Nero 6 Ultra Edition is the most comprehensive, versatile CD- and DVD-mastering and packet-writing suite on the market today. In fact, calling it a disc-authoring application is a disservice, because the suite also offers a very capable backup program, a DVD-authoring tool that compares favourably with all but its professional-level competitors, and even a VCD/DVD movie playback program that includes support for MPEG-4 (the compression scheme that gives you near-DVD quality on a CD). Toss in a slick, completely configurable launch applet, numerous helpful utilities and a responsive bug-fix policy, and you get a hands-down Editors' Choice. In fact, Nero 6 Ultra Edition would have been a landslide winner if it were not for a few minor bugs in our pre-release version and some quibbles with the interface in some modules. Still, if you've been thinking about Easy CD Creator, think Nero instead.
Setup & interface
Installing Nero 6 Ultra Edition takes about 10 minutes (plus reboot time) and requires about 220MB of disk space. Unfortunately, you must wade through separate installation routines for three programs: NeroVision Express 2.0 (movie authoring), Nero Mix MP3 (an MP3 ripper), and InCD 4.0 (a packet-writing program). We'd prefer a set-it-and-forget-it install routine for everything in the suite. Taking a page out of Easy CD Creator's book, Nero 6 Ultra Edition includes StartSmart, a window that offers access to all of the suite's numerous components. You can even configure it to show you only the programs you commonly use, which is more than Easy CD Creator allows. StartSmart will also let you know when an update for any of the suite's modules is available and direct you to the Web site for downloading. Nero 6 Ultra's interface is both pleasing to the eye and easy to use, although we did notice that text messages and labels were truncated when we set our Windows display driver to large fonts (125 percent or 120dpi). One of our few complaints concerns the BackItUp backup utility and NeroVision Express 2.0. Although both are easy to use and highly capable, they force you through a step-by-step process, which could annoy or frustrate experienced users. We're also still waiting for the single-pane, tunnelling browser and disc layout windows in Nero Burning ROM that we put on our wish list in our review of Nero 5.5.
At the heart of the Nero 6 Ultra Edition suite is the old-school, power-user mastering program Nero Burning ROM, the friendlier-to-beginners Nero Express mastering program, and the InCD 4.0 packet-writing program, for using your CD or DVD rewritable discs like floppies. In this new incarnation, Nero Burning ROM gets a mild facelift with larger icons, more comprehensive pop-up tool tips and other tweaks; Nero Express remains the easy-to-use program it has always been; and InCD 4.0 has new features under the surface, such as better support. All three are stable, mature programs and remain our favourites. On top of the old standbys, Nero 6 Ultra Edition adds its new Nero Vision Express 2 movie-authoring application and the BackItUp backup utility. Both are extremely powerful, considering that they're just parts of an inexpensive software suite. Nero Vision Express 2, unlike its difficult-to-use and underpowered predecessor, is one of the most competent movie-authoring programs we've seen, rivalling Pinnacle Studio 8 in capabilities and beating it handily in performance. The program supports motion menu buttons (small snippets of movies that play within the scene-selection button), and even the background of your menu screen can be a movie. Like other modules in the suite, however, Vision Express 2 relies solely on a step-by-step, wizard-style interface, which quickly becomes tedious and constricting when you know what you're doing. For example, you can't preview your creation except by advancing screen by screen to the preview pane. We'd like to see some shortcuts here and there. Nero's new BackItUp backup utility works like a charm; you can back up and restore, as well as schedule backups at specific intervals. BackItUp isn't as mature as Stomp's BackUp MyPC, but it offers everything most users need: compression, disc spanning and scheduling. It even throws in straight file copying for quick, everyday backups of your most important files. Our only beef: BackItUp can be a bit clunky to use. For example, unless you define your backup as a job or actually execute a backup, you can't save specific options, such as which files to back up and whether to use compression. We'd also like a Run Now option for scheduled backups. If the addition of BackItUp and Nero Vision Express 2 wasn't enough, Nero 6 Ultra Edition also includes ShowTime, a DVD/Movie file player that rapidly won us over despite numerous minor bugs. Not only does it launch faster than Windows Media Player, Winamp or nDVD, it's also more stable than Windows Media Player 9 or RealOne and doesn't constantly connect to the Internet the way they do. If you're into keeping Big Brother off of your machine, that's a major advantage. Nero 6 Ultra Edition also includes two audio-editing applications -- Nero Wave Editor and SoundTrax. Nero Wave Editor offers the classic approach to sound editing: you can trim graphical WAV files, apply effects, normalise volume and the like, and then listen to the result. SoundTrax, on the other hand, lets you splice together audio files, and then listen to effects, EQ and volume changes applied in real time and non-destructively; real changes aren't applied until you save the resulting file. SoundTrax crashed when we tried to import a 32-bit WAV file (the vast majority of WAV files are 16-bit). We did inform Ahead Software of the problem, but only professionals (who would probably prefer a higher-end editor anyway) are likely to encounter it. The suite also includes Nero Mix, a MusicMatch-esque MP3 player/ripper/burner, which does its job nicely. If audio is your thing, only professional-level programs offer more functionality. Think that's plenty of tools? Think again. Rounding out the suite are the Nero Cover Designer (jewel case covers and inserts), CD-DVD Speed (burner benchmarking), DriveSpeed (drive rotational speed control) and InfoTool. InfoTool is actually a holdover and free download from the company's Web site. The program tells you all sorts of things about both your drive and media, such as whether it supports Mount Rainier, disc capacity and speed rating, and so on; it's very handy for CD and burner testing. The only thing missing from Nero 6 Ultra that's included in Easy CD Creator 6 is a dedicated photo-editing application; but Nero Vision Express 2 includes numerous photo-editing tools for preparing images for slide shows.
Service & support
Sadly, Ahead Software doesn't offer telephone support (most software vendors don't for low-cost products), but the quality of the company's documentation, both paper and PDF files, has improved greatly with Nero 6 Ultra Edition. The software itself includes concise, informative Windows tool tips for virtually every button and function in every module in the suite and even for the Start Menu entries. The online help at the company's Web site includes FAQs, email to a technical support agent and downloadable software updates. Unfortunately, though, it lacks a search function, and Nero 6 Ultra Edition-specific support wasn't available online at the time of this writing. Most importantly, Ahead is amazingly responsive to users who write in with bugs or other problems. The company posts regular free updates, fixes bugs promptly, and even offers a complete listing of fixes and features dating back to the earliest versions of the program.