Nero 8 Ultra gets a face-lift, adds new features

Nero 8's new start screen makes the 20 or so apps easier to launch from the get-go. Some welcomed new features include HD authoring, DVR playback, video uploading, and data recovery, but this rich suite can still confuse.

In addition to the disc-ripping and -burning capabilities with which Nero first made its mark, the digital-media suite also offers a bevy of options for managing movies, music, and photos. Nero helps you create and edit videos and music files, share that content online, turn your PC into a media center, and back up and recover data in case of disaster. Nero 8 includes a revamped entry page in addition to new support for burning and creating HD and Blu-ray CDs and DVDs.

Nero 8 costs $79 to download, $99 for the box, and $49 to upgrade from Nero 7 Ultra Edition. In the past, Nero has not issued a new version of its software every year, unlike so many other brands. Instead, a new package would come onto the market every other year or so. Peppered between each release were significant updates that Nero's 50 million or so active users could download for free. Now, however, Nero will follow an annual version-update schedule.

Nero 8 StartSmart menu

Nero 8 introduces a new StartSmart entry screen that includes burning functionality right in the app launcher.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Setup
We had to let an early download of Nero 8 run all night long (the estimate early in the evening was 9 hours), which was maddening. From the disc, luckily, the 30-minute process on our Windows XP tester was far less arduous.

PhotoShow Express and SecurDisc Viewer took about another 10 minutes to install separately. But beware; Nero will install the Ask search toolbar in your Internet browser unless you step through the process slowly and decline, if it's not what you want.

You'll also have to clear or check lots of boxes to tell Nero whether you want its apps to open your photos, videos, and music files by default. You'll have to clear five check-boxes to prevent Nero from adding that many desktop shortcuts to your computer.

Nero 8 introduces a StartSmart entry screen that clusters the suite's functions by category so that you don't need to know the names of individual applications to access their features.

Nero 8 requires a Windows 2000 SP4 or later, XP, or Vista operating system, with a DVD-ROM and a recommended 512MB of RAM for Vista, or 256MB for earlier versions of Windows. You should have 1.5GB of disk space free and another 9GB to squeeze in DVD files. If you want to record or author high-definition content or record TV shows, you'll need a system beefier than the basic requirements. HD DVD playback requires a plug-in from Nero's Web site, for instance.

Interface
Once everything is installed and you reboot, there will be no fewer than 16 items listed in the Nero 8 folder within Windows' Programs menu. This is a complicated package that can be confusing to navigate. The StartSmart screen is the best place to start. The ketchup-colored interface of older versions of Nero is gone, replaced by more subtle bluish-and-gray tones with a list of topics that feels better organized than the sliding bar from Nero 7.

Nero Home

Watch, manage, and record TV shows, plus share music and movies with Nero Home.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Options along the top now include Rip and Burn, Create and Edit, Home Entertainment and Back Up. The left-hand navigation lists Data Burning, Audio Burning, Audio Ripping, and Copy Disc functions.

The organization is helpful, as each of these menu items takes you to collections of applications with names you may not understand. RSS feeds near the bottom of the screen will show updates from Nero, but we wish it were easier to add our own feeds there, for instance, to display the latest videos shared through MyNero. Instead, you must visit the Options menu (under File) and add XML URLs. The flame icon in the lower left corner connects to other Nero 8 applications.

Although we had problems accessing it in our early tests, Nero Home's entertainment features include watching, managing, and recording television shows in addition to sharing music and movies.

Features
Nero 8's new features include converting DVD files for an iPod, PSP, or other mobile gadgets; playing AVCHD and Blu-ray video; and backing up files to CD, Blu-ray, and both regular and high-definition DVDs. SecurDisc lets you digitally sign and recover data, and it can make bootable Linux discs--no more DOS. There's also a free one-month trial of Nero Mobile. And you can import and share videos via YouTube, MySpace, and MyNero. Nero can convert files to MPEG-4 and other formats you prefer.

Most of the applications, such as Nero BackItUp, retain their individual interfaces, which veteran users might mind. Overall, however, we wish there were a more integrated appearance to make it easier to learn the various menus and icons.

Nero BackItUp

Nero BackItUp includes tools to back up and verify files and drives.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Once you dig a bit deeper, however, you can easily get lost within Nero's many applications. For instance, when we tried to toy with creating backups, Nero closed the StartSmart window and took us to the entirely different BackItUp interface. We had to close that window for StartSmart to pop up again. However, some users might like this approach because it keeps fewer windows open on your desktop.

A similar thing happened when we selected options from the Home Entertainment menu, which froze our PC. We had to use the Windows Task Manager to reach the otherwise self-explanatory setup interface of Nero Home. Our Windows Firewall kept blocking Nero Home, but didn't tell us so until we tried returning to the StartSmart view.

Behind StartSmart, the look, feel, and features of the various programs remain largely the same. Nero Vision 5 helps you make DVDs, CDs, and slide shows. You can add chapters and markers to high-definition videos. There's a decent photo editing application, too.

Nero Express steps you through making music or video discs, such as a Jukebox Audio CD packed with your choice of audio files that can be played on discs supporting MP3, WMA, and AAC formats. You can burn a Super Video CD that converts your videos to formats that most SVCD and DVD players can read.

Nero BackItUp enables you to copy and create recovery discs, schedule periodic data backups, and so on.

Service and support
Nero 8 includes a detailed digital manual that connects to online help, to which we weren't fully able to connect. A decent QuickStart printed guide is included with a boxed copy of the software. We'll report back soon with a rated review of Nero 8 after we spend more time testing its features.

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