Knowing what’s on the data disc you’ve just created is always useful. But the seemingly simple task of labelling provides the average man in the street with something of a dilemma. Marker pens are messy and their ink can get rubbed off, while labels can unbalance a spinning disc or, worse, come off in the drive. Dedicated CD printers, meanwhile, are only an option if you’ve got deep pockets.

Enter HP with its LightScribe technology, which uses the same data-burning laser in its compatible CD/DVD writer to embed patterns on the front of a specially coated disc. All you have to do is wait for the recording process to finish, open up the drive, turn the disc over and close the tray for the labelling process to begin.

The laser refocuses and burns graphics or text on to the non-reading side of the disc, which is covered with an organic dye. This reacts with the laser, causing a visible chemical change in the coating. And don’t worry – the LightScribe drive knows which side of the disc is which, so there is no danger of burning a hole in your data.

HP will initially be includeing the drives in som eof its more expensive PCs, but soon they should be in £399 models as well.

Importantly, HP is opening up the licence so other companies can use the technology in their drives. “We want to make it an industry standard,” says HP’s Rob Crampton. And other firms have been quick to take up the offer. Philips, Toshiba and Hitachi, among others, are all developing drives while the necessary compatible media has been promised from TDK, CMC and Verbatim.

When the hardware will reach shop shelves is still unclear, but with model names and prices already being bandied about it should be sooner rather than later. The projected price of the LightScribe 630i DVD writer, an internal model, is £69 inc VAT, and the external 630e should be just under £100.

In terms of media, a single 52-speed CD-R is expected to cost about £1; the price of DVD media, though, has still to be set. Life expectancy should be on a par with normal CD and DVD media and, provided discs are kept in a cool, dark place, the labels shouldn’t fade at all, according to HP.

Software that works with LightScribe is available now, and HP predicts most new CD burning packages will offer LightScribe support in the future. If you have a copy of Sonic RecordNow 7.2 or InterVideo WinDVDCreator 2.5, then you’re already a third of the way towards easier disc labelling.

As with most nascent technologies, you’re going to have to wait for results because inscribing the label side of a disc is noticeably slow at the moment. Burning a simple track listing or disc index takes only five minutes or so, but if you want to get fancy and etch images to your disc you’ll be hanging about for up to half an hour.

Speed improvements are on the way, though, and the system does allow you to import your own designs, rather than rely on the supplied predesigned templates, which is a definite bonus. Unfortunately, your creativity will be limited to mono reproduction until HP’s labs come up with a laser that can burn in colour.

PC Advisor will be testing LightScribe drives as soon as we can get our hands on them. Watch this space.