Burned CDs Burn Users

PC World confirms who many of us have already learned through personal experience: self-burned CDs don’t last very long.

Opinions vary on how to preserve data on digital storage media, such as optical CDs and DVDs. Kurt Gerecke, a physicist and storage expert at IBM Deutschland, has his own view: If you want to avoid having to burn new CDs every few years, use magnetic tapes to store all your pictures, videos and songs for a lifetime. “Unlike pressed original CDs, burned CDs have a relatively short life span of between two to five years, depending on the quality of the CD,” Gerecke says. “There are a few things you can do to extend the life of a burned CD, like keeping the disc in a cool, dark space, but not a whole lot more.”

The problem is material degradation. Optical discs commonly used for burning, such as CD-R and CD-RW, have a recording surface consisting of a layer of dye that can be modified by heat to store data. The degradation process can result in the data “shifting” on the surface and thus becoming unreadable to the laser beam. “Many of the cheap burnable CDs available at discount stores have a life span of around two years,” Gerecke says. “Some of the better-quality discs offer a longer life span, of a maximum of five years.”
Distinguishing high-quality burnable CDs from low-quality discs is difficult, he says, because few vendors use life span as a selling point.


To overcome the preservation limitations of burnable CDs, Gerecke suggests using magnetic tapes, which, he claims, can have a life span of 30 years to 100 years, depending on their quality. “Even if magnetic tapes are also subject to degradation, they’re still the superior storage media,” he says.

While burnable CDs were a godsend when the arrived on the market, since they were preferable in almost every way to 3.5 inch floppies and ZIP drives, I’ve long since stopped using them. I’ve been burned far too many times when I relied on them as my only copy of material. Instead of tape backup, I mostly rely on email or the Web to archive important files. With gigantic amounts of space available for free at G-Mail and YahooMail, there’s not much reason to back files up on CD anymore.

FILED UNDER: Science & Technology,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jay says:

    Yep. It’s to the point of hard drive to hard drive backup/long term storage making the most sense. I’ve posted about the CD issue before, and was alarmed when I found out about it because my client is relying on it to store scans of documents from cases rather than storing the physical documents for several years.

    In the meantime, hard drives have gotten absurdly cheap.

    FWIW I have seen data remain reliable on cheap burned CDs for upwards of five years, whether that’s luck, good media, or overstatement of the problem’s severity.

  2. Sgt Fluffy says:

    What makes the difference is the type of recordable cd’s you buy. I use a lot of burned cd’s in the job I’m in and I rarely if ever have had one go bad on me. When you go out and buy the pack of 100 OD cd’s that sell for 5.99, you get what you pay for. Nothing last forever, especially magnetic tapes which I also use, they run into their own problems. After a while they will become loose and cause bad blocks errors, get caught up in the tape drive and even break. As far as backing up files, Magnetic Tape is still the way to go, but it is not infallable.

  3. Paul says:

    YIKES… I have dozens of customers with thousands of CDs many a decade old by now I’m sure. I’ve never had one fail. (except from abuse)

    I’ve had so many magnetic tapes fail I quit using them. I have no idea the methodology but I find this extraordinarily bizarre.

  4. leelu says:

    How secure are these free online sites?

    Just askin’…

  5. Alnog says:

    How secure are these free online sites?

    Just askin’…

    A free site probably wont give you much space–unless you take the route suggested by James and use Gmail or yahoo.

    The problem with Gmail is that there is a 10mb limit on file size. not a big deal for most files, but if you have video or something, it will be a pain.

    I noticed that there is a new Firefox extension called Gmail File Space that operates like an FTP server from within Firefox. I havent checked it out, but it sounds pretty cool.