German software house Ashampoo offers a surprising number of utilities for disc burning, in addition to a raft of other products, including system and hard drive optimisers. The company's Burning Studio is still available in its previous version 10 for £29.99, but of course we wanted to check out the latest and greatest incarnation, version 11, which costs just a fiver more at £34.99.
Ashampoo Burning Studio 11 adds support for smartphones, social networks, cloud services and modern multi-core processors. Both versions can burn full HD Blu-ray, and both go beyond mere burning by letting you create menu systems for your discs. They'll also rip and burn audio CDs and compress movies to fit DVDs.
Signup and setup
You can download a 30 day full trial version, and the 176MB installer, compatible with Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7, is available in 20 languages. After accepting the license terms, you can select either an Express or Custom installation – I recommend the latter, since Express installs a toolbar and changes your browser home page and search provider. Once the setup process has finished, you'll have the choice of starting the app or a gadget. I did both, and I found that the gadget required some more installing.
The program's interface looks more like that of a large software suite rather than a simple burning utility. It’s close, but not quite as slick as suites from the big names such as Nero or CyberLink, although at least you can change its colour theme. Version 11 introduces a new compact mode to minimise screen footprint, but it actually takes a little while to switch between the two interfaces. In fact, it’s almost like launching another program. The compact version is simply a circle containing the words "Drag&Drop files to burn here!" And don't forget that desktop gadget: It can launch either interface, and has three main buttons – Files, Movies, and Copy – all of which open the larger interface.
Every activity you can start from the main interface and perform in Burning Studio takes the form of a wizard operation, with the program holding your hand, and providing Back and Next buttons so you can always backtrack to change something. Burning Studio's installer also adds itself to the AutoPlay box that pops up when you insert media, blank or full, into your optical drive. All in all, it's quite a neat little interface.
More than just burning
Burning Studio's nine main menus offer a wealth of options for burning both data and media content to all types of optical media, including CD, DVD, and Blu-ray. The first two option sets concern writing data to disc. The first lets you create or update a simple data disc, with an optional auto-start feature. The second is for backup, letting you span multiple discs with a set of data files. Next up are the music facilities: you can create an audio CD that will play on any CD player, an MP3 disc, copy music files as data for PC playback, or rip a CD's music tracks to your PC.
Movie burning options come next, with movie and slideshow authoring, using a prepared movie folder, or simply copying video files to a disc. Full disc copying, working with disc images, erasing discs, printing labels, and advanced settings like making a disc bootable round out the program's options.
In testing Ashampoo's audio disc capabilities, I first tried creating an MP3 DVD with Burning Studio. I'd hoped to be able to just add a top-level folder containing nested folders with MP3s, but I had to go in and add the actual music files into the folders I'd added. The program boasts a thermometer control at the bottom which indicates how much of the disc the files will take up, a helpful touch. My project was 371MB, consisting of 111 files.
The program went through a 10 minute conversion process, presumably to change the bitrate, even though the files were already in MP3 format (other audio formats aren't accepted). I'd have preferred an option to leave the bitrate at the source's setting. It then took just under four minutes to burn on my 3.4GHz quad-core test machine with 4GB RAM, writing to 16x DVD-R media.
When ripping a CD to PC files, Burning Studio first correctly added the album name and track titles, and then offered a choice of ripping to MP3, WAV, or WMA files. I could also change the bitrate from 8kbps to 320kbps. My 14 track CD of 60 minutes (Buena Vista Social Club) took just 2 minutes and 2 seconds to rip to 192kbps MP3s. Unlike iTunes or Windows Media player, however, it didn't show me which song was being ripped, just a big green progress bar. The results sounded superb.
Movies and slideshows
Burning Studio's Movie and Slideshow Authoring module uses a wizard interface to take you through the steps required by this type of project. First you choose your media type – DVD, Blu-ray (720p), or Blu-ray full 1080p HD. (You can also create Video CDs and Super Video CDs.) You then choose a screen format – for TV output, either PAL or NTSC, and for a computer display, widescreen or standard 4:3 aspect ratio. Then you just add content in the form of images and videos, and the program determines what quality (i.e. bitrate) to output based on the size of your content and output media.
Overall, I was impressed with Burning Studio's digital movie skills – it even let me rotate video clips – but for real editing, and even things like changing the brightness, colours, or other effects, you'll need a proper piece of video editing software such as CyberLink PowerDirector. After editing, I could add a menu to the movie, selecting from 15 theme and colour choices. Creating and burning a menu-bearing DVD with four clips to a 4.7GB DVD took 7 minutes 13 seconds on my 3.4GHz quad-core test machine (writing to 16x DVD-R media). That’s quite nippy, although one niggle was that the menus Ashampoo created looked blotchy on playback, so again, you're probably better off with purpose-made DVD authoring software. I was pleasantly surprised that I could add menus and chapters to a Blu-ray disc project, too; the same project in Blu-ray took 5 minutes 42 seconds to format and burn.
Ripping and ISOs
Burning Studio also lets you go the other way – ripping disc images to the PC from not just CDs, but DVDs, and even Blu-rays. You can then create a modified copy of the disc, burning it to a new disc, and even adding files to a bootable disc. But I couldn't rip copy-protected discs, as you'd expect. Even further in the reverse direction, you can erase an RW disc. I could also burn a disk image file in ISO format. I used the 3.4GB Windows 8 installer disc ISO to test this, writing to a 16x DVD, which took 5 minutes 52 seconds. As with other burning operations, the program showed an estimate of time remaining and progress bars for each operation.
This disc burning suite can create Blu-ray movies (including menus, just as with DVD movie discs) and data discs. It can erase BD-RE media, which it did very quickly for my test movie project, taking just a few seconds. When I tried ripping a Hollywood movie Blu-ray, The Big Year, the program made me wait for 20 minutes while it read the whole disk, even though the label said it was copy protected. But when I went to burn a copy, my Blu-ray media wasn't compatible. I was surprised that copy protection allowed me to duplicate the disc, but maybe the fact that the requisite 50GB Blu-ray media is by no means cheap had something to do with that. Clearly, though, Burning Studio would have no problem ripping Blu-rays which lack DRM.
Ashampoo throws in a bunch of extra capabilities with the software, including the ability to burn slideshow discs from Flickr, Facebook, Dropbox, or Picasa accounts. When choosing images for a slideshow disc, the file-picker dialog offers icons for the content site, which once clicked require you to log in to your account. All my Facebook photos were then available, even wall photos – something not possible in Apple's Aperture.
Burning Studio also offers disc label printing, and you can even download an image from the internet directly into the program to create a disc case cover, booklet, CD jewel case, or disc label. If you don't have your own image, the program supplies themed label images with topics like Adventure, Birthday, and so on, which you can customise with your own text.
But not everything was sunshine and simplicity with this burning suite. When trying to re-edit a group of clips in a movie, the program stopped responding. Otherwise, my extensive testing of the software went without a hitch.
Ashampoo Burning Studio is a well-rounded CD, DVD, and Blu-ray burning, ripping, and authoring suite. The interface might not be quite as glossy as the likes of Cyberlink’s competing application, but it’s certainly slick enough. Ashampoo also has a big advantage over that competitor with its ability to author Blu-ray movie discs. Most importantly, this package performed all the tasks I asked of it, with admirable results. The price seems a touch steep at £35, but you’re buying a quality set of tools here, with some thoughtful extras thrown in.