Virtual burn and rip

OK, I'm back to my theme of CD and DVD creation and management tools that I delayed for a week while I discussed some cool new hardware.

First, a couple of corrections: Last week I wrote that the Saitek Obsidian Wireless mouse cradle charges the mouse. Not true -- the mouse is powered only by the rechargeable batteries that come with it. I also failed to mention that the mouse has a total of five buttons -- the two regular left and right buttons I mentioned, as well as one on the right that can be used by some applications and two on the left that work with Internet Explorer to go forward and backward.

Now that I'm in my second week of using the Saitek Obsidian I am a little more reserved in my enthusiasm. It is still one sleek mouse, but its touch-sensitive scroll feature is too sensitive. This means that often, when you don't want scroll-lock to lock, it does. Another issue: I often press the two left-side buttons accidentally, and a lot of swearing is the result. But these issues may disappear when I get more accustomed to it.

Anyway, back to CD and DVD stuff: I'd wondered for some time whether there was a product that could create a virtual CD burner so I could burn virtual CDs from iTunes.

My thinking on this is that, like almost everyone I know, after I buy music from iTunes I often want to listen to it on a device other than an iPod. To do this, I have to burn the tracks to a CD, then rip that CD to MP3 files. While the process does give me a backup copy, it wastes CDs and is always far more time-consuming than I would like.

So after looking around and trying a few products that didn't do what I wanted -- they provided only a virtual drive and weren't actual burner emulators -- I stumbled across an ambitious piece of software engineering named Virtual CD published by H+H Software.

Virtual CD is available as both 32- and 64-bit drivers for Windows XP, Windows XP64 and Windows Vista, and is pretty painless to install. Given that it is a device driver, I didn't mind having to reboot (something I consider a sin when installing any nonsystem-level program).

Virtual CD's main user interface, the Toolbox, gives you access to the suite's huge number of functions. There's also an optional "autohideable" task pane that provides access to all of the functions, and you can create simple scripts that can load, burn and unload virtual and real media.

The top-level features include "Main tasks in Virtual CD," "Working with virtual CDs," "Burning virtual CDs and DVDs," "Helper programs," "All Virtual CD programs" and "Documentation." Any feature can be saved as a shortcut to the desktop, which makes workflow automation very easy.

You can define as many as 23 drives as burners or read-only drives and, as far as the software I've tried, the Virtual CD drives look exactly like what they are supposed to be -- real drives.

I configured a virtual burner on drive K: and under the "Burning virtual CDs and DVDs," ran the feature to create a virtual blank, 700MB, ISO-formatted CD, which I then loaded onto K: drive.

After setting up the burner, I instructed iTunes to burn an audio CD with a sample rate of 192Kbps. Because the drive is a virtual burner, burning happens at a much higher speed than it would with a real burner. According to the company, the virtual burners can run as fast as 78X for CDs and 9.8X for DVDs; the actual speed, of course, depends on your specific PC configuration. I haven't yet tried burning virtual DVDs, but for virtual CDs I got about 60X.

Now that I had a virtual CD, I ripped it to MP3s using WinAmp, which in turn used CD Database to identify the content and fill in the MP3 header fields. Perfect.

The only drawback with Virtual CD is that it does so much it's hard to find your way around, and it could be a bit better organized. Virtual CD does have an API so you can integrate its functions with other applications. In addition, there are network versions, so you can manage virtual burners and drives on multiple workstations.

All told, Virtual CD is an amazing product -- and at $39.95, a steal!

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