But Nero 8 was competent, too, and while the improvements in Nero 9 are most welcome, they're probably not enough to warrant upgrading from the previous version.

The most noticeable changes are the elimination of "Ultra" from the title, the replacement of the circular while-you-wait animation with Bezier waves, and the decision to make BackItUp a separate, optional install.

Regrettably, the multimedia-networking MediaHome 4 module is now sold separately, too.

Other Nero 9 changes are meatier. The Nero StartSmart application launch centre sports added entries for playing files (audio and video), as well as for the new AutoBackup background backup function. Both modules are integrated into the launch centre itself, which eliminates the need to start up separate applications.

AutoBackup (the reason BackItUp is now optional) can back up locally or to Nero's new online service. Nero has also revamped its ShowTime DVD playback module so that the interface is less obtuse. Other tweaks are in the help, and more help is available online.

Overall, however, Nero 9 does not provide the sweeping redesign we've been hoping to see for this application; the interface, which could benefit from a face-lift, remains largely unchanged.

One convenient new feature is the ability to save audio tracks from videos to MP3. Also appealing are the use of Gracenote instead of CDDB for track, artist, and album information; a TV gadget for the Vista Sidebar; Ad Spotter, which helps you find and delete commercials in video recordings; and Pre-scan, for previewing and chaptering video straight from DV cameras.

OUR VERDICT

Nero 9 is definitely a better product than version 8, and for new users it's a great tool. But considering the cost of the upgrade, we suggest saving your pennies for version 10. Versus the similarly priced Roxio Creator 2009, the story remains largely the same: Nero is less friendly, slightly more powerful in audio and encoding, and decidedly faster. Roxio still provides better templates. Both suites support Blu-ray BD-MV authoring with menus through additional plug-ins.