The Burning Question: How long should DVDs last?

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The burning question

How long should DVDs last? While the stock answer is , 'very many years', some readers are finding they've got problems with discs burned only recently. In an attempt to find out whether there's a time-bomb ticking, we have reports from both sides of the Atlantic - from Barry Fox, one of the UK's top investigative technology journalists, and Douglas Dixon, journalist and author of books such as Desktop DVD Authoring, who attended the recent DVD International Conference where disc life was one of the main session topics.

The Internet is buzzing with a burning question. How reliable and durable are burned DVDs, especially the cheaper ones? Reliability is the ability of a new disc to make a recording; durability is the disc's ability to replay that recording at a later date. Not being able to watch a commercial movie is one thing, but losing the recording of your wedding or finding that data backups are unreadable, makes mild men think of murder.
Concern is peaking just as the cost of blanks is falling sharply, with wide disparity between the prices charged by established well-known brands (several pounds per disc) and nondescript new names (under £1).
Are the big name brands ripping us off, and creaming easy profits on the strength of their name? Or are nondescripts selling us sub-standard product that is worse than useless, because we may not know we have a bad recording until we try to read it?
Reliable industry sources confirm that in the early days of CD blank production, when only a small percentage of blank discs coming off the lines were 'perfect', the factories hit on the bright idea of grading the discs, with A-grade sold under their own good names and B and C-grades sold cheap to anyone willing to put another name on them. Now that blank CD production is well established and factory yield is well over 90%, there are usually only two grades, A and B.
Blank DVD production is still maturing and yield hovers around 60-65%. Grading is usually A and B. But, not surprisingly, this is not something the industry advertises. Exactly the same situation exists in the factories making valves for hi-fi tube amplifiers and plasma panel screens and accounts for the wide range of prices for plasma TVs. Budget panels are more likely to have faulty pixels near the centre of the screen.
Hifi designer Ken Ishiwata of Marantz recalls that when he first bought batches of valves from a Chinese factory, nine out of ten were sent back. 'You have to have your own Quality Control,' he says, remarking that Chinese factories often work seven days a week and are always looking for cost corners to cut.
Did these factories scrap the returned valves? What do you think?
Barry Fox

What is going on with DVDs? The industry says that discs should last 50 to 100 years, but on-line reports claim significant problems with pressed discs and with recordables. Can movie discs wear out or fail from DVD rot? Is recordable DVD a trustworthy archival media, or is there evidence that discs can wear out from extended play? And what is the situation with the compatibility of recordable media? Is there a way to guarantee reasonable compatibility; some magic combination of formats and brands, software and burners, content and players?
In search of answers, I headed off to the DVD 2003 International Conference, held in June in Gaithersburg, Virginia (near Washington DC). This is the annual get-together of the DVD Association (DVDA), an independent organisation of DVD professionals, co-sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), an agency of the US Department of Commerce involved in developing and promoting technology, measurements and standards - from atomic clocks to semiconductors.
The conference included sessions on 'Preserving Digital Assets on DVD' and 'DVD Quality, Longevity, and Compatibility,' and did promise some answers from independent testing of DVD characteristics. In developing this article, I also communicated with an array of industry associations and media and equipment makers, using a list of questions developed by Bob Crabtree based on the ongoing discussions on
It seems that, for the best chance of good reliability and compatibility, it's best to source discs from reputable resellers and, if in doubt, to stick with big-name branded products. While some consumers understand there are risks using cheaper and possibly off-brand media from grey-market resellers, the allure of a bargain can be too tempting. Warns Andy Parsons of Pioneer, 'Don't succumb to the temptation to save a few dollars by buying very cheap product from an unknown supplier. The old adage 'you get what you pay for' is true with most any product, and recordable DVD is no exception.'
And once you buy your discs, treat them with care, as described in the NIST Guide. Avoid extremes in temperature and humidity, as well as exposure to direct sunlight. Store discs upright to avoid bending, and take care in removing them from carriers to avoid scratches and fingerprints. Clean them carefully, by wiping with a clean cotton fabric in a straight line from the centre of the disc toward the outer edge - not with a circular motion.
With continued pressure from educated consumers, and independent testing from LaBarge, NIST, and others, we should be able to expect that DVDs achieve the reliability and compatibility we now take for granted with CDs. But, right now, buying no-name blank DVDs at the cheapest possible price is a recipe for future disc failure, and makes no sense at all.

Douglas Dixon

For more on DVD technology and tools, see the author's book, 'Desktop DVD Authoring' (New Riders), and also visit his Manifest Technology site at

Read the full feature in September 2003's Computer Video magazine.


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