Tuesday, December 8, 2009

How long do CD-Rs last?

The manufacturers claim 75 years (cyanine dye, used in "green" discs), 100 years (phthalocyanine dye, used in "gold" discs), or even 200 years ("advanced" phthalocyanine dye, used in "platinum" discs) once the disc has been written. The shelf life of an unrecorded disc has been estimated at between 5 and 10 years. There is no standard agreed-upon way to test discs for lifetime viability. Accelerated aging tests have been done, but they may not provide a meaningful analogue to real-world aging.

Exposing the disc to excessive heat, humidity, or to direct sunlight will greatly reduce the lifetime. In general, CD-Rs are far less tolerant of environmental conditions than pressed CDs, and should be treated with greater care. The easiest way to make a CD-R unusable is to scratch the top surface. Find a CD-R you don't want anymore, and try to scratch the top (label side) with your fingernail, a ballpoint pen, a paper clip, and anything else you have handy. The results may surprise you.

Keep them in a cool, dark, dry place, and they will probably live longer than you do (emphasis on "probably"). Some newsgroup reports have complained of discs becoming unreadable in as little as three years, but without knowing how the discs were handled and stored such anecdotes are useless. Try to keep a little perspective on the situation: a disc that degrades very little over 100 years is useless if it can't be read in your CD-ROM drive today.

By some estimates, pressed CD-ROMs may only last for 10 to 25 years, because the aluminium reflective layer starts to corrode after a while.

One user was told by Blaupunkt that CD-R discs shouldn't be left in car CD players, because if it gets too hot in the car the CD-R will emit a gas that can blind the laser optics. However, CD-Rs are constructed much the same way and with mostly the same materials as pressed CDs, and the temperatures required to cause such an emission from the materials that are exposed would melt much of the car's interior. The dye layer is sealed into the disc, and should not present any danger to drive optics even if overheated. Even so, leaving a CD-R in a hot car isn't good for for the disc, and will probably shorten its effective life.
Marius Oosthuizen (Sound Engineer, SABC Radio Archives)