How long do CD-Rs last?

The clock ticks for writable discs, but one company claims its new DVD will store usable information for centuries.

By , Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

Unlike stone tablets and parchment manuscripts, writable CDs (known as CD-Rs) will not be around in 1,000 years for future generations to enjoy. The plastic doughnut frames will remain, but much of the digital information will disappear.

That is, except for one brand. Disc-maker Millenniata in Springville, Utah, claims to sell the first recordable DVD that “preserves data for centuries.”

These M-ARC discs, which will be available Sept. 1, can be read by any computer DVD player, will hold up to 4.7 gigabytes, and, if stored at room temperature, will protect those files for 1,000 years.

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The downsides? Each disc will cost $25 to $30 (normal writable DVDs cost about $1). And in order to record information, you’ll need Millenniata’s M-Writer Drive, which costs $2,500.

Peace of mind may be worth the extra expense when it comes to library, government, or corporate documents. But what about family photos? Just how long does a standard CD-R or DVD-R last?

“Decades,” says David Bunzel, president of the Optical Storage Technology Association in Cupertino, Calif. “At least 20 years.”

Over time, the chemicals on CD-Rs can spoil. In perfect conditions, the chemistry could last into the next century. But heat, humidity, light, finger prints, markers, and some labels can speed up that timeline – perhaps to just a few years.

Mr. Bunzel’s trade group ran a survey asking about 100 participants to find their oldest recordable CDs and see if they still worked. The discs they dug up were of all different ages, but about a quarter were “at least 10 years old,” Bunzel says.

Five percent of participants had issues with the old discs. The association did not investigate the individual complications – so some could be software related.

This double complication (even if the CDs are pristine, programs and hardware can grow obsolete) led the Library of Congress to warn people to “never use rewritable discs for long-term storage ... they often fail within a few years. The backup discs you make today may become damaged or obsolete in the future.”

CDs and DVDs can be part of your backup plan, it says. They are, after all, inexpensive, compact, and portable.

But don’t rely on them alone.

Especially when it comes to digital photos, the Library of Congress suggests a three-pronged approach: save them to discs or USB flash drives, upload them to online storage sites such as Flickr.com, and print out copies with archive-quality ink. Then, when CD-Rs, flash drives, or websites become outdated, move everything to their replacements.

Also, know that blank CD-Rs don’t last as long as used discs – think five to 10 years shelf life. That may be plenty of time, considering the speed of overturning technology. CDs may feel like 8-tracks in five years.

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