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Here’s what you need to do

A simulated broken CD-R.
Benj Edwards

If you used a computer between 1997 and 2005, you probably burned valuable data to at least one recordable CD (CD-R) or DVD-R. Unfortunately, these have a limited lifespan, and many have already become illegible. That̵

7;s why it’s important to back up your recordable discs before it’s too late – here’s how.

The problem: Data Root for optical discs

CD-R and DVD-R store data on a color layer that is melted by the laser as data is written. This dye layer is not completely stable and can chemically degrade over time and cause data loss. The reflective layer on the top of the disc can also oxidize, making the data difficult to read.

As a result, many CD-R and DVD-R discs burned in the late 90’s and early 00’s now into unreadable modern optical disc drives. And for those who remain, the clock strikes.

Front and back of a CD-R.
Andy Heyward / Shutterstock

Life expectancy estimates for CDs and DVD-Rs vary widely, between two and 100 years. In 2004, the US Library of Congress sponsored a study that estimated the durability of recordable discs available at the time. The simulated aging of CDs and DVDs was stored under perfect environmental conditions (ie a room temperature of 50 percent humidity without sunlight and no rough handling).

The study concluded that most recordable discs stored under ideal conditions would last for at least 30 years, but the results varied greatly by brand. But it also states that “boards exposed to more severe temperatures and humidity would be expected to have a shorter life.”

So if you store your CDs or DVDs in a hot wind, a higher proportion of them may have gone bad. From our anecdotal experience, if you have a party of 30 vintage CD-R consumers, you can expect some of them to be unreadable. However, it depends on the quality of the disc, the type of dye used, the speed at which they were recorded and how they were stored.

In 2010, the Canadian Preservation Institute published a detailed analysis of CD-R and DVD-R lifespan that divided estimated lifespans based on the dye and the composition of the reflective layer. Like the Library of Congress report, the calculations varied widely, from five to 100 years, depending on the composition of the disc. Unfortunately, the estimate of the minimum lifespan of 100 years only applies to expensive, advanced gold-backed CD-Rs that very few people used.

Even under ideal conditions, there is still unrest. Although a consumer-quality recordable disc has been stored in the perfect location, it can last (on average) about 30 years. Many recordable discs are already 15-25 years old, which means it’s time to back them up now.

Back up CD-R and DVD-R

A CD in the slot of a portable DVD-R drive.
Witwit / Shutterstock

To back up your old CD-R or DVD-R discs, you need a computer and a compatible optical CD or DVD drive to read the discs. Some people have had more success using older devices and claim that they tend to read older discs better than modern ones. However, this is anecdotal evidence.

Also, older devices can be difficult to get, unless you find one on eBay. If you decide to look for an older model, focus on the big brands. Sony, for example, was known for making high quality devices. Of course, whether a vintage device works with a modern computer is another matter.

If you want to try a newer device to read your discs, you can easily buy one online. Most new optical drives should work well, as long as a CD or DVD-R has not started to deteriorate.

We recommend the following devices:

There are several ways in which you can copy data from your CDs and DVDs.

Option 1: Copy data directly

If your PC or Mac recognizes data on your CDs and DVDs, the easiest way to back it up is to simply copy the files to your hard drive or SSD. To do this, simply insert the CD or DVD-R into the optical media drive, and then open it on your computer.

It is best to do this with some form of organizational structure if you are backing up many disks. For example, you can create a separate folder for the contents of each disc. Name the folder something that will identify its contents, such as “CD-R: Photos from Tom’s 2002 Wedding.”

Option 2: Create disk images

Sometimes a CD-R or DVD-R may come from a platform that you no longer use, and you may not be able to read it properly. For example, say you burned a CD-R for a game console development package, but Windows cannot read it. In such cases, you can consider creating a disk image on the disc instead.

A disk image captures the entire structure of an optical disk, including all file data and the file system (if any), in a way that can be replicated later on another disk, if needed. Great disk image creation tools include WinImage for Windows and macOS ‘built-in Disk Utility app.

RELATED: How to create ISO files from disks on Windows, Mac and Linux

Back up your optical discs

QNAP NAS device

All consumer-grade digital storage media have a limited lifespan. It is only a matter of time before plastic is chemically degraded, metals oxidize or magnetic signals disappear. This means that digital preservation requires active maintenance.

So when you are done backing up your CDs or DVDs, make sure that the data you just copied is backed up continuously in the future. You can do this via a cloud backup, an external disk or NAS device and more.

One of the best ways to preserve your data at home is to keep your files in redundant storage (such as a RAID group). Then you just continue to migrate data to new hardware, as needed (all devices eventually wear out) and to new platforms as they appear.

RELATED: What is the best online backup service?

What happens if I find a bad record?

If you are backing up CD-Rs or DVD-Rs and find an unreadable or faulty disc, the best way is to copy as much data as possible and then try to disc on another optical drive. If the second device fails, try a third.

Sometimes CDs and DVD-Rs burn at high speeds with high error rates that were normally fixed with error correction code. This can make it harder for modern optical disc drives to read, so try them on an older drive if possible.

There is also some software that claims to help recover data from optical media, such as IsoBuster (for Windows.) If that does not work, you may just have to call it loss and hope you have saved the information elsewhere.

If the information is extremely important and replaceable, you can hire a forensic data recovery service to extract what is left for it for you. Unfortunately, finding a reliable data recovery service is not easy, so you need to do some research. Happy digging!

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