Your CD and DVD Discs May Fail Sooner Than You Think

Category: Backup

If your precious memories or important files are backed up on CD, DVD or Blu-Ray discs, you might want to go looking for a medium that will protect your documents, photos and videos a bit better. Would you be surprised to learn that a U.S. government study concluded that standard optical discs have an expected lifespan of just 3 to 5 years? Would you like to learn about a data storage solution that promises 100, or even 1000 years? Read on...

Will Your Files and Photos Last 1000 Years?

Do you have photos, videos or other important files that you'd like to preserve for 50 years, 100 years, or longer? Recently I was looking at a photo of my great-great-grandparents, which was taken in about 1870. I scanned it and saved a digital copy on my computer's hard drive, then copied it and some other family photos to a CDROM disc. But neither of those digital copies is likely to survive nearly as long as that 150-year-old original photo has.

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration has a report called Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Optical Storage Media which says "CD/DVD experiential life expectancy is 2 to 5 years even though published life expectancies are often cited as 10 years, 25 years, or longer." They discuss various factors which can impact life expectancy and recommend that you test your media every two years to make sure it's still readable.

A study by the Canadian Conservation Institute is more optimistic, suggesting that "the lifetime of recordable optical discs can range from a couple of years to more than 200 years." The report also lists several factors that can lead to failure of discs in 2 to 10 years. Chief among those are improper storage and handling. They advise to hold the disc using the center hole and outer edge, and not to touch, write on, or use adhesive labels on the surface of the disc. For storage, the recommendation is to keep discs in a cool, dry environment, stored vertically in a jewel case. Other important factors are choosing a well-known brand name, and recording the information properly to ensure a low error rate.

1000 year backup disc

I've heard from readers over the years that their CD or DVD discs are still readable after 10, 20, or more years. But clearly there are factors that can cause premature failure of optical discs. If your discs contain music or video, a slight degradation might only cause a hiccup during playback. But if you're storing documents, spreadsheets or other important data, even a few errors could cause them to become corrupt or unreadable.

Wouldn't it be nice to have some kind of computer-readable storage medium that would last for generations? Millenniata, developer of the M-DISC storage technology, thought that would be a good idea. (Millenniata, Inc. was founded in 2010 by two Brigham Young University professors but went bankrupt in 2016. Fortunately, the debt holders were able to re-form the company and continue to sell M-DISCs and related services.)

Here is how both standard optical discs and M-DISC work. Standard CD/DVD technology uses a laser beam to heat a layer of organic dye that is sandwiched between polycarbonate sheets. The heated point, which can be very tiny, first swells like a bubble and finally collapses into a pit in the dye layer. A pattern of pit/no-pit areas on the disc’s surface constitute binary code that can be read by the same laser that wrote it. That is, the pattern can be read as long as the laser-burnt pits last.

It takes just 3-5 years for the organic dye to degrade naturally; that is the maximum life expectancy of CD, DVD, or Blu-Ray discs that use dye technology. M-DISC claims to vastly exceed this life expectancy by replacing degradable organic dye with an immutable mineral compound that is melted by the writing laser beam. You can burn your own M-DISCs at home, with a compatible DVD or Blu-ray drive.

All DVD drives are capable of reading the M-DISC DVD, but it takes more power to melt “stone” than it does to boil dye. Not every optical drive contains a laser powerful enough to write M-DISC discs. LG Electronics, Samsung, Hitachi, and Pioneer offer optical drives touted as M-ready. And they don’t seem to be any more expensive than regular drives. The LG Electronics Ultra Slim DVD Writer is an internal drive that sells for under $35 on Amazon. You can find dozens of other M-DISC-compatible drives here.

Minerals, Vitamins, and Baked Lasagna?

CDs last only three to five years? Surprise... you really shouldn't expect your hard drive to last much longer than that, either. See my article How Soon Will Your Hard Drive Fail? to learn more...

The mineral compound makes M-DISC discs longer-lived, but it does not make them indestructible as the many preposterous demonstrations conducted by Millienniata suggest. I don’t care if an M-DISC baked in lasagna, boiled, or frozen remains readable. How does it do after I drop it face down on a sidewalk and step on it?

M-DISC’s added value lies in its stability under archival conditions: a safe deposit box, or perhaps an attic or basement. Attics may get hot enough to degrade organic dye prematurely while minerals remain intact. But a disc made with either is still vulnerable to physical destruction if it’s carried from place to place routinely.

Government agencies might benefit from using M-DISC for document storage and data management. Likewise for medical professionals needing a long-term storage solution for X-rays and compliance requirements. Financial institutions, libraries and educational institutions needing reliable long-term storage, and law enforcement with surveillance and security footage would be good use cases as well.

At home, for important personal digital artifacts such as family photos, genealogy records, tax returns, unpublished novels, etc., at least one M-DISC may be worth having. The largest Blu-ray M-DISC capacity is about 100 GB, so more than a handful shouldn’t be necessary for most consumers, unless you have extensive collections of photos, music or videos that you want to preserve for centuries.

You can purchase a 15-pack of Millenniata 25GB M-DISCs for $80. For higher capacity discs, consider the 5-pack of Verbatim 100GB M-DISCs for $57.

M-DISCs are pricey compared to regular DVD or Blu-ray discs, but if you're looking for a backup solution that avoids the problem of the relatively short lifespan of consumer-grade hard drives and CD/DVD discs, as well as the privacy concerns of cloud storage, a couple of M-DISCs and a fireproof safe bolted to a concrete floor might be the best you can do right now. I'll bet Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner have already gotten theirs.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below…

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Most recent comments on "Your CD and DVD Discs May Fail Sooner Than You Think"

(See all 23 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Dave Cooley
06 Mar 2023

Like most US Government studies that's simply not true. Most of my CDs are over 20 years old and some close to 40. They all play just fine. Just sayin.

Posted by:

06 Mar 2023

Mr. Cooley,
If you are referencing commercially made recordings. the CDs/DVDs are created using a metalized film which is not subject to the degradation of a home created CD/DVD using an organic dye.

Posted by:

06 Mar 2023

I would certainly like to know WHY the use of thumb drives would not be a great substitute. I have saved some music on thumb drives and they work well!

Posted by:

Steve K
06 Mar 2023

I first became aware of M-disc technology a few years ago when I wanted to publish my autobiography (for the grandchildren only), but decided the best solution was to place the bio on a 2TB hard drive, and to give each child and grandchild their own hard drive. Twenty years from now, if one drive stops working, it'll be easy to recreate it from another drive. Another advantage to using a large hard drive is the ability to place so much more on it: all my music, favorite documentaries, humor, podcasts, etc. I submit that M-discs are not the best solution to this problem.

Posted by:

Alois M.
06 Mar 2023

Hubert: Maybe thumb drives would be vulnerable to EMP attack from Russia.

Regarding the CD degradation issue, I have transferred the binary code of all my CD's to X's and O's onto acid free paper and keep it in a fireproof vault.

Posted by:

06 Mar 2023

I just memorized them and stay at home.

Posted by:

Bob K
06 Mar 2023

Says a lot for punched tape and Hollerith cards!

Barring a very leaky roof, it's a medium that stands up well under normal conditions, and is human-readable, too.

Posted by:

06 Mar 2023

Re: "I'll bet Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner have already gotten theirs." Carl Reiner? Probably not.

Posted by:

06 Mar 2023

Note that one person having CDs/DVDs that are still readable after 20 or more years is ANECDOTE, not DATA.

Posted by:

06 Mar 2023

To Dan: I think he did, because he was part of the Ocean's team, which was very savvy.

Posted by:

06 Mar 2023

Under the categories "just sayin" and "anecdote not data" I can attest to stuff still being readable on the original 3.5 floppies (we have a plug in USB reader), also on the CD's it was transferred to, and the thumb drives, and the HDD that is the final destination (so far). Maybe one media will outlast my needs to see the stuff.

Anyone remember those so cool HUGE cameras that you put the 3.5 floppy into and the picture was stored directly on to them?

Posted by:

Ken L.
06 Mar 2023

Carl Reiner is no longer in the land of the living. He passed away in 2020.

Mel Brooks, however, is still with us at the ripe old age of 96!

Posted by:

06 Mar 2023

Flash Drives: don't count on them. If not 'recharged' i.e. plugged in, those tiny capacitors will lose their charge like a battery not used for many years.

CDs/DVDs IF STORED PROPERLY, and yes, I'm shouting, will last longer than any flash drive. Sit one in the full sun, it'll fade just like ink will.

If you've got old digital stuff to save, MAKE A BACKUP! Copy it to a computer file and MAKE BACKUPS. It's not rocket science people ... MAKE BACKUPS.

Posted by:

07 Mar 2023

To Ken L.-
Much more interesting talking about the '2000 year old man" than DVDs, CDs, thumb drives, hard drives, and floppies!!! And, when you read the Wikipedia page that Bob linked to, you will see that Cary Grant played it for the Queen. If she liked it, they you probably will, too!

Posted by:

Peter Oh
07 Mar 2023

I believe that the bulk of stored material (Data), is these days most conveniently, if not most economically, stored on Flash drives (Thumb drives).
Relatively cheap, small & I think quite reliable.
I don't have dependable info on life & read/write frequency; It would have been very useful if Bob could have helped here!
Alternatively can ordinary PC internal hard drives be considered to have favourable characteristics?

Posted by:

07 Mar 2023

In my moderately humble opinion, the best long-term storage solution is the 'cloud'. Microsoft gives you 5GB storage for free with every account you create, and with Google, its 15GB. Cloud storage is redundant, thanks to RAID technology, et-al. It is secured and maintained by expert teams who know much more about Internet security than I do, and my guess is you too. When a cloud drive fails, it can be replaced with no data loss, and it is de-centralized, making it resilient to any EMP attack. If you want to keep your information private, simply put it into an encrypted, password protected 7-zip archive before storing it in the cloud (7-zip is free).

M-Disk technology is interesting, but the disks are very expensive, and computers sold today do not usually have CD/DVD burners, so the only viable solution is to get an external M-Disk capable burner. When compared with using the cloud, that seems like a lot of unnecessary bother/expense to me.



Posted by:

07 Mar 2023

I was inspired by your article to do a Google search for M-discs, which revealed that this format appears to have been discontinued.Worse, since being sold to CMC, Verbatim's M-discs may be no such thing but dye-based discs packaged as M-discs. I personally find that hard to believe because, if it's true, the brand name's owners are committing a massive fraud, but it makes me very wary about placing much faith in any M-disk currently on the market.

Posted by:

Alois M.
07 Mar 2023

To Ken L.: Since Mel Brooks is still alive, maybe he can write his last screen play, his finale, depicting how society has been driven stark raving mad by the invention of the digital computer. He could show how the human mind has been twisted and warped by the intricacies of that demon invention.

Also a correction to my earlier comment. Referring to binary code, I said X's and O's instead of 1's and 0's. An erroneous flashback to my days as a high school football coach diagramming plays.

Posted by:

13 Mar 2023

I like knowing about M-Discs!

Screw the cloud. I've been let down by it/ companies already a couple times.

I back up a few TBs at a time so the free 5GB or 15GB, which I do use but will never put my trust in. (You'll see. There has been articles on it here b4.)

Flash Dtives. Good luck! LOL They often work well but SSD type storage when it does fail, you're either screwed or paying 100 times what those M- disc's cost! I've seen a number of them fail.

HDD, some brands are pretty trustworthy but after they fail, I get a readout saying how many hours they were used. They are mechanical. They should expect to fail any minute.

I'm not just cynical. I worked for years working on computers and I've made tons of DVDs that have lasted a long time. However, I'm not going to poo poo etching in stone, that is nearly perfect IMHO! There is nothing perfect on earth. IMO

I've got cr4p backed up all over the place, computers, cloud, flash drives, dvds, cds, and I'm sick of looking for something that doesn't involve trusting a company that might change their terms or become an activist, or just go bankrupt or sell out for the fun of it. Not to mention privacy and security issues with all of them unless you spend tons on the cloud and even then, no. Yes, I can use 7-zip to encrypt. Hopefully quantum computers or Ai evolving doesn't make puddy out of all of those ideas.

I love the idea of 100GB disc's because I don't need it all in stone but there are certain things that would be nice. I'd have a copy here in fireproof safe only. Screw paying a bank for anything more. They get paid to play with money. At least in my lifetime I recall when they'd at least act a little bit like they cared about people. The interest rates they offer to use our money. Uggh!

To tell the truth I debate with going with the M-discs or just putting almost all my "stuff" in a fire and learn to live free. If you trust any one medium, you probably haven't researched it enough to know how fallible it all can be. IMO

Bless ya all! Oh, by the way, check out the FBI crime info sites. China already has a profile on every single person here according to them. So, there's one answer for: "Isn't the cloud safe?"

Watch a couple Snowden interviews. Actually, spoiler alert! If you do those 2 things you won't think I'm a cynic or a trouble maker. LOL Which I'm not actually. I'm a relatively quiet tech worker that loves to learn but gets ticked when I read people bragging about the fact they've been lucky enough not to lose a bunch of data to time or physical junk that myopically appears to be infallible.

Good day!

Posted by:

13 Mar 2023

By the way. If Bob refers to a couple old comedy actors, believe that he's doing well to lighten a possibly heavy subject. I briefly checked out the link but already it seems quite fitting. :-) LOL

Even if the particular actors haven't appealed to you, maybe see what's up.

Sorry to double dip. Thanks for throwing in ideas worth a smirk or more! :)

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