DVDs: Dont Fold, Spindle or Mutilate

Storage Supersite readers chime in with their observations about the vulnerability of bare-naked optical media, and Editor David Morgenstern offers some hints about keeping discs fresh and functional.

In case I had any doubts, my concerns over the fragility of current and future optical-disc technology were crystallized by reader responses to a recent column on the subject—as well as an interesting (and unintended) example from Microsoft by way of my snail-mailbox.

In last Thursdays column, I noted that current DVDs lack cartridge covers to protect bare media and touched on historical reasons for the omission. When the format was in its infancy, several optical-drive manufacturers had lobbied for a hard plastic shell that would protect the disc media. However, the opposing camp held sway, and thus our current consumer video and data drives use bare media.

Here are a couple of observations from readers with concerns about "naked" storage media as well as some tips:

"This is important not only for data storage but for video discs as well," network specialist Jim Anderson pointed out. "The video-rental industry would especially benefit from protection of the bare surfaces of discs that are rented out to one and all. Its very frustrating to be watching a rental DVD and be unable to see the complete film because some careless renter has left a huge fingerprint that has become burned into the plastic media of the disc. I would be willing to pay a premium for the peace of mind that my purchased DVDs will survive my family!"

Apparently, its too much for the video-rental people to check the condition of the disc surface when a title is returned. (After all, the clerk doesnt have to see if its been rewound.)

Whenever cleaning a disc by hand, the concern is with scratching the surface. To clean discs (as well as LCD screens, camera lenses and eyeglasses), I use a water-soluble, polymer-based liquid called Klear Screen from Merridrew Industries. The company sells packets with a disposable soaked cleaning pad and a lint-free cloth. This combo is better than paper towels or Kleenex. Be sure always to work the cloth out from the center of the disc instead of in a circular motion.

In addition, I like the companys new $14.95 Micro Klear Kloth Combo set, whichincludes a 14-inch-square piece of absorbent microfiber cloth (for less-critical jobs such as notebook cases and trackpads) and a similar-sized piece of optical-grade chamois for screens or optical discs. (Each cloth can be rewashed, so its also an ecological product.)

Even as I was fielding reader comments about the fragility of discs, I received hard evidence. Microsoft sent the MSN Version 8.0 disc loose in an envelope, and it didnt survive the trip intact (see my photographic proof). I might have understood a scratch or two, but the disc arrived in three pieces! The discs are brittle, and the envelope must have been crunched by the automated mail sorter in the post office. I dont remember this problem happening with a floppy disk.

Image of shattered MSN 8 disc

DVD media survivability is also on the mind of consultants advising their clients on long-term storage of archived data.

"Our clients are community banks, and they blissfully use CDs to store some highly valuable scanned images (notably, checks involved in the proof-of-deposit application)," noted Gary Wayne Loew of Champion Workflow Systems. "For the very reasons you state, weve never agreed that CDs are a safe storage medium. The greater speed and capacity of DVDs offer attractive near-line storage possibilities but suffer from the same "nakedness risks" as CDs."I suppose this explains how, in this day and age, Kodak is still able to sell microfilm machines—most particularly, those that "back up" digital images onto microfilm. Admittedly, microfilm does have the advantage of a stable 100-year medium and a format that wont likely become obsolete (as long as magnifying glasses exist). Still, for clients who require some kind of random-access type backup medium, DVDs would be great: if only theyd get dressed!"

While future consumer video players and recorders will still use naked discs, for some applications, such as data archive and libraries, there will be alternatives.

For example, Plasmon offers Ultra Density Optical, a blue-laser format with an initial capacity of 30GB. The standard uses the familiar 5.25-inch cartridge design currently used for its magneto-optical drives.

With some sense of postmodernist storage irony, I recall that in bygone days, the proposed DVD cartridge standard proposed two versions. The first was for a hard plastic cartridge like a floppy that would be used for ordinary uses, such as video discs and data drives. The second version of the case could open up, letting users remove the disc media. Why? For use in CD libraries, which used bare discs—the reverse of the forthcoming formats.

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.