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Using Optical Media

Over a decade ago, Apple made headlines by introducing the iMac with only an optical drive, choosing to banish the traditional floppy disk drive from the new computer’s revolutionary design. It should come as no surprise, then, that every Mac sold today (except for the super-thin MacBook Air, which has no room for an internal optical drive) includes a CD/DVD writer.

Obviously, Mac OS X provides support for reading and writing optical media, although the Mac treats optical media differently than disk or flash drives. This is because most optical media formats require that the data be sequentially and permanently written to the disc. This is why the term “burn” is often used to describe the process of writing data to an optical disc. The data is literally burned into the media, and it’s common knowledge that you simply can’t “un-burn” something once it’s been burned.

Several of the applications included with a new Mac are designed to burn specific types of data to optical discs. For example, iTunes can burn audio and MP3 discs, iDVD is used to create video DVDs, and iPhoto can create cross-platform photo discs. Conversely, if you simply want to burn general-purpose data files onto an optical disc, the Finder is your tool. Finally, Disk Utility rounds out the Mac’s optical media functionality by providing the means to burn disk images and prepare rewritable discs for reburning.

Burning a Disc via Finder

The Finder provides no less than three different methods for burning data to an optical disc. The first method enables you to quickly select and burn specific items in the Finder to an optical disc. The other two methods involve creating burn folders that let you organize the contents destined for an optical disc before you burn the data to it. This is a convenient way to burn general-purpose data discs, as you cannot change the contents of most optical discs once they have been burned.

Burn Selected Items

To quickly burn specifically selected items:

  1. Select the items you wish to burn in the Finder.

    You can hold down the Shift key to quickly select contiguous lists of items, or hold down the Command key to quickly select noncontiguous items.

  2. Choose File > Burn “Items” to Disc from the menu bar.

    The word “Items” in the menu will be replaced by the name of a single item you have selected or the number of items you have selected.

  3. The Finder will present you with a dialog asking you to insert a blank disc and letting you know how much storage space will be required. Insert an appropriately sized blank recordable optical disc.
  4. Once the system has verified that the inserted optical disc is adequate, it will present a dialog allowing you to select a name for the disc and the burn speed. Stick with the maximum speed unless you are experiencing problems burning discs.
  5. Click the Burn button to start the burn and verification process.

    Depending on the size of the data and the speed of the drive, the burn and verification process can take anywhere from minutes to hours. The Finder will show a progress dialog that will also allow you to cancel the burn by clicking the small X button on the far right.

  6. Once the burn and verification is complete, the Finder will mount the completed disc. Press and hold the Eject key, the furthest top-right key on a Mac keyboard, for a few moments to eject the optical disc.

Using a Burn Folder

To use a burn folder:

  1. In the Finder, choose File > New Burn Folder from the menu bar.

    This will create a special new folder called “Burn Folder” in the current Finder window or desktop. You can move and rename this folder as you would any other folder.

    A burn folder is special because as you drag files and folders inside this folder they will not be moved or copied into the folder. Instead, the system creates aliases to the original items. This allows you to reorganize and rename files and folders inside the burn folder without affecting the originals or wasting drive space. You can even keep burn folders around for future use after you have burned the disc.

  2. Once you have perfected the contents of your burn folder, click the Burn button at the top-right corner of the burn folder’s Finder window, or select the burn folder and then choose File > Burn “burn folder name” from the menu bar.

    The Finder will present you with a dialog asking you to insert a blank disc and letting you know how much storage space will be required. Insert an appropriately sized blank recordable optical disc.

  3. Once the system has verified that the inserted optical is adequate, it will present a dialog allowing you to select a name for the disc and the burn speed. Stick with the maximum speed unless you are experiencing problems burning discs.
  4. Click the Burn button to start the burn and verification process.

    Depending on the size of the data and the speed of the drive, the burn and verification process can take anywhere from minutes to hours. The Finder will show a progress dialog that will also allow you to cancel the burn by clicking the small X button on the far right.

  5. Once the burn and verification is complete, the Finder will mount the completed disc. Press and hold the Eject key, the furthest top-right key on a Mac keyboard, for a few moments to eject the optical disc.

Burning a Specific-Size Disc

To use a burn folder for a specific disc size:

  1. From within the Finder, insert a blank recordable optical disc.

    If this is the first time you have inserted blank optical media in this Mac, you will be presented with a dialog that will let you choose your preferred action when blank media is inserted. Leave the default action to open the media in the Finder, and then click the OK button.

    The Finder will create a new burn folder with an optical disc icon named “Untitled CD” or “Untitled DVD” on your desktop and also create a link to it in the Finder’s sidebar. Creating a burn folder this way will cap the size of the burn folder to ensure it will fit once burned to the media you inserted. Note in the following example screenshot that the Finder window shows the Untitled DVD has 8.55 GB available. Also note the Untitled DVD shows up in the Finder’s sidebar with a conveniently placed burn button right next to it.

  2. Continue to reorganize, move, and ultimately burn this burn folder, as you would use a manually created burn folder outlined in the previous steps.

Burning a Disk Image via Disk Utility

One of Disk Utility’s many features is its ability to burn the contents of a disk image to optical discs. This is extremely useful for burning backup copies of disk images you have created from original media. In other words, you can use Disk Utility to create a disk image of an original optical disc, and then burn the contents of the newly created disk image to a recordable optical disc. The burned disc will appear identical to the original media. In fact, Apple uses this technology to distribute system software installers for beta testing. After a tester downloads the latest disk image from one of Apple’s servers, she will use Disk Utility to burn the contents of that image to an optical disc.

To burn the contents of a disk image:

  1. Open /Applications/Utilities/Disk Utility, and then click the Burn button on the toolbar.

    A file browser appears that enables you to browse and select the disk image whose contents you wish to burn to an optical disc.

  2. A burn options dialog appears. Click the small blue arrow button in the upper-right corner to reveal more burn options.

    The default burn options are almost always the best choice, but you can make changes here as you see fit.

  3. Click the Burn button to start the burn and verification process.

    Depending on the size of the disk image and the speed of the drive, the burn and verification process can take anywhere from minutes to hours. Disk Utility will open a small progress dialog that will also allow you to cancel the burn by clicking the Cancel button.

  4. Once the burn and verification is complete, Disk Utility will either mount or eject the completed disc depending on the options you chose.

Erasing Rewritable Optical Media

One last optical media trick you need to know about Disk Utility is the ability to erase rewritable optical media. Mac OS X requires that you erase rewritable media in order to burn more data to the disc. Most of the time, though, this process takes only a few moments to complete. Only optical media bearing the “RW” initials can be erased and then rewritten again. Also, older optical drive hardware may not support rewritable media. You can easily identify the capabilities of your Mac’s optical drive by opening /Applications/Utilities/System Profiler and viewing the Disc Burning information section.

To erase a rewritable optical disc:

  1. Insert the rewritable optical media to be erased, and then open /Applications/Utilities/Disk Utility.
  2. Select the optical drive from the column on the left. If there is an Erase tab to the right, select it now if it isn’t already selected.

    The manufacturer and model number is usually the name of the optical drive. Do not select any disc volumes.

  3. Select either the Quickly or the Completely option.

    Because erasing completely takes so much longer, you should stick with the Quickly option unless the computer is having problems completing the disc-erase process.

  4. Once you have made your choice to quickly or completely erase, click the Erase button to continue.
  5. You will be presented with a verification dialog. If you are certain you want to erase the disc, then click the Erase button to start the process.

    Depending on the erase option you selected, the erase process will either take a few seconds or up to an hour. If the process is going to take more than a few seconds, Disk Utility will show a progress dialog.

  6. Once the erase process is complete, the media will remain in the drive awaiting your next move. Press and hold the Eject key, the furthest top-right key on a Mac keyboard, for a few moments to eject the optical disc.
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