Burning Questions: Ten Tips for Durable DVDs

The idea of capturing and preserving precious memories and important data on DVD is alluring. After all, experts rate the lifespan of write-once DVDs at 30 to 50 years. But despite their archival longevity, DVDs aren't indestructible, and they require white-glove treatment.

"DVDs can stand high levels of heat and extremes of cold, but sometimes ... a little speck of dust, a little smudge, or a little scratch can put a disc out of commission," says Rich D'Ambrise, director of technology at Maxell. "It's much more critical to take proper care of your discs with DVD than it was with CD. The information on the disc is much more finely packed, so it's more susceptible to scratches, and more data may become corrupted."

A similar size-scratch on a 4.7GB DVD will take out far more data than it would on a 700MB CD. And if a DVD player's laser has trouble reading one part of the disc, Grandma may not be able to continue watching that home movie you burned for her.

Before you use up a 100-pack spindle of discs, consider these ten tips for taking care of your DVD media. Following them will help ensure that your personal archive will be there when you come back to it in 5, 25, or maybe even 50 years.

The Basics

1. Use write-once media for archiving. For archiving, write-once media have several advantages over their rewritable cousins. For starters, you can't accidentally overwrite your treasured photos, video, or data on write-once discs. And since they're dye-based, they last longer than rewritable discs, which constantly change their state when you write to them. Write-once discs are also the least expensive DVD media you can buy.

2. Store discs in a jewel case or video case. Sure, you just bought a 25, 50, or 100 pack of DVD+R or -R discs. And it's fine to leave the discs on the spindle as you slowly (or perhaps speedily) devour the supply; just remember to keep the cover on so it doesn't get dusty. But once you write to a disc, don't place it on a flat surface without putting it in a protective case. Otherwise, "the disc can pick up anything, whether it be abrasives or a liquid," D'Ambrise says. Keep in mind that paper or plastic sleeves may take less space, but neither offers enough protection from dust, scratches, and other debris.

Also, use a case that's designed for DVD media. Cautions D'Ambrise, "you can't just buy a CD jewel case and put a DVD in there, even though it's the same size disc. There are differences in the center hub that holds the disc in place." Unlike CDs, DVDs are really two discs chemically bonded together, so you can't put as much pressure on a DVD as on a CD when you take it in and out of its case. Some DVD cases let you depress a button in the hub to eject the disc; with others, you push in the edges; and still others have little plastic teeth or a smooth doughnut design that's similar, but not identical, to what you find in CD cases.

Keep It Clean

3. Handle DVDs with care. For example, don't pull a DVD up by its edges--repeatedly doing so can bend or warp a disc. Likewise, never force a disc out of its case. Keep your fingerprints off the disc if possible. When you remove a disc, hold it at the edges--perhaps with your finger in the hole in the center.

4. Clean discs carefully. Use a lint-free cloth, compressed air, or a liquid cleanser. To keep dust and other airborne particles from scratching your disc, use a lint-free cloth and clean in strokes from the inside of the hub to the outside of the disc. Never use a circular motion, from the inside out; and never use a tissue, paper towel, or other random rag.

5. Don't panic if dust gets on your disc. A can of compressed air is safe to use on DVD media, and can help remove dust and other particles. But D'Ambrise recommends a wet disc cleanser that's intended for use with DVD media. "That will take away any dust as well as any smudges embedded on the disc," he says.

6. Avoid direct heat and light. Keeping your DVDs in a closet or attic that lacks air conditioning won't ruin them, but exposing them to direct heat or intense light will. As on CDs, the dye layer is susceptible to light; and if light affects the disc, its data may become unreadable.

Likewise, if exposed to extreme heat, a disc can become warped and unusable. Typically, DVD media can withstand 10 to 90 percent relative humidity, and are rated for use in environments ranging from 23 to 131 degrees Fahrenheit. But temperatures that slightly exceed those extremes won't destroy the disc's integrity.

"Optical media is a lot more durable than people think when it comes to temperature," says D'Ambrise. However, if you do take media from storage in a warm environment to a cool one, or vice versa, you might see condensation on the disc. If that happens, D'Ambrise suggests letting the disc come to room temperature before using it.

Label With Care

7. Apply labels with care. Just as 52X CD burners spin so fast that the slightest misalignment can cause problems, fast speeds can cause problems with DVDs--particularly as burners reach speeds of 8X and beyond. If you apply an adhesive label, always use a full-size circular label to maintain symmetry and balance on the disc, and be sure to use a label applicator to center the label and smoothly apply it.

Printable discs are intended for use with an ink-jet printer that's capable of printing on optical media, but many users buy these discs and hand-write notes on them instead. If you're going to do this, use a water-based pen; the alcohol found in other types of pens can seep into the dye on the disc and damage its data.

8. Keep discs free of dust. Anything that gets in the way of a DVD drive's pickup assembly can cause problems with the mechanism. If your disc accumulates dust, then clean it off as described above.

9. Keep your drive or player clean. In a sense, DVD players and recorders are not unlike VCRs: Just as your old VCR could use a head cleaning every now and then, these devices can also use an occasional dusting. Even if you religiously keep your discs clean, dust and debris can build up inside your unit over time. D'Ambrise suggests using a lens cleaning disc on your drive, burner, or player once every six months, to remove any buildup that could affect its pickup assembly.

10. Buy high-quality media. In a comprehensive study by the National Institute of Standards and Technologies, name-brand media were found to be more reliable and more compatible than generic discs.

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