Almost two decades later, there's finally an answer to the question everybody first asked about compact discs: "When am I going to be able to record on these things?"

With a computer and a CD-recorder drive, it's now quite cheap to "burn" your own audio or data CDs: Drives cost from $200 to $300, while the discs sell for less than a buck apiece if you buy in bulk. You can put together mixes of your favorite songs or -- let's be real here -- copy albums for nearly free. You can also archive your e-mail, backup your data, or -- let's be real here -- copy software for nearly free.

The bad news, though, is that so much of this technology remains in a primitive state of user-hostility, especially when it comes to rewritable CD-RW discs.

That hasn't stopped computer manufacturers from pushing CD-RW drives as the next must-buy gadget. Compaq, Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sony all offer or will soon offer CD-RW drives as an option, and these and other firms also sell RW drives to plug into existing computers. Even Iomega, which has managed to put Zip drives on seemingly half of the desks in America, plans to start selling CD burners this fall.

We looked at two of these add-on units, Sony's Spressa CRX100E/X and QPS's Que! drive. Both plug into the Universal Serial Bus ports on Macs and PCs; Sony bundles Mac and Win 98 software, while QPS includes only Mac programs, with Win 98 software $20 extra. You can also install a drive internally (cheaper, but considerably more complicated) or plug it into a PC's parallel port (slow, conflict-prone, generally a bad idea) or a Mac's SCSI port (slightly more expensive, not an option for iMac owners).

Both drives' USB connections enabled an easy, fast setup, aside from Win 98 swapping drive letters (it evicted an internal CD-ROM from D: to G:). But things got interesting once I started using the bundled software to record data and audio CDs and move data on and off CD-RW discs.

The Sony's software is, in a word, bad. The Windows HotBurn program regularly froze up the computer, its "wizard" interface was too limiting and its "expert" interface was grotesquely complex. (This is a common failing of many Windows programs, but that's another article entirely.) The Mac program, Discribe, was littered with confusing jargon and forced me to march through a linear series of screens to get anything done.

QPS was wise to offer the industry standard software, Adaptec's Toast (for Mac) and Easy CD Creator (for Windows). Toast was a much simpler, more logical program to use; to copy a CD, drag its icon into the Toast window, then click "Write CD." Easy CD Creator wasn't quite so elegant, but at least it didn't crash the computer like HotBurn.

But none of these programs can avoid the fundamental hazard of CD burning. Because a single glitch in recording turns the disc into an unreadable "coaster," good only to rest a drink on, you're supposed to perform a test write to verify that your hardware can keep up. This doubles the 12 to 15 minutes it should take to write a disc at 4x speed -- unless the test write fails, in which case you must step down to 2x, test that speed, then write the disc. It's time-consuming, but at least you can get the hang of it after a few tries.

Things are much worse when it comes to working with CD-RWs. This is too bad, since RW discs could be a great backup solution: They cost only $10 or so individually, they're durable as heck and almost all current computers can read them. (Older CD-ROM drives, as well as almost all audio CD players, lack the circuitry required for rewritable discs.)

The problem is that the most common CD-recording programs -- titles like Toast, Easy CD Creator, HotBurn and Discribe -- are geared toward traditional, write-once CD burning; using them on a CD-RW creates multiple "sessions" of data, one for each set of files copied onto the disc. The results are confusing; for instance, a multiple-session RW disc shows up on a Mac desktop as multiple CD icons.

The answer is a "packet writing" utility, such as Adaptec's DirectCD, which lets you treat an RW disc just like a hard drive, dragging files to and from it in Windows Explorer or the Mac Finder. But not all drives include a packet-writing program; you can buy one separately, but make sure it supports your drive first. And to get an otherwise CD-RW-fluent CD-ROM drive to read packet-written discs, you'll also need a "UDF (Universal Disc Format) reader" utility.

Once you have the right tools, budget another 45 minutes to format an RW disc for packet writing. The logical thing to do would be to sell rewritable discs pre-formatted for such use, but, oops, nobody does that. (An Adaptec representative said such discs are sold in Japan, but had no idea why they're not here.)

Don't worry: Sooner or later, the folks in the industry will figure this stuff out. Probably just as they start pushing DVD-RW (the subject of next Friday's feature) as the next big thing.

Que! Drive, QPS ; Mac, $299 (Win 98 software, $20 extra).

Spressa CRX100E/X, Sony; Win 98/Mac, $370.