July 26, 2006

NeroLinux revisited: No better than the alternatives

Author: Bruce Byfield

For several years, Nero has manufactured one of the most popular CD/DVD burning suites for Windows. Now at version 2.1.0.1, NeroLINUX is the GNU/Linux equivalent of Nero Burning ROM, one of the main programs in the Nero suite. Like its Windows counterpart, NeroLINUX combines an easy-to-use interface with a variety of options. However, unlike the Windows version, it offers little, if anything, that is not available in comparable free software.

We last reviewed NeroLINUX in April 2005, when the current version was 2.0. The reviewer found a number of major problems, including a complicated setup for 2.4 kernels, and reported errors for device permissions and conflicts with GNOME's magicdev. Even more seriously, the review reported problems with dragging and dropping file names with dashes and with actual burning.

Not having a 2.4 kernel installed on any machine, I was unable to see how NeroLINUX performed with one, but I can report that it is trouble-free with a variety of 2.6 kernels. Nor does version 2.1.0.1 suffer from most of the problems reported in the last review. Although conflicts with magicdev may still be possible, since they are mentioned in the help file, the sole exception that I encountered is an insistence on reporting a read-only CD drive as inaccessible when the program starts -- and that can be suppressed by setting NeroLINUX not to scan for drives on startup. Otherwise, NeroLINUX offers adequate, if slightly sluggish, performance and features comparable to those in K3b and GnomeBaker.

The interface

Unlike some proprietary software, NeroLINUX relies on free software packages, such as mpg123 and the Open Sound System (OSS), for much of its functionality, rather than installing its own proprietary equivalents. In fact, many of the settings for NeroLINUX, such as those for handling different audio formats, are concerned chiefly with how the program interacts with these other programs. In short, like K3b and GnomeBaker, NeroLINUX offers a front end for using other programs as much as any unique functionality.

NeroLINUX - click to enlarge

Nero's front end is designed to be powerful yet simple. Like K3b and GnomeBaker, NeroLinux opens in a window with three panes for burning data and audio CDs/DVDs: a tree view of system directories on the top left, a view of the current directory on the top right, and the CD contents on the bottom. You can drag and drop files between the panes. Four buttons on the left side of the bottom pane toggle between compilation contents, the name of the disk to be burned, burn options, and a programs log. To burn an .iso image, you select Recorder -> Burn Image to open a separate dialog window, just as you do in K3b and GnomeBaker.

Most of the quirks in this interface are minor, and center on the tree view, which does not display hidden directories by default, and displays the entire directory structure under the Windows-centric name of My Computer, rather than just the user's home directory.

The only serious weakness is that some dialog windows are slow to close. After canceling a burn, I waited 30 seconds for a response from NeroLINUX. I never did manage to close the About window without restarting the program. Otherwise, NeroLinux's interface is highly effective -- all the more so because its basic assumptions should be instantly recognizable to most users.

Functionality

NeroLINUX offers almost identical functionality to either K3b or GnomeBaker. Like these free equivalents, NeroLINUX handles data or music CDs/DVDs, .iso images, and mixed compilations. On audio compilations, tracks can be rearranged and previewed. Burns can be simulated, verified, finalized, protected from buffer underuns, and, in general, carried out with almost all of the options that experienced burners might expect.

This functionality is supported by an online help window that is limited to two tabs. One tab gives an overview of configuring IDE drives with a 2.6 kernel, and the other an explanation of how to change drive permissions so that NeroLINUX can access them. Both seem written with the assumption that users already know their way around GNU/Linux, and are incomplete enough that they might as well not have been provided at all.

A separate PDF help file that can be downloaded with the NeroLINUX package is more thorough. In addition to describing basic tasks, the help file explains potential difficulties with system configuration, as well as potential conflicts with software that continually interacts with CD/DVD drives, such as the GNOME CD Player applet or SUSE Watcher. Although users of up-to-date systems should not need most of this information, those who do should find it reasonably complete. The only drawbacks to the help file are some awkward page breaks and a lack of complete accord with the interface, since it misnames several items, once or twice in ways that are not immediately obvious.

The main gap in functionality is that track tags (or CD text, as NeroLINUX calls them) cannot be edited. The function is listed in the dialog for burning options, but grayed out. Even enabling when Disk-At-Once (DAO) burning, which the manual insists will enable the feature, does not make it available.

In addition, NeroLINUX is also noticeably slower than either K3b or GnomeBaker. On one machine, both K3b and GnomeBaker took just over five minutes to write an .iso image to CD with verification turned on. On the same machine, with the same settings, NeroLINUX took more than 6.5 minutes to burn the same image. The functionality is all there, but basic responsiveness could be improved.

To buy or not to buy

NeroLINUX is available online in a 30-day trial version as either a .deb. or .rpm package, and currently sells for €20 (about $25.30). By contrast, the previous version sold for $69. However, despite this substantial saving and the improvement in performance over the last version, NeroLINUX offers few reasons to buy.

For one thing, NeroLINUX fails the first requirement of proprietary software for GNU/Linux: it equals, but in no way exceeds, its free software equivalents. Although the arrangements of features in the different interfaces make comparisons difficult, so far as I can tell, it offers no major features that are not matched by K3b or GnomeBaker, and has slightly fewer options than K3b. Nor does it offer a GUI as simple as KDE's arson or GNOME's Nautilus CD Burner for users who don't care about options.

Just as importantly, NeroLINUX represents a poor value compared to Nero 7 Premium, the latest offering for Windows. Currently available for €60, Nero 7 Premium offers not only CD/DVD burning, but also Nero StartSmart, a simplified GUI, and an array of other tools, including Nero Scout, a database that indexes system files for improved performance, Nero Vision, a tool for recording videos, and half a dozen other tools. NeroLINUX users do not even get the benefits of a cross-platform application that users can be comfortable with regardless of the operating system, since Nero Burning ROM, NeroLINUX's equivalent in Nero 7 Premium, has an entirely different interface.

Seven years ago, when free burning software was less mature and had poorer interfaces, NeroLINUX might have been a welcome addition to the GNU/Linux desktop. Now, its only market would seem to be those who have just switched from Windows and still find an illusion of comfort in proprietary software. For others, NeroLINUX has no serious problems -- but neither does it have any compelling reasons to buy.

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