Maxell DVD-R unreadable, has dark speckles
John Beale  Sept. - Dec. 2006

In Sept. 2006 I found one of my Maxell DVD-R discs (MXL RG01 media code, burned Sept. 2003), was unreadable. I have heard stories about DVD-Rs quickly going bad, but I always assumed it was marginal equipment, sub-standard media, or user error. This time, I believe the media, the burner and the storage conditions were all perfectly good, but after three years the disc is bad. I expect even the cheapest VHS tape to last longer than 3 years. So far this is an isolated case, but I'm worrying more about it now.

There was a rash of counterfeit Maxell discs in 2003, but those did not have the maxell label printed on top. In this case, the DVD has white letters printed on the clear hub of the disc reading "maxell DVD-R 4.7GB". It is a white inkjet-printable type. It was burned with a Pioneer DVR-A06, which was a good model in its day. The data side of the disc looks normal, it is purple and the burned area is visually distinct from the unwritten edge area.  Click on the scans and close-ups below for a larger image.


MXL RG01 hub area

bottom side scan

close-up: dark spots

different light angle

The two close-up photos above were taken with a 2x macro lens (SLR with 100mm plus 50mm lens back-to-front) show the same area with different light angles. The DVD tracks act like a diffraction grating giving many colors.  The largest spots are located on either side of the thin ring (pre-recorded data / lead in area) visible on blank DVD-R media near the hub (example here).  The spots are apparently at or near the dye layer (0.6mm in at the center of the disc), as dust on the outer surface of the disc is far out of focus in the macro shots.

In 2003, this DVD-R read with no problems in two different DV-343 players and in an iMac drive. In 2006 it is unreadable in each of those drives, and in all but one of my current players. Out of nine players total, eight cannot play any video from the disc. After several minutes of head seeks, my BenQ 1640 did manage read the media ID, which is copied below, and interestingly, my Yamakawa  DVD-218 can play the disc normally. However my Pioneer DVR-A06, Plextor PX-712A, and NEC ND-6500A drives all seeked for several minutes on this DVD without getting any data.  My Pioneer DV-363 and DV-343 standalones rejected it without comment. The Benq 1640 had the following output:
Nero CD-DVD Speed: Disc Info
Basic Information
Disc Type: : DVD-R
Book Type : DVD-R
Manufacturer: : Maxell
Write speeds: : 2.4 X
Blank Capacity : 4.38 GB
: 4489 MB
: 4707319808 bytes
Extended Information
Layers : 1
Usage : General
Copyright protection : n/a
Recorder information
Disc Status : Closed
Raw Data
Pre-recorded Information in Lead-in (0Eh)
0000 - 01 40 C1 FD 9E D8 50 00 02 58 0E 11 98 99 80 00 - .@....P..X......
0010 - 03 4D 58 4C 20 52 47 00 04 30 31 00 00 00 00 00 - .MXL.RG..01.....
0020 - 05 88 80 00 00 00 01 00 E0 D4 05 00 18 EE 90 7C - ...............|
0030 - 78 FB 90 7C FF FF FF FF 71 FB 90 7C 18 6A DD 77 - x..|....q..|.j.w
0040 - 51 6A DD 77 00 00 15 00 02 00 00 80 30 00 00 00 - Qj.w........0...
0050 - 18 00 00 00 30 00 00 00 18 D5 05 00 40 00 01 00 - ....0.......@...
0060 - 0B 00 00 00 20 D4 05 00 4E 00 4E 00 98 D5 05 00 - ........N.N.....
(no further data could be read)
The DVD was stored indoors in a protective plastic case on a bookshelf, and not exposed to sunlight.  It was handled infrequently and with due care, and played only a few times. There are no major scratches visible, although there are a few hard to see, very fine scratches. It appears clean of dust. Cleaning with compressed air and radial wipes of a soft rag had no effect.  The house does have a relative humidity meter, it is normally in the 55-65% range and the peak humidity recorded was 82% RH. The temperature is usually between 70 and 75 F.  The Maxell representative I contacted said the media should last longer than 50 years with proper storage.

I am no expert in DVD degradation mechanisms but I suspect the tiny spots visible in the macro photos have something to do with my playback problem. The spots remind me of the "DVD rot" photos posted by Rohan Byrnes here: although his DVDs were pressed discs (aluminum reflective layer). Supposedly that was a very rare problem with a few pressing plants, and long since fixed.

I don't know what these dots are, or their relevance. I did look at a few other of my DVD-R discs and they do not show any such dots. If the root problem on my DVD-R is pinholes forming in the DVD-R silver-alloy reflective layer, that would suggest the gold reflector type DVDs, for example MAM-A / Delkin "archival gold" or the Verbatim Ultralife silver+gold DVD-R may be a worthwhile investment. 

UPDATE Oct.2 2006: Maxell America has agreed to examine the disc, so it has been shipped to them for analysis.

UPDATE Dec. 21 2006: Maxell America sent the disc to Japan and got back a report, which they have translated as follows:

The folks in Japan were able to confirm that the disc was unreadable (unrecognizable) in several of their Pioneer drives. Upon inspection, they discovered "spots" on the recording surface. Closer inspection revealed that the "spots" on the inner area of the disc were larger than the spots on the outer area of the disc. They were also able to determine that the laser power of the customer's drive during recording was slightly higher than normal, especially at the inner area of the disc. This leads them to believe the laser power of the recording device played a role in these "spots' developing in the recording layer. Another point is that there were absolutely no spots found in the "Pre-Write Area", which is an area where specific data is written at the factory during the manufacturing process. If the recording layer itself was at fault, they believe that the spots would be found in this Pre Write area as well, but they weren't. They also believe that humidity was involved. I'm told that the polycarbonate shell of the disc is somewhat absorbent, and that this disc may have been stored in a higher than normal humidity condition. The reason they believe this is that after they stored the disc in a temperature chamber at 140 degrees F for 24 hours (essentially "drying it out"), the error rate went down and the Pioneer drives were then able to recognize and play the disc.

Because there is no way to confirm the assumptions they are making about storage conditions, etc., this is by no means a definitive report that can be taken as gospel, but it does have some validity based on the physical facts.

received Dec. 21 2006 via email from Susan S. at Maxell Support
I was quite surprised to learn the disc was readable after a 24-hour bake. This raises more questions:  Were the spots causing the problem? Did they go away after the oven bake? If so, that suggests the spots were not pinholes in the reflector or dye layer as I had guessed. Perhaps they were bubbles of gas or condensed water, which diffused back into the polycarbonate after baking. Was something about the dye-layer pits burned by my DVD recorder preferentially causing nucleation sites for water condensation? I will be on the lookout for another such disc, to see what I can discover.  -jpb

FAQ: Isn't "archival quality DVD" just a meaningless marketing term?

I'm convinced that the DVD media with a gold reflective layer is at the very least different from the cheaper media that uses a silver alloy, because it looks quite different to the eye.  I'm also convinced that silver can corrode and pure gold does not, but real-world media lifetime is dependent on many factors, and there's frustratingly little hard data on the subject.  When NIST published their 2004 report on CD-R and DVD-R media stability [1] their results showed a dramatic difference among three individual DVD-R samples, in errors accumulating after exposure to both harsh light and high temperature and humidity . However, NIST did not know the materials used in the DVD samples, and they did not report the media brand or manufacturer.  In 2004 a NIST/LoC study on optical media longevity started [2], and it is due to complete in 2006. I hope the results are published but the initial description of the test online does not divulge any specific media brand, so it is unclear whether results will have any use to consumers.  There is also an individual in Canada who has started his own personal study. [3]

If and when any studies determine some media is archival, it may still be difficult to obtain the specific type tested. Not only do many DVD-R brands outsource manufacturing and change suppliers without notice, but even the "media ID" encoded on the disc may not be genuine. [4] [5]

[1] J. Res. Natl. Inst. Stand. Technol. 109, 517-524 (2004)

[2] NIST Special Publication 500-263 (2005)

[3] Dolphin Longevity Test 3.0 (2006)

[4] Counterfeit DVD-R discs currently being sold using Maxell's unique media ID (2003)

[5] DVD-R market plagued by fake media and inconsistent quality (2005)

"But you've already got a DVD. It lasts forever. It never wears out.
In the digital world, we don't need back-ups, because a digital copy
never wears out. It is timeless." 
Jack Valenti, interview in Harvard Political Review, 2002

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