CD-R - Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

A standard CD-R is a 1.2 mm (0.047 in) thick disc made of polycarbonate with a 120 mm (4.7 in) or 80 mm (3.150 in) diameter. The 120 mm disc has a storage capacity of 74 minutes of audio or 650 Megabytes of data. CD-R/RWs are available with capacities of 80 minutes of audio or 737,280,000 bytes (700 MB), which they achieve by molding the disc at the tightest allowable tolerances specified in the Orange Book CD-R/CD-RW standards. The engineering margin that was reserved for manufacturing tolerance has been used for data capacity instead, leaving no tolerance for manufacturing; for these discs to be truly compliant with the Orange Book standard, the manufacturing process must be perfect.

Despite the foregoing, most CD-Rs on the market have an 80 minute capacity. There are also 90 minute/790 MB and 99 minute/870 MB discs, although they are less common (and depart from the Orange Book standard outright). Also, due to the limitations of the data structures in the ATIP (see below), 90 and 99 minute blanks will identify as 80 minute ones. (As the ATIP is part of the Orange Book standard, it is natural that its design does not support some nonstandard disc configurations.) Therefore, in order to use the additional capacity, these discs have to be burned using "overburn" options in the CD recording software. (Overburning itself is so named because it is outside the written standards, but, due to market demand, it has nonetheless become a de facto standard function in most CD writing drives and software for them.)

Some drives use special techniques, such as Plextor's GigaRec or Sanyo's HD-BURN, to write more data onto a given disc; these techniques are inherently deviations from the Compact Disc (Red, Yellow, and/or Orange Book) standards, making the recorded discs proprietary-formatted and not fully compatible with standard CD players and drives. However, in certain applications where discs will not be distributed or exchanged outside a private group and will not be archived for a long time, a proprietary format may be an acceptable way to obtain greater capacity (up to 1.2 GB with GigaRec or 1.8 GB with HD-BURN on 99 minute media). The greatest risk in using such a proprietary data storage format, assuming that it works reliably as designed, is that it may be difficult or impossible to repair or replace the hardware used to read the media if it fails, is damaged, or is lost after its original vendor discontinues it.

Nothing in the Red, Yellow or Orange Book standards prohibits disc reading/writing devices from having the capacity to read or write discs beyond the Compact Disc standards. The standards do require discs to meet precise requirements in order to be called Compact Discs, but the other discs may be called by other names; if this were not true, no DVD drive could legally bear the Compact Disc logo. While disc players and drives may have capabilities beyond the standards, enabling them to read and write nonstandard discs, there is no assurance, in the absence of explicit additional manufacturer specifications beyond normal Compact Disc logo certification, that any particular player or drive will perform beyond the standards at all or consistently. Furthermore, if the same device with no explicit performance specs beyond the Compact Disc logo initially handles nonstandard discs reliably, there is no assurance that it will not later stop doing so, and in that case, there is no assurance that it can be made to do so again by service or adjustment. Therefore, discs with capacities larger than 650 MB, and especially those larger than 700 MB, are less interchangeable among players/drives than standard discs and are not very suitable for archival use, as their readability on future equipment, or even on the same equipment at a future time, is not assured, even under the assumption that the discs will not degrade at all.

The polycarbonate disc contains a spiral groove, called the "pregroove" (because it is molded in before data are written to the disc), to guide the laser beam upon writing and reading information. The pregroove is molded into the top side of the polycarbonate disc, where the pits and lands would be molded if it were a pressed (nonrecordable) Red Book CD; the bottom side, which faces the laser beam in the player or drive, is flat and smooth. The polycarbonate disc is coated on the pregroove side with a very thin layer of organic dye. Then, on top of the dye is coated a thin, reflecting layer of silver, a silver alloy, or gold. Finally, a protective coating of a photo-polymerizable lacquer is applied on top of the metal reflector and cured with UV-light.

A blank CD-R is not "empty"; the pregroove has a wobble (the ATIP), which helps the writing laser to stay on track and to write the data to the disc at a constant rate. Maintaining a constant rate is essential to ensure proper size and spacing of the pits and lands burned into the dye layer. As well as providing timing information, the ATIP (absolute time in pregroove) is also a data track containing information about the CD-R manufacturer, the dye used and media information (disc length and so on). The pregroove is not destroyed when the data are written to the CD-R, a point which some copy protection schemes use to distinguish copies from an original CD.

There are three basic formulations of dye used in CD-Rs:

  1. Cyanine dye CD-Rs were the earliest ones developed, and their formulation is patented by Taiyo Yuden. CD-Rs based on this dye are mostly green in color. The earlier models were very chemically unstable and this made cyanine based discs unsuitable for archival use; they could fade and become unreadable in a few years. Many manufacturers like Taiyo Yuden use proprietary chemical additives to make more stable cyanine discs ("metal stabilized Cyanine", "Super Cyanine"). Older cyanine dye based CD-Rs, as well as all the hybrid dyes based on cyanine, were very sensitive to UV-rays and could have become unreadable after only a few days if they were exposed to direct sunlight. Although the additives used have made cyanine more stable, it is still the most sensitive of the dyes in UV rays (showing signs of degradation within a week of direct sunlight exposure). A common mistake users make is to leave the CD-Rs with the "clear" (recording) surface upwards, in order to protect it from scratches, as this lets the sun hit the recording surface directly.
  2. Phthalocyanine dye CD-Rs are usually silver, gold or light green. The patents on phthalocyanine CD-Rs are held by Mitsui and Ciba Specialty Chemicals. Phthalocyanine is a natively stable dye (has no need for stabilizers) and CD-Rs based on this are often given a rated lifetime of hundreds of years. Unlike cyanine, phthalocyanine is less resistant to UV rays and CD-Rs based on this dye show signs of degradation only after two weeks of direct sunlight exposure. However, phthalocyanine is more sensitive than cyanine to writing laser power calibration, meaning that the power level used by the writing laser has to be more accurately adjusted for the disc in order to get a good recording; this may erode the benefits of dye stability, as marginally written discs (with higher correctable error rates) will lose data (i.e. have uncorrectable errors) after less dye degradation than well written discs (with lower correctable error rates).
  3. Azo dye CD-Rs are dark blue in color, and their formulation is patented by Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation. Azo dye is also chemically stable, and Azo CD-Rs are typically rated with a lifetime of decades. Azo is the most resistant dye against UV rays and begins to degrade only after the third or fourth week of direct sunlight exposure. More modern implementations of this kind of dye include Super Azo which is not as deep blue as the earlier Metal Azo. This change of composition was necessary in order to achieve faster writing speeds.

There are many hybrid variations of the dye formulations, such as Formazan by Kodak (a hybrid of cyanine and phthalocyanine).

Unfortunately, many manufacturers have added additional coloring to disguise their unstable cyanine CD-Rs in the past, so the formulation of a disc cannot be determined based purely on its color. Similarly, a gold reflective layer does not guarantee use of phthalocyanine dye. The quality of the disc is also not only dependent on the dye used, it is also influenced by sealing, the top layer, the reflective layer, and the polycarbonate. Simply choosing a disc based on its dye type may be problematic. Furthermore, correct power calibration of the laser in the writer, as well as correct timing of the laser pulses, stable disc speed, and so on., is critical to not only the immediate readability but the longevity of the recorded disc, so for archiving it is important to have not only a high quality disc but a high quality writer. In fact, a high quality writer may produce adequate results with medium quality media, but high quality media cannot compensate for a mediocre writer, and discs written by such a writer cannot achieve their maximum potential archival lifetime.

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