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1st October 2006


Brian Grainger

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Have you ever had the situation where the CD-ROM that you have lovingly filled with your photos has then become unreadable? I have - it is not a good feeling! This article is about a tool I have found that can help to recover unreadable CD-ROMs.

For a long time now I have been using various Linux Live CDs, which I then want to put onto my hard drive to speed up boot time. Almost all my Linux distros come as .iso files, which are image files that you burn to a CD-R as an image. Think of the .iso as a single library file that contains the contents of all the files on the CD-R. In order to transfer files to the hard disk one usually needs the contents of the library. Of course, one could burn the .iso to a CD-R and then copy the files from the CD-R to the hard disk. However, this assumes you have a CD Writer and also wastes a CD-R.

There is a tool that allows you to view the contents of an .iso file and extract the individual files in the library. The tool is called IsoBuster from Smart Projects.

You may well ask how does this help to recover unreadable CDs? Well, when you look at the web site for IsoBuster, at http://www.isobuster.com, you see that, despite its name, the primary function of IsoBuster is as a data recovery tool from CDs and DVDs. The ability to extract files from .iso images is just one of its many other functions. Another is the ability to create or check md5 checksums of .iso files. When my CD-RW of photos suddenly would not read I started to investigate all the functionality of IsoBuster!

The story behind my faulty CD-RW is instructive. I tend to write all my files to CD-RW in UDF format. This enables you to use the CD-RW as if it is another disk drive. You can use Windows Explorer or many other programs to simply copy files to the CD-RW. UDF formatted disks can only be read with the help of a reader program. This makes the CDs created slightly less portable. When I want to archive a photo collection I will then create a standard CD-ROM in Joliet or ISO format. This will be readable by anything, including many DVD players. The other aspect of using CDs as storage is the quality of the CD itself. How do you know what CD-Rs or CD-RWs to buy? Well, I bought the cheapest and see if they work - not removing my hard drive copies of my photos until I had confidence they did.

One day I created a CD for a friend as a favour. He repaid the favour by giving me a blank CD-RW of a type I had not used before. You guessed it. It was this CD-RW that became unreadable after a certain period of time. To be honest, I am not sure whether it was a media problem or whether it was some glitch when storing some files on the CD-RW. Whatever it was, the result was I could no longer view a lot of photos!

After reading what IsoBuster could do, I decided to see if IsoBuster could read this faulty CD-RW. I was most impressed when it displayed all the directories and files that I thought had been lost. The next step was to try and extract one of the files from the faulty CD-RW to the hard drive. I got the message, "For this functionality you need to register".

IsoBuster is downloaded as a zip file. However, the same file has free functions and PRO(fessional) functions. You need to get a registration key, which you have to pay for, to unlock the PRO functions. The cost is about $26 or 25. No mention of GBP, so I was not exactly amused. The help file says that PRO functionality unlocks high end data recovery from UDF CDs (and Image Files), so I definitely needed it. I pondered this awhile. I don't like paying unnecessary money, so I began to look to see if there were any other free tools that would come to my rescue. I didn't find any!

Some time passed and I was beginning to think I had lost my photos. Then I had a brainwave. IsoBuster would extract files from .iso images. I wondered if it would create an .iso image from a collection of files, the reverse process. It would. Moreover, when I eventually worked out how to do it, I found it was part of the free functionality! My problem was solved. I created an .iso image from the files that IsoBuster read from my faulty CD-RW. I then burned this image to a CD-R using my usual program, Easy CD Creator. This created a perfectly good CD-R with all my photos on it. Result!

Following this success, I would recommend IsoBuster as a must-have tool for dealing with those problematic CDs.

As I said earlier, IsoBuster, which works with all Windows systems, comes as a zip file. It comes from:

When unzipped the download consists of a single install file. However, IsoBuster is acceptably behaved in that the install simply creates files in a user defined IsoBuster folder and optionally creates desktop, menu and quick launch icons. It also optionally allows file associations to be made to image files, such as .iso. While the help file suggests this should be done I would avoid it until you are certain. In my case Easy CD Creator already has an association with .iso files which enable me to quickly burn .iso images to CD. I would not like to lose this functionality so I did not let IsoBuster create any file associations.

IsoBuster works with just about any CD/DVD format you can think of, including Mac and Commodore file systems. It can be used to extract audio CD files to .wav files on your hard drive. It can perform surface scans of media for error detection. The more technically minded can manipulate individual blocks on the media.

IsoBuster works by talking to the hardware directly. It bypasses Windows completely. This enables it to read things that Windows cannot! It can also be a little disturbing. You can ask IsoBuster to play an Audio CD track and it will. However, I could find no way to stop it play before the track is complete. Looking for an application to close results in nothing found! IsoBuster has instructed the hardware to play and it does!

I have found only one drawback with IsoBuster. It comes with a very good help file, but it does require careful reading. It took me ages to work out how to create an .iso image from my faulty CD-RW. Whenever I chose a menu item which mentioned .iso it seemed to want to save to .tao or .bin. With a careful read of the help file I eventually found I simply had to rename the file after it was created! I guess the creator of IsoBuster is very technical and has not quite grasped how to communicate with normal people! Nevertheless, IsoBuster is a great tool and it is worth the effort in understanding its capabilities.