVision Express video-capture/movie-authoring program that Ahead bundles with Nero includes a couple of gotchas. As it ships, the program will produce MPEG-1 VideoCDs, but you'll need to purchase Nero's $24 MPEG-2 encoder before you can create higher-quality Super VideoCDs or DVDs. However, NeroVision Express is a mere freebie in the Nero suite, so we don't expect too much from it. More serious is the program's tendency to choke while computing the amount of disc space required by video files.
This video-capturing and movie-authoring app is fine, but it lacks free, high-quality encoding.
CNET Labs has tested Nero Burning ROM numerous times in the course of reviewing CD-RW drives, and the program has always offered reliable, top-flight performance, usually besting the burn times of its main competitor, Roxio Easy CD Creator. The only program in the entire Nero suite that we find at all problematic is the aforementioned NeroVision Express, which crashes on occasion.
Nero arrives with both paper (CD version only) and online documentation, but both are often too technical or too terse to be of much help. Though it lacks a search function, the online help at the company's Web site is a bit more understandable; it includes FAQs, the ability to send e-mail to a tech-support agent, and downloadable software updates.
Still, Ahead wins major kudos for two practices that we wish other companies would adopt: regular, sometimes weekly updates to the software itself and a complete list of bug fixes and new features dating back to the earliest versions of the program. This kind of honesty and dedication to program reliability goes a long way toward mollifying our lack of enthusiasm over Nero's mediocre documentation and lack of telephone support.