How long do writable CD/DVD last? 400 discs put to the test!

It is a well known fact that the CD-R’s and DVD-R’s that you burn at home won’t last forever (neither does factory made media, for that matter, but that’s another story). Exactly how long is impossible to answer. It depends on the quality of the disc and how it has been stored. But the CD-burner and (as we shall see) the CD-reader matters as well. The tricky part is that you can never really tell the condition of a disc until you try to read it. And by then, it might be too late.

This article details my experience of copying more than 400 discs, ages varying from 3 up to 14 years old. First a bit of background. Over the years I’ve managed to collect a rather large amount of music, video clips, pictures, games and other “fun stuff” that I’ve come across. Back in the days, hard drive storage was expensive and online services such as Spotify and YouTube did not yet exists. Burning CDs was the only reasonable way to have a large media library. It was always my dream to one day be able to “return” these files to my computer. The developments in storage technology have been incredible, and today optical discs are no longer viable as archive media (in fact, they are more expensive than hard drives per megabyte!). So a while ago I decided it was time to do it. This meant that I had to copy more than 350 CD’s and about 70 DVD’s. The oldest CD’s in my collection were from 1997, and the oldest DVD’s from 2005. In total there were roughly 375,000 files weighing in at over 550 gigabytes!

I’ve always been aware of the inherent problems with degrading optical media. To be safe I mainly used brand name CD-R’s, preferably the “blue” ones as they were rumored to be of higher quality. Of the various brands I used, Verbatim stands out as my favorite brand, but I also used discs from TDK, Kodak, Sony, Samsung and BASF. In addition to these I also had a few odd brands and some “no-name” disks. For a long time I kept the discs stapled at my desk in their jewel cases, but 6 years ago I consolidated them all into CD-spindles, which I then kept in a dark locker.

I always kind of dreaded this moment, because I knew that many of the discs might turn out to be unreadable. In retrospect, I can only conclude that everything went better than expected. Here are my results:

  • Of the 420 discs, a total of about 20 discs had read errors or other major problems that stopped me from copying them. Many other discs were difficult to read, but made it through in the end.
  • Many (not all though) of the unreadable discs were no-name discs (i.e. cheap discs without labels, usually with a more or less unprotected “mirror” surface on top). I’ve always been suspicious of them, none the least since the data layer is so thin that you can often see through it if you hold the disc in front of a light! In other words, it’s no surprise these would be among the problematic discs.
  • More surprisingly though, four of the BASF discs had read errors. Given that I only had 10 of these in total, it’s not a good result.
  • An entire “batch” of discs from Verbatim had such severe problems I had to abort reading them since I feared the drive would break or overheat. Additionally 2 Verbatim discs from other packages failed on a few individual files.
  • Now, all optical drives have built-in firmware that determine how it operates. This leads to differences in between readers depending on the manufacturer and firmware used, especially in more extreme situations such as when the error correction must kick in. Thus, having attempted to copy all disks using my ordinary drive as outlined above, I took the erroneous discs and tried to copy them on another computer (with a different CD-rom drive). This reader worked much better and actually managed to retrieve most of the problematic data! A few faulty discs remained though. I decided to give it a try on yet another computer, with additional success!
  • In the end, less than 10 discs, all of them no-name brands, were unreadable to some extent. Most of them did not contain any important data, so I did not bother to test them in yet more computers. Thus it is fully possible that some of them were actually readable given the right circumstances.

In summary, everything went better than expected. The number of problems were quite small given the amount of data. I was able to retrieve almost all the data, although I had to try three different CD-readers before success with all discs. Brand names and quality discs do matter, but is not a guarantee for error free operation. About 2% of the discs were unreadable in the end. This may or may not be acceptable, depending on the purpose. I am certainly impressed though, that the very first CD-rom I burned could still be read without problems after 14 years!

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29 Responses to How long do writable CD/DVD last? 400 discs put to the test!

  1. Pingback: Stategies for using CD/DVD as backup media | RLV Blog

  2. Mike says:

    Hi Dan,
    I have experienced some 1st class DVD’s to become unreadable around 4-5 years.
    Last year I switched to having all data on HD’s (external) and I never used DVD’s anymore. I dumped them all, freeing up space in the cupboard. Have kept a few in case of need, though donot expect I’ll ever use them. All-in-all, using DVD’s as backup definitely is history.

    Also had a load of 3.5″discs. I used one or two to put RAID drivers on, required when setting up Windows. This was the only reason to have a 3.5″drive installed on my pc’s sofar. The older diskettes go back to 1997(!). Astonish enough… after 15 years, no problem to use them. Looks like DVD’s are decading faster then the 3.5″ diskettes…

    By the way: my first box of 10x 3.5″ discs, I bought in november 1985 and paid USD.30 for it here in Holland (with the Rate of Exchange on that day).
    Considering the official price-index uptil and incl 2011 and considering the current Rate of Exchange etc. the same box, today, would have had a pricetag of usd.54.. Computerstuff those days was expensive. :-)
    =
    =

    • Dan says:

      I use external hard drives now too. My new computer doesn’t even have an optical drive! My first hard drive cost almost $600 / GB (in 1995). Last year I bought an external disk which cost me $0.04 / GB :-)

  3. Mike says:

    My personal experience with CD-R and CD-RW discs are that CD-R’s seem to last forever. As long as the data is written properly when it is burned, they last forever seemingly. I store them in a dark, cool place and have probably close to 100 of them. Everytime I go to read them, even the older ones, they read perfectly fine and the data on them is also fine. The brand name I use is primarily TDK and never make the CD’s “multisession discs.” These are CD/DVD’s with a 4.35 GB storage capacity. I always handle them properly and when I pull them out to use them, I copy the data to my computer and watch it there instead of using up my CD rom drive to read it directly from the CD. I have yet to have a CD-R data CD fail on me, even ones written to over a decade ago.

    The only ones I have had problems with is the CD-RW’s, which seem to degrade quickly and without fail making them unreadable. I don’t think a single CD-RW I’ve written data to was actually readable a year or two later.

    My preferred brand name is TDK, but avoid the CD-RW’s because they are crap. Stick with CD-R’s, don’t make them multisession CD’s either. I use StarBurn for all my burning needs and it works great. I’ve come across a defective CD or two, but few and far between. CD-R = good and reliable. Store in a dark, cool place. CD-RW = crap, doesn’t hold data long at all and degrades quickly.

    Just my personal experience. I think CD-R’s that are kept in good condition, stored properly and are handled properly when using them would probably last forever. Single write CD/DVD’s, especially with data intended to be read on a computer, is the best way to go. Avoid the CD-RW’s! TDK is a reliable brand and I would recommend it. I think CD-R’s would last longer than any HD would considering a HD has moving parts that can go bad or break at any moment. They can be dropped or not work after not being used for a long time. CD-R’s data is frozen on it and cannot be deleted or altered while CD-RW’s, the data is written into a “dye” on the writing surface which is why you can delete the data and rewrite. CD-R’s are permanent. Once the data is there, nothing can remove it. I disagree that CD/DVD storage for computer data is a thing of the past. It’s probably not the future unless they find a way to double the storage space or get it up to 10GB per CD, but I find CD-R’s to be very reliable and CD-RW’s to be very unreliable.

    Just my opinion.

    • Mike says:

      Also, if you store all your data on a HD, which WILL, without fail, go bad one day, you lose ALL of your data unless you can pull a miracle and recover some or all of it. I’ve heard of external HD’s failing particularly ones with extremely high capacities such as 600+ GB.

      I’ll stick to TDK’s CD’s. Never failed me yet, but to each their own. :)

      • Dan says:

        I agree that there are some good features that you get with discs. However, if you have a lot of data/discs, it’s just not very practical. Plus it’s more expensive. With HD’s you absolutely need a good backup of you data though!

  4. Andy Carloff says:

    Nothing like good ol’ empiricism to test technology. Good article — I knew someone else was thinking the same about all of those blank disks they’ve accumulated. Thanks,

  5. cowboy Mike says:

    Howdy,

    This topic is so timely for me. I am about to give 7 mini dv and 2 vhs tapes to an online company to convert to dvd. They say they use very high quality dvds.

    I was just going to get the dvds but having studied on it more I thought it might be best to get them as a digital data files as well since the company offered it. Then I can edit the movie files if I want to and also store them on an external hard drive as well.

    Do you have any thoughts w/ regard to failure rates for ssd drives vs other drives? I am going to use and ssd drive to back the movie data files to. :)

    Happy trails, cowboy Mike

    • Dan says:

      Since there are no moving part in ssd’s I don’t think they age in the same way as normal drives. Without having any real knowledge of this, I can imagine that a normal drive could for example oxidase even if not used much. It sounds as though an ssd should be more durable that a normal disk, but as I said, i don’t really know.

      The normally stated problem with ssd is that they can only take a certain number of writes per memory cell, but this problem is not that much of a problem anymore since the firmware is getting smarter to prevent it. Using a ssd on a normal desktop computer should last at least 5 years, which is the same as normal drives.

      I think it is a bit overkill to use ssd only for backup (unless you have a lot of money to spend).

      Some tips for good backups:

      1. Use more than one backup set (no matter what media). DVDs can be ok, but you need more than set of backups in case one breaks.
      2. Store the backups at different places. This prevents loss from fire, robbery etc.
      3. Read them back occasionally, to make sure the still work.

  6. Andries VandenAbeele says:

    Just had my first DVD failure yesterday and sertainly not happy about it. Lost some cool vids on it. Seems to me it doenst matter if you buy really really expensive brands. DVD was fujifilm, must say a reflecting one wich over the years seem to go down faster. Middelclass cd/dvds go a very long way as well. Point is to always buy ones with a protective layer and store them in a UV free box an at room temp.

    My first cd is a copied BASF 650mb (no 700mb wasnt around yet) disc with fifa 96 on it. Gold version. Reads great.
    I got more then 700 CDs/DVDs at home but since 2008 im putting everything on external drive. Just safer i gues.

    Still have soms 3,5 floppys. All TDK for my windows 3.1, 95 and 98SE computers opstairs. Everyone says im crazy to keep my old pcs running, but i think its great to take a step back into 1998 :). I just love to play games like carmageddon on a pc with no softwareproblems towards older sofware.
    When i get back to my windows 7 64bit you always get the idea … we came a long way :)

    • Dan says:

      FYI: Magnetic storage such as backup tapes and floppies loose their magnetism over time. If you don’t re-write them the data will not be readable eventually :-(

  7. MarkVS says:

    I have an external hard drive, but I also STILL burn DVD-R’s for my home DVD player. I keep all my dvd’s stored in paper sleeves in a hope chest in the hallway and I’m very careful taking them out handling them. But I have some DVD-R’s I burned from 2005 that still play fine. I have never used a particular brand. Some Imation, Memorex, Maxell, Verbatim, and more recently, Titan dual layer. My oldest burned dvd is now 7 years.

  8. KellyDB says:

    At the CES show in Vegas (2013), a company (Milllenniata) is claiming to have single layer DVD disks (4.7 GB) that use available burners to make an actual engraved mark to the disk storage layer resulting in storage that will last ‘thousands of years”. Disks can be played on regular DVD players and devices. These are expensive compared to regular disks but if the storage capacity and longevity of them is accurate (and not just media hype), it seems a good solution. Here’s a link to the Cnet article: http://news.cnet.com/8301-17938_105-20091808-1/millenniata-m-disk-the-possibility-of-permanent-data-archival/.

    The Millenenniata web site (http://www.mdisc.com/) has a list a burners that work with this media and you can also order media from them directly.

    I have no connection with this company at all. I am certainly wondering if the marketing is accurate and if anyone has any experience with these given how new they are.

  9. John Mitchell says:

    Having burned cd’s/dvd’s using several different recorders over the past 7 years, I have found that most of these are now unplayable. They start off ok but after about 30 minutes they start skipping, distorting and often freeze. My suspicion is that this is down to using cd labels. Discs appear slightly dished, which could be due to the labels drying out in warm players and thus warping them. Although I have been unable to successfully remove cd labels, I can do so on my verbatim dvds by soaking in warm water for 2 hours following which they become playable. Has anyone else had this problem? I now print directly onto dvd’s and use marker pens on cd’s although in view of other comments, this might eventually cause similar problems. Another cause of damage could be down to the storage of disks. I understand that blank discs don’t have the same protective layers as commercial discs and thus keeping them in cd binders as opposed to jewel cases could cause scratches etc.

    • Dan says:

      I can’t help you much, but this might be interesting to know:

      In the past, a common problem was that cd/dvd players were not as good at reading burned discs as your typical computer cd-rom drive. For example, burning a Playstation game copy required you to burn at 1x speed and use high quality disc, or else the Playstation might not have wanted to read the disc or started skipping. Also you could not use cd-rw at all. The laser was simply not good enough.

      I think today’s players are much better, but playing a record or movie is different from reading it in your computer, since it requires a steady stream of data. If there are problems it will start skipping. This does not mean it is unreadable, only that it is more difficult to read. A computer cd/dvd-drive might still be able to read the data.

  10. RIJWAN says:

    Please tell me how to windows bootable disc with duplicate installation disc.means i want to say that you that i had got a installtion disc from my friend so i want to make bootable own disc.i had tried and lost 6 dvd please help me

  11. Ryan Lester says:

    I have never had a CD/DVD fail except for 3 DVD’s. They were Sony. I installed programs on the DVD from rather then installing it on the hard drive. It would work fast for about 3-4 months then if you looked close enough the outer edge was changing color. There was one point when my DVD drive was smoking a little bit. It was being used all day. Other then that I would say it is much better hen floppy disks. They would only last 3 years for me.

  12. Matt says:

    This was a very good article that really helps bring some outside reality to some people who are still into believing myths. In the day and age that DVD-R has made larger grounds in commercial releases the people who still come out and say Pressed will last 100s of years and burned only last 5, are getting really annoying.

    It should go without stating not all discs and players are created equal as you have spelled out for everyone. It’s only natural they don’t last forever, as you can’t fight things forever that are part of the world such as oxygen and temperature.

    I think the major thing we should take away is that while not perfect given proper care written media can last for a long period of time just like pressed. Which is something this study clearly tells us, what comments on this page have told us, what the manufacturer’s studies have told us, and what the NIST study told us. While there can always be outliers and given this whole practice involves a whole mass of variables, i think we can lay the myth to bed. While they both have different problems, i see no reason with the evidence in front of us we shouldn’t expect with proper care lots of DVD-R and CD-Rs to last long periods of time just as there pressed variety can too.

  13. Zero says:

    Nice post man. I’ve gone totally external drives now ( I have almost 9TB of movies and music).
    Ripping the DVDs was a pain, but now it’s done, backing up is MUCH easier.
    I was never very careful with the old optical disks, my favourites I ended ruining many times, thanks to fingerprints, dust etc.. leaving them all over the place.
    I’m not exactly Mr Tidy, so all those disks were simply a pain. My entertainment unit often had stacks of mediums 30 cm high!
    Now I have cheap media PC all over the house linked by cable, and can watch or listen to my music and films without hunting for a (probably wrecked) disk lol.

  14. Lawrence Crawley says:

    I’m surprised nobody here has mentioned m-disks (http://www.mdisc.com/what-is-mdisc/), which are fairly recent and are designed to last at LEAST 1000 years. Yes, 1000 years. They have two limitations for now: Presently they support only single layer (4.35GB) and they can only be *burned* with DVD burners compatible with m-disks (There are quite a few out there now), but can be *read* by any DVD player/drive that supports DVD-Roms. From the website:

    “Once written, your documents, medical records, photos, videos and data will last up to 1,000 years. “Just M-Disc™ and Forget It!”

    M-DISC™ is the only data storage solution to withstand rigorous testing by the U.S. Department of Defense. Even today’s leading archival optical discs weren’t up to the challenge. M-DISC™ is resistant to extreme conditions of light, temperature, humidity and more. M-DISC™ cannot be overwritten, erased or corrupted by natural processes. Best of all, it’s compatible with any DVD drive, so you can access your data anywhere, anytime.”

    The data is actually engraved (!) in stone (!!)! There’s a short video on YouTube (<1minute):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=8an7MRf-nwo

    LC

  15. Lawrence Crawley says:

    Sorry, forgot to mention that m-disks are more expensive than typical name brand burnable DVDs, but that is to be expected for new technology. And in this case, it is quite worth it if you have data that you want/need to last for a long time, reliably. They seem to run between $2 – $3 per disk, and the burners that support them are basically the same price as non-mdisk burners (Just Google “m-disk burners”).

    Also, my previous post looks like I am advertising for m-disk, but I was quoting from their website.

    LC

    • Dan says:

      I can’t recall hearing about m-discs before. Thanks for the info. Interesting technology, although 4GB is not much these days.

  16. Tommy says:

    Maybe I’m just lucky, but I haven’t had a single CD-R/RW or DVD-R/RW failure at all. I too have upwards of 400 discs between CDs and DVDs. The vast majority of the DVDs were recorded using a set top recorder 10 years ago, and the CDs a stand alone recorder with the oldest discs also being 10-12 years old. I cycle through and playback things regularly. No problems whatsoever. I feel bad for people who have lost stuff. I really don’t understand it. Can’t really relate. Like I said, maybe I’m just lucky. I’ve always used brand names, either Sony, TDK, Maxell, or Fuji. I handle with care. Store with care. That’s it. I have observed so many other people mishandling discs that I have to believe a lot of problems are due to that. It’s the only thing that makes any sense to me when I’ve had zero problems and all kinds of other people have.

  17. Djharty1 says:

    External hard drives can get wiped i know a guy at college who lost all his work through that, yeah ive had verbatm or what ever you call it and havent had 100% success rate there over rated, yeah i think tdk are the best, and i saw someone saying about hard drive is better cos of the storage, but this will put you to silence i just picked up a cd wallet that holds 500 cd/dvd’s for only £13 which seems like good quality as far as i have seen and the case isnt that big really and it has a carry handle. so really blank media is the way to go it lasts longer than hard drive and you can get a carry case for it for £13 you cant go wrong

  18. Brian says:

    Hi Dan, great article.
    I just wanted to suggest the use of recovery software when you’re making DVDs for long-term storage. The best one I know of is quickpar which has a free download at http://www.quickpar.org.uk/
    Basically it creates redundancy files which can be used to reconstruct missing or corrupted data.

    Best regards

    • Dan says:

      Yes, good suggestion. When I started using DVDs as a medium I also began creating MD5 checksums file for the content and put on the disc. Even though you can’t repair corrupted files with checksum files, you can use it to verify that all content is intact which is actually very valuable to know.

  19. Tim says:

    Good article, Dan.
    Many years ago I did a lot of research into CD/DVD brands and quality. It was at that time that I threw out all -RW types, as it clearly wasn’t worth subjecting my files to that risk of loss. One of the things I learned was that even major brand names are often simply re-labeled from another manufacturer; there are some utility programs which can read the actual disks and reveal manufacturer information.
    Since then, I’ve only used MAM-A for CDs or DVDs. The silver version is excellent, but I have some of the archive gold version for storing digitized family photos and other important files … they’re reported to have a useful life of over 300 years! (If only I did.)
    One of their major claims is they are the ONLY media manufacturing company with complete vertical integration … from mining the raw material through manufacturing to sales, they own the whole chain.

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