Burning Questions: Picking the Right Media, Part 2

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Even those in the know admit it: The cacophony of optical media options is simply dizzying. In my last column, I started with the basics. This month, I delve deeper, examining who should use printable media, exposing the truth behind video and music discs, and giving you the scoop about archivable and scratch-resistant media.

Media Ready for Labeling

Thermal. Inkjet. LightScribe. All of these terms describe different approaches to labeling your optical media. The only reason to buy discs in one of these formats--which you'll find from such companies as Imation, Memorex, RiData, TDK, and Verbatim--is if you have hardware that uses this kind of media. Otherwise, you'll be spending more money than you need to; for example, printable media may cost about $10 more than inkjet printable media for a 100-disc spindle. Thermal media can cost twice as much, and it can be used only with pricey thermal printers (although Primera does have an entry-level model, the $150 Signature Z-1 CD/DVD Printer).

Inkjet-printable discs are a great choice if you have one of Epson's printers that print on optical media. Of course, buying such media isn't as simple as saying you want "inkjet printable" discs; these days, some vendors offer varieties within that category. For example, TDK's PrintOn DVDs come in a slick Photo Quality finish ($4 each), a White Matte finish ($2 each), and a Color Matte finish ($2 for a five-pack). Verbatim's media comes in surface-printable varieties and hub-printable types; the latter let you print on the entire disc, from the outermost edge to the innermost ring. Either way, the cost for Verbatim's media is $34 for 50-piece spindle.

LightScribe media are best used in to optical drives that incorporate LightScribe technology, which uses a drive's laser to etch a label into the top side of a disc. In addition to Hewlett-Packard, several drive makers are shipping LightScribe drives, or will soon; among them are BenQ, LaCie, Lite-On, and Philips. Compatible media from makers such as Imation, TDK, and Verbatim command a premium over prices for standard discs; for example, Imation's 52X CD-R 30-disc spindle sells for $20--more than you'll pay for a 30-disc spindle of ordinary CD-R media.

Unfortunately, you may have to settle for slower performance if you choose a specialty disc. Some, including LightScribe-compatible DVDs from Imation, TDK, and Verbatim, and some inkjet-printable media (including hub-printable DVDs from Verbatim and RiData, and discs from Imation and TDK) max out at 8X write speeds. That's not to say that faster 16X media won't ever surface; but it should be a consideration if you value maximum performance over advanced labeling capabilities.

Another consideration: Some of these disc types are available in the more popular disc formats only, such as CD-R, DVD+R, and DVD-R. Depending upon the format you prefer, you may find yourself forced to make a choice between discs in your preferred burning format and discs with special features that you like--such as surface-printable vs. hub-printable.

Tip: If you're concerned about the speed differences, consider this: the actual time savings per disc between 8X and 16X media is about 2 minutes. That's long enough to notice, but not long enough that it should affect your buying decision.

CDs for Music, and DVDs for Movies

Ah, CDs that look like vinyl records. CDs in packaging that claims they're music CD-Rs. DVDs that come in movie-reel tins, and have movie-themed designs.

There's no lack of gimmicks in this "designer" category. And there's no lack of caveats for consumers, either. For one thing, most of the discs that get this special packaging are slower than standard-looking media (8X for DVD+R, for example). Plus, regardless of whether the discs are called "video" or "music" discs, or "movie" or "director's cut" discs, you can expect to ante up more money at the cash register. For example, 8X Memorex media costs $10 for an ordinary ten-disc spindle, or $15 for a ten-pack of Director's Cut discs in a tin can.

Some of the themed packages are cute, no question--but I'd probably buy the discs only if they included packaging appropriate to the intended recording content. For example, Verbatim sells DVD-R and +R media with slimline DVD movie cases that could be useful if you're planning to burn movie discs and hand them out as gifts, or store them on your shelf. However, it might be just as useful--and more economical--to get a 50-spindle pack of media and buy the slimline cases separately.

Discs marketed as being for video or music use are not specially optimized for those purposes. In fact, music CDs carry an extra cost because the manufacturers pay royalties for special technology on those discs. That's because they were intended for use in a CD-burning deck that's an audio component, and such components look for a special identifier on the disc that designates it as a music CD.

Tip: If you're buying optical media to use in a living-room DVD recorder, pay close attention to speed ratings, especially on the rewritable side. If your recorder is an older model, it may have difficulties recognizing newer, faster media--let alone recording to newer discs.

Scratch-Resistant and Archivable Media

Handle your discs with care: This should be your maxim no matter what kind of disc you buy. But let's face it--stuff happens, whether it's because the plastic teeth in a jewel case break, or your toddler decides to see what happens when she scratches a DVD.

For these reasons alone that I think buying discs billed as scratch-resistant or archivable is a good idea. Granted, in talking with experts, I've heard conflicting opinions about disc dyes, disc longevity, and the real-world benefits of using a gold substrate vs. a silver substrate. But ultimately, if a disc is well-made and properly cared for, it should last a long time--anywhere from 30 years to 60 years or more, according to industry experts.

That said, I'm not a gambler: I prefer to maximize the chances that my discs will last by taking measures at the outset to protect my data. That's why I'm glad that the National Institute of Standards and Technologies and the Optical Storage Technology Association are exploring the possibility of industry-wide labels to certify discs as archivable. After all, once you've bought a digital camera and captured irreplaceable images, don't you want to preserve them as best you can? Yup, that's my line of thinking, too.

And in the meantime, I find intriguing the two approaches that disc makers are now taking to extend media life and protect the data on discs. They're long overdue steps in the right direction.

Long-Lived CDs: On the CD-R side, we have the resurgence of interest in gold CD-Rs. I say resurgence, because way back in the early days of recordable CD, about a decade or so ago, Kodak offered a line of gold CD-Rs that were actually made out of a gold-and-silver alloy. Now you can find two companies marketing gold CD-Rs: MAM-A, which has quietly sold gold discs for years, using Mitsui Chemical's phthalocyanine dye; and Delkin, a company that has focused on digital photography supplies and is marketing the discs to photo hounds.

MAM-A offers two varieties of 640MB gold CD-Rs, standard and archive. The discs are all made the same, but the archival media is held to a higher quality assurance standard. Both discs include a 24-caret gold substrate. The company says that since gold is not a corrosive metal, the discs will not degrade as quickly as discs made of other materials--like silver, for example. In theory, though, if a silver disc is sealed properly and the substrate is not exposed to the elements, that disc shouldn't degrade, either.

MAM-A's standard and archival discs both use phthalocyanine dye, which the company says is UV resistant--a boon just in case you inadvertently leave your discs in direct sunlight. The discs also have a scratch-resistant coating. They're more costly than standard CD-Rs, but then again, these discs are not designed to compete with free-after-rebates CD spindles.

Sadly, MAM-A's technology is limited to CD-Rs at this time. The company says it's looking into the viability of creating archivable gold DVDs, and it expects to have the results of longevity testing in the next few months. But even if MAM-A produces archival-quality DVD media, the company says the burn speeds will be slower than the max 16X of DVD media. This is due to gold's low reflectivity, which slows down a disc's burn.

Scratch-Resistant DVDs: The other big trend in media is the evolution of scratch-resistant coatings offered by TDK on its Armor Plated discs, which are billed as being up to 100 times more scratch-resistant than ordinary discs); by Verbatim, on discs using VideoGard (in spite of its name, these scratch-resistance discs are not limited to protecting video); and by Imation, on discs using ForceField Scratch-Resistant Coating. These discs typically burn more slowly than those you'll find in a standard spindle--and, of course, they carry premium price tags. But they're worth using for important recordings.

Scratch-resistant coatings won't completely prevent scratches or other damage, but they do provide better protection for your data than an ordinary disc can. I've tried the Armor Plated discs, and doing so gave me peace of mind: I found them easier to clean and resistant to the casual scratches I tried to inflict with my fingernails, the plastic teeth of a broken case, and a pen. Unfortunately, TDK's discs are available in DVD-R format only, and they're $4 a pop. Imation's ForceField DVD-R and +R media are available on spindles: a 30-disc spindle costs $40. And Verbatim's discs--available in DVD±R and DVD±R/RW--are not much more costly than standard media when bought in a multi-disc spindle.

Tip: Buy a spindle of standard discs for everyday use, but back up precious images or make special recordings on hard-coat, scratch-resistant media.

Confused by all these media options? If it makes you feel any better, we in the United States have it easy. Typically, our local stores have only a handful of shelves of various optical media types. In contrast, on a recent visit to Tokyo I saw entire store walls stocked with shelves full of a confusing array of DVD and CD media.

Melissa J. Perenson loves standing at the store, trying to figure out which media to buy--and she wants to hear your stories, too. Send her an e-mail.
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