General discussion

1/27/06 How long do burned CD-Rs and CD-RWs last?

Jan 25, 2006 9:54AM PST

I recently read an article by a data storage expert who claimed that burned CD-Rs and CD-RWs can be expected to last only two to five years and not a whole lot more. I personally have commercially pressed CDs from the 1980s that still play fine, but I have begun to notice that some of my burned CD-Rs are beginning to skip, or not start (player shows "no disc"), or have a strange echo that was not on the original. This sounds serious! The expert suggests that for secure long-term storage, high -quality magnetic tape is the way to go. Are any of your readers beginning to notice this problem with their burned CDs, and are there other opinions about how to combat it? Are some burnable CDs of higher quality than others? What are the best storage methods for the discs that will make them last longest?

Submitted by: Carl N. of Cottonwood, Arizona



Factory-pressed CDs are totally different from recordable CDs. In a pressed CD, the data is literally "molded into" (actually pressed into) the media and will not disappear unless the CD is physically damaged. Recordable CDs use a dye that changes color or reflectivity when heated. There are different dye types commonly used in recordable CDs--phthalocyanine, azo, and cyanine, in particular--and they do not all have the same life expectancy and stability.

All of the studies that I have seen except one suggest that properly burned one-time media (-R media, but not -RW media; see below) has an expected life of decades to possibly even centuries. There was a study by NIST (a U.S. government agency, used to be the National Bureau of Standards) on the relative stability of different media here:

You can see some comparisons in the NIST study of the different dye types. But this study did not attempt to extrapolate the data to a life expectancy, although it did provide data about the relative stability of the different dyes and reflection layers behind them.

However, opinions still differ as to how long such media will last. The OSTA (Optical Storage Technology Association), in a report here:

suggests that optical recordable media will last 50 to 200 years. This observation is backed by quite a number of studies that I have seen done both by the media makers and others. However, some storage experts suggest numbers more in line with your question, for example the expert in this report suggests a life of only 2 to 5 years: (I have a suspicion that this is the article that you read).

The bottom line is that you are not going to get one single answer that everyone agrees on, although I personally am confident that properly recorded CD-R media can last decades if not a century or two. These 3 articles provide a good starting point for understanding some of the variables involved, which include:

-Dye type
-Physical construction of the media
-Storage conditions (temperature, humidity, light exposure, mechanical stress, chemical exposure and air quality)
-Manufacturing conditions (can vary from batch to batch in otherwise identical media of the same brand)

Now let?s mention some other things that are relevant and important:

-The quality of the burner. A borderline defective burner can ?under expose? the media to the laser beam, producing a seemingly good recording (at the time of burning) that will ?fade? over time (failing weeks, months, years or decades sooner than it should have had the laser beam intensity been correct)
-Recording speed. Fast burns (52X) are probably less stable than somewhat slower burns (say 16x to 32x), but you can burn media too slowly also. There is a very good analogy here to photographic film and exposure levels. The dyes on a given media have a certain range of acceptable ?exposures? and outside of that range, you can either under or over expose the media to the laser beam. However, mechanical jitter and certain other variables (largely a function of the quality of the drive) generally will be unconditionally worse at faster speeds.
-Your own handling and storage practices. On a CD, the data ?exists? in a dye layer on the label side of the media. This can be scratched from the back (from the label side), which will literally and directly destroy the data. The front side is clear plastic but can also be scratched. While front side damage may make the data less readable or completely unreadable, the data is still intact and undamaged on the label side, and the scratches on the front can normally be removed by polishing the plastic. On recordable DVDs, the data is on a layer ?inside? the media, but the media is a laminate of several layers and can delaminate, destroying the data. Flexing ? even VERY minor flexing ? is particularly bad at causing such damage. And, also, recordable DVDs tend to fail from the outside in, so you can increase your success rate and decrease the incidence of failures by not recording such media beyond 80% to 90% of capacity, leaving the outside edge, where the failure rate is greatest and failure occurs first, blank anyway.

-Labeling: The glues in adhesive labels, or the solvents in pen-type markers, both applied to the label side (the side containing the data) can SLOWLY penetrate the reflective backing and dye layers and destroy the data. Therefore, for archival media, the safest policy is to not label the CD or DVD itself at all. If you do label it, with either a label or a pen, you are, at best, taking a chance with your data (hint: it is safe to write on the clear inner hub (where there is no data at all) with a suitable pen that won?t rub off).

And, finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention one other factor which is really huge: Eraseable ?RW? media is FAR less stable than one-time (?R?) media and should absolutely not be used for any permanent recordings of any kind whatsoever. There is no question that RW media can and does ?fade?. Although I?ve never seen failure of ?R? media that I could attribute with absolute certainty to dye instability, I routinely see ?RW? recordings that are unreadable after periods of months to a year or two when there is really no other explanation for the failure. I see this both on CD-RW and DVD+/-RW media, and I advise people in the strongest possible terms not to use ?RW? media for anything that they want to consider permanent. Since RW media is also both more expensive (a lot more expensive) and slower, from my perspective the decision to never even buy RW media at all is an easy one from my perspective.

Submitted by: Barry W. of North Canton, OH

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Reply to: 1/27/06 How long do burned CD-Rs and CD-RWs last?
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It depends!
Jan 28, 2006 3:36AM PST

Maybe you are right! But wait some years and time will tell us!

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Great article .. and a question
Jan 26, 2006 7:30PM PST

thanks so much ... really useful piece of info .
but could u mention how should we pick media ?
what should I look for when buying blank CDs/DVDs ?

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Life of CDs
Jan 26, 2006 7:39PM PST

I endorse everything that Barry says, but one important aspect is original disc quality. It is very bad practice to use cheap, unbranded discs. Many are produced in the far east underanything but ideal conditions. They may be OK for grabbing the latest pop recording, but not for anything serious.
Use named brands only and try to seek those that use a gold reflective layer. The problem with other materials - silver/aluminium - is that they can and do corrode over time.
Remember that the dyes used in recordable CDs are light sensitive. If you leave them lying around on the desk don't expect them to have a long life.Store them in the dark.

Peter A of Argyll, Scotland

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Crap CDR's
Jan 27, 2006 6:10AM PST

I've had crap CDR's where the recording layer chipped off the substrate after a year or so.

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Storage life of CD-RWs!
Jan 26, 2006 7:40PM PST

Thanks for the comprehensive explanation about storage life. This has now got me worried as I have just devised a system to keep all my photographs on CD-RWs! Do you think this is foolish and should I start again and only use CD-Rs?

I find the difference between the two confusing anyway - although I am an experienced computer user and storer of data (having used computers since the early 1980s!) I fear I am losing the plot(!) as I cannot seem to get a grip of the differences of erasure/storage/usage of these two seemingly same looking but different abilities type media! - if you get my meaning! (maybe it's my age!!)

This website is superb and a great help - thanks to all the contributors who write far more intelligently than I do here!


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Question re Music CDs and MP3 format
Jan 26, 2006 9:25PM PST

It has been suggested in this discussion that when recoring music for the car specific music CD's are used.

Should I use music CD's when burning MP3 CD's?

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What about music CD-Rs for data?
Jan 27, 2006 9:01AM PST

I'm also confused about music vs. data CD-Rs. If I see a good sale on music CD-Rs, is there any reason I cannot use them for computer data files instead of for music?

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Music CDRs vs Data CDRs
Jan 28, 2006 3:44PM PST

You can definately burn normal computer data to "Music" CDRs. In fact, I recommend that this be done. Most CDRs made these days are terribly low quality, and I doubt that they would keep data intact for longer than a couple of years.

However, these Music CDRs (and earlier data CDs - up to 8x) use particular dyes that simply will not fade, and are also much more compatible with CD drives.

My computer has trouble reading some CDRs. The older ones read fine. The recent data ones don't read/have many errors. But the music ones always work well.

Many recent CDRs also need to be cooled down after burning before you can reliably read the data on them. Good quality CDs and Music CDs either don't need to be cooled, or they come out of the burner at room temperature.

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Over/Under burning & fading - how to measure
Jan 26, 2006 7:40PM PST

Reading your response it makes perfect sense.

However, now I'm concerned how we will know (from blank CD/DVD purchase to another) what the quality of the CD/DVD may be? (I donl't trust sales claims.)

There appears to be a NEED on the CD/DVD for a data meter - like the outside edge track that would be used for burn testing allowing drives to test and set the best exposure write speed for that CD/DVD media to give us the longest data retention time possible. Is this not a CD/DVD industry concern? Or due to user ignorance and increased CD/DVD costs the industry is not creating solutions to fading?

There appears to be a NEED on the CD/DVD for a visual indication FADING meter - allowing a user to know when the CD/DVD is getting close to loosing data and that data transfer is required soon or suffer data loss on that CD/DVD. Without some visual meter we are all gambling with our data with Vegas odds (the house being data loss).

Since we users do not know better and do not want to waste time infront of our CD/DVD burners the solution to this problem needs to be in the actual media and or software burning programs.

Short of a change to CD/DVD the only other interum solution is a software program that tests & measures a burned CD/DVD for uniformity - indicating consistance of the burn? And measure the over/under/optimal burn exposure for that particualr CD/DVD that could be equated to potential data life remaining on that CD/DVD. Is there such a program?

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Jan 27, 2006 10:14AM PST

I think PlexTools is a pretty good program to judge both initial CD burn and to see how a CDR is holding up. It comes free with their burners, not sure how you get it otherwise.

Terry D.

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CDs are not forever - what about HDs?
Jan 26, 2006 8:19PM PST

We have learned valuable lessons of the lifetime of CD-Rs and CD-RWs. Great posts.
What about hard disks? Now that those excternal HDs cost under a dollar per gigabyte, it is attempting to use them - rather than CDs - as the final and permanent storage medium for all personal data.
My 25-year old 1.4 MB diskettes still worked fine when I copied some of them to a HD last year. But will my HD last that long?

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HD Life
Jan 26, 2006 9:22PM PST

I've got about 4 HDs that are propbably a good 15-25 yrs old right now which work beautifully. (Old drives... of the mb and kb variety.) I also have some that dont anymore. I'd say it all depends on the individual drives. I think its Seagates and Western Digitals that I've seen work after all these years. Not a guarantee by any means though.

Its kind of like asking "How long should mt TV last?" When we have a 20yr old RCA that still works, but a 5yr old RCA that already lost the sound.

But yeah..... it is possible for HDs to last for 15yrs or more.

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1.44MB floppies I thought were from 1987...
Jan 26, 2006 10:16PM PST

That's really interesting that you had 1.44MB floppy disks 7 years before they were invented.

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Sony introduced single-sided HD 3.5" floppies in 1980 . . .
Jan 26, 2006 11:16PM PST

Sony introduced single-sided HD (1MB unformatted) 3.5" floppies in 1980 and double-sided HD (2MB unformatted) 3.5" floppies in 1982.

I think the article you were responding to was talking about hard-drives though.

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Jan 27, 2006 12:43AM PST

I've know of old 386 hard drives that are still in business and brand new drives that are dead.

I suspect that newer drives are never likely to last as long as the older drives, due to the following reasons:

1. Newer drives have much faster spindle speeds, stressing the metal components more.

2. Newer drives typicaly have more moving parts, more heads, more platters etc than older drives.

3. Most new drives tend to generate a lot more heat than older drives.

The factors above are mitigated somewhat by improvements in technology over the years, but for the most part its still the same basic technology.

The biggest killer of hard drives without a doubt is heat.

The 386 ran pretty cool and generally didn't have its cases packed with other components generating a lot of heat, such as high-end graphics cards.

A modern PC in contrast can be a hostile environment even if you do have a ton of fans buzzing away.

The best things you can do to safeguard data on a hard disk are:

1. Pick a good brand Seagate, Western Digital etc.
( Not maxtor ), the Hitachi Deskstar (formerly the IBM Deskstar) has a fantastic reputation for speed although there have also been a number of reported cases of some models dying ( I've had one die on me ).

2. Do everything you can to protect it from extreams.

In the case of an internal drive ensure your PC has good airflow inside the case and consider fitting a hard drive cooler.

In the case of an external drive, keep it out of direct sunlight and again make sure there is suitable ventilation.

3. Monitor the health of your hard disk. There a number of tools that will let you do this, the best is probably

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whats wrong with maxtor??
Jan 28, 2006 2:36PM PST

all my drives are maxtors....i think they work well but the oldest one is only about a year old...

what gos wrong with maxtors? are they made not as well or what? i have ALL the music i ever owned on the 300gig drive...and i want to keep it my entire life...can the maxtors be trusted and will they last ??
or should i back it up befor anything happens...

i allways thought maxtor was good...but do they have a bad reputation?

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maxtor is reliable to a point
Jan 29, 2006 4:13AM PST

i have run maxtor hard drives for as long as i had a computer (since 1995) & had no real problems. but as always you should back up your drives just in case....

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Archival Gold--how long will they last?
Jan 26, 2006 8:33PM PST

This is such an interesting topic. I bought (for a lot more money --I might add) eFilm Archival Gold disks for my picture backups. It is stated that they are to last 300 years. How long will they last?

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Excellent article!
Jan 26, 2006 8:40PM PST

Having done no research myself, I assumed that home-recorded CDs will last as long as the commercial kind. This article was an eye opener! Thank you very much.

Jim Hinkson
El Sobrante, CA

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How long do burned CD-Rs and CD-RWs last?
Jan 26, 2006 9:26PM PST

How about probably the biggest factor. CD-r that are burned with music and left in hot cars in the summertime? I have a number of music cd-r's that are slowly dying. It seems the advise about burning to 80-90% capacity might be advisable also, since the cd's play fine until the last few tracks. The cd's that fail sound like poor fm reception with static and sometimes stuttering.

Frank V.

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Jan 26, 2006 9:27PM PST


You got it all correct; but I differ with the labeling comments. This is where quality becomes important. As you described the front side is plastic, then comes the dye followed by the reflective film then a layer of laquer (or similar) which is the label side. If the label side is just a thin laquer coating keeping the reflective film in place you can have a problem.

I had some inexpensive CD's that literally peeled upon minor flexing or light scratching. Because of that I actually destroyed numerous manufacturers CD's to see if there were differences. Yep, name brands hold up quite well. Anyway back to labeling. There are numerous CD's available that have an extra coating on them (some appear to be a silkscreened white mattes surface) so that you can write or print on them. This exrea caoting is more than enough protection from inks in you r marking pen or printer. The volatile solvents "carrying" the pigment are what can dissolve the laquer layer and potentially allow oxidation of the reflective film. Once the solvent has evaporated the ink pigments (or dyes) will be essentially stable.Water based inks would be the safest to use, but then the inks won't be as long-lasting and may fade away.

Stick on labels could potentially be a problem depending on the adhesive being used. But I doubt it. If anything the label would add a layer of protection to the laquer side.

Remeber the CD "dyes" are covered by the reflective film then the "laquer". The film has to be compromised to affect the dye.

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Lightscribe labeling?
Jan 26, 2006 10:18PM PST

Anyone have and thoughts on Lightscribe labeling as far as this issue goes?

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Need to Label those CD-Rs
Jan 26, 2006 10:27PM PST

Personally, I knew about the dye in permanent inks seeping through the label to the data a long, long time ago.

I don't care...

I take care to keep a fresh copy of anything truly critical in more than one place.

Anything else I consider disposable. My favourite music, my family photos, etc... I update them every once in a while onto new media, but nothing is truly permanent as a storage solution.

If I lose all of this personal data I will likely be sad, but not beaten. I'll simply collect again and hope that the storage system in my brain doesn't fall victim to Alzheimer's disease.


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Labelling recordable media
Jan 27, 2006 8:21AM PST

What I do, and with great success (so far) is to buy the little labels that you would use on a file folder, write on the label, the put the label on the CD case, and ensure that the CD that came out of case 1, goes into case 1 when not needed. This way the cases are labeled rather than the media itself.

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Organizing your discs.
Jan 30, 2006 7:56AM PST

Quote: ''What I do, and with great success (so far) is to buy the little labels that you would use on a file folder, write on the label, the put the label on the CD case, and ensure that the CD that came out of case 1, goes into case 1 when not needed. This way the cases are labeled rather than the media itself.''

What you can do to further protect your sanity (should a mixup occur) Is to mark the discs like Barry said, using the internal hub section, and use a numeric or alphanumeric key to match the disc to the case. If you want to take it a step further, create a spreadsheet (and print it) or paper list of disc #s and contents (should anything happen to the case).

For professionals and the extra-cautious (like me) this may be a better way to go.

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We were all dupped
Jan 26, 2006 10:33PM PST

We were all led to belive that recordable media will last for 50 yrs.
Yes, physically, but the data on them?
These companies producing CD-r's should be sued.
We must start a class action against these companies.

When I originally recorded my photos about 5yrs ago, the data looked fine, for about a year or two, but then I could not read from some of them.

Since then I changed my recorders for newer, faster, DVD-CDR-W, Double-sided and Lightscribe capable.

How can I be sure that these recordings will last?

When we were sold on CD-R recorders, we were told that magnetic tape will loose the data within 10-to-20yrs, but the CD-R's will last forever.

Now we are told that the best tmedia to preserve digital recordings is tape again?
So, where is the truth?
I'm totally desgusted about this whole issue.

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Readability problem twist
Jan 26, 2006 10:34PM PST

I have had some problems with burned disks, but not very many. By far, my most frustrating one is the least problematic. I create video DVDs on my Windows 2000 computer, from my Sony Digital8 camcorder and then make many copies for our family members. They like seeing our grandkids progress.

Several of the DVDs will not be readable on the burner drive, where they were created... a Plextor PX708UF. I put the same unreadable DVD on my Mac Powerbook with 4x Superdrive, and it plays the movie perfectly. I can also play it on my Sony DVD player in the living room. But the Windows/Plextor won't even see the DVD until I play it substantially through in purely play mode on another machine. Then the Windows machine will see it.

I can make a copy of the unreadable disk on my Mac, and the copy appears and plays on my Windows 2000 computer, from where the copy originated... grrr. But as I say above, after playing almost all the way through, the original DVD is suddenly readable, on the Windows computer in some cases. I can also make a copy of it, then. Frustrating!

This problem also applies to some of my data backup DVDs.

I'm wondering if the reader laser is somehow altering the dye on the disk enough to make it readable on the Win computer? I burn DVDs on the Win computer with Nero 6 Ultra, in most cases. Never had a problem with the Mac burning DVDs, when I use the iMovie/iDVD combo.

I have not had good luck with DVD+R's, most especially with video, and to a lesser degree with data. So I use only Maxell DVD-R for most of my burning, as well as any reputable brand name CD-R for music disks. I never use RW media for anything.
Anyone have a suggestion?

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nothing lasts forever
Jan 26, 2006 10:41PM PST

Still this was a great question and answer.
I have some old 5.25 floppys I can still read and write the data from and I have some 1yr 1.44 floppies that are junk and brand new. Old hard disk are the same thing I have a DOS PC(386) it's drives are running and I can read/write to them fine, but the CD drive is dead. I've had new hard drives fail out of the box or within 6 mos.
Even the USB storage drives die or become unreadable, so there no such thing as a perfect long lasting media for any purpose, so that why a good 2 or 3 media types backup to plan is the was to go.

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There is this disk...
Jan 26, 2006 10:50PM PST

a recordable disk made of GOLD (no really) its creators say it can last up to 100 years (WOW) and its about 10 bucks i think (or was it 100??)

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How long do burned CD-Rs and CD-RWs Last?
Jan 26, 2006 10:59PM PST

Thank for this comprehensive and enlightening article on this subject. The best I have ever read.

Peter Hirsch

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