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The Fire This Time: The New CD-R Media Scene

Stephen F. Nathans

June 2000 | As anyone who got into the CD-R game three or more years back well knows, the key element missing in the "why buy?" equation for CD-R was indeed the price. From the time CD-ROM made its presence known as a distribution medium, manufacturing costs were remarkably low, but CD-R was neither cheap to make nor cheap to buy through its first decade in existence.

In today's market, by contrast, "cheap" media is the easiest kind to find. Manufacturers such as Princo and CMC have stepped to the forefront of the rock-bottom media market, with varying results. While some users warn vehemently of the perils of association with new, darker recording dyes, anecdotal evidence on the viability of these brands versus discs positioned as higher-end products is strong on both sides. Testing on large batches of CMC-derived media, for example (re-branded by Hi-Val and Smart and Friendly) has found it stacking up quite well against standard-bearers like Taiyo Yuden (under their own That's CD-R! brand, which is widely circulated in North America by MicroBoards, and under Philips' re-branding), Mitsui, and Kodak.

Several issues go into a given media brand's cost of goods, including not just the basic physical components of the disc, but also coatings for printability (for inkjet or thermal) and durability, and application-specificity (such as medical or legal). More recent factors include capacity--with the virtual disappearance of 63-minute (580MB) media has come the widespread availability of 80-minute (700MB) discs at an ever-shrinking premium--and the added price paid for discs from the likes of Mitsui and Ricoh that ship with, say, an archiving application already on them, or pre-formatted for packet writing (in Ricoh's case, these are CD-RW discs).

Another topic of product differentiation that may or may not affect pricing is speed certification--whether a given disc has been accredited for use in today's latest 8X, 10X, and 12X recorders. One issue of questionable merit is adherence to Serial Copyright Management System (SCMS) criteria, the copy-protection scheme that drives up the price of the "audio-only" discs used in home recorders to sprinkle royalty-relief on protected artists via the RIAA's sure hand.

Quantity of units purchased (i.e., single, 10-pack, bulk, spindle) is, of course, a factor as well.


At the heart of every CD-R disc is one of a handful of dye formulations, and none of them leaves much to hang your hat on in terms of a quality assurance edge. But like seven bald men killing time in a barber shop with one barber and four chairs, everybody's got an opinion.

One thing that's clear is that years in the chem labs have not been wasted and CD-R manufacturers have indeed worked with great success to improve on the earliest dye formulations used in creating the recording material that the discs use. The very first CD-R discs used in Yamaha's room-filling recording systems didn't use dyes at all, but since then CD-R media has included two basic components, as pioneered in subsequent offerings from TDK and Taiyo Yuden: a dye formulation for recording and a reflective layer, usually silver or gold, for reading. There are four types of dyes in use today: cyanine, or "green," was used in the earliest discs, and is directly referenced in Part 1 of the Orange Book CD-R spec.

TDK has been using cyanine dye from the get-go, and they've stuck with it, aiming for higher sensitivity in the latest generation with a re-tuned MSi (metal-stabilized cyanine) recording material they call ISOPURE. Also firmly in the cyanine camp is Smart and Friendly, which uses the dye exclusively in their Rocket Fuel line of high-speed certified media. Relative newcomers Leda Distribution and Ritek have also gone the cyanine route with their growing media lines. Almost as venerable as cyanine is phthalocyanine dye, which is colloquially known as "gold" and is closely identified with Mitsui, Ricoh DMS, and Kodak, although today Kodak uses some alternative dyes. A more recent entrant (late 1998), Hi-Space Canada has gone gold with its Hi-Space CD-R media line. A more recent entry is metal azo ("blue"); its major proponent is Mitsubishi/ Verbatim, which markets a diverse line of DataLife discs using this dye formulation. Yamaha, first-in-field in the drive market, recently debuted in the media market with its own line of metal azo discs.

While two disc manufacturers may use the same dye formulation, they don't necessarily apply it in the same manner as their competitors, or even in different disc models in their own line. Variations in dye thickness, as well as thickness of reflective layer and the use of a protective coating, can create differences in the characteristics and performance attributes of discs regardless of whether they use the same dye. Ricoh is one example of a manufacturer emphasizing these differences in its Platinum media line, highlighting enhancements to the disc's base groove and the thickness of its recording and reflective layers to reduce jitter when the discs are recorded at higher speeds.

As for reflective coatings, most manufacturers offer both silver and gold. Recent testing shows error rates for discs with silver reflective layers (developed in 1996 and 1997) as having equal or lower error rates than their gold counterparts, although gold is said to offer greater durability. Some manufacturers, such as Princo, use a combination of the two.


Several factors contribute to a disc's resilience to wear and tear, its durability and longevity, including surface thickness and the use of various surface coatings. These coatings also determine whether a disc is acceptable for use with various types of CD-R printers.

Most major manufacturers offer protective coatings designed to ensure disc longevity and resistance to the scratches that come with everyday handling. Kodak's InfoGuard may be the best-known disc reinforcement technology. Comprising the dye formulation, proprietary silver alloy layer, and the additional protective coat, InfoGuard is used in all Kodak media, including media ear-marked for more mission-critical, high-end applications, such as its "Aerial" and "Digital Science" lines. It's also found in the company's mainstream disc models, Ultima and Gold Ultima, and in printable variations as well.

Also using coating to increase market cachet is Verbatim, who claims its DataLifePlus media as the first to incorporate a hard-coat surface for enhanced scratch resistance. The company claims its reflective layer remains undisturbed by "scratching force" up to 120 grams, 20 grams higher than a non-hardcoated disc. The hardcoat is applied in all Verbatim discs, including 74- and 80-minute discs certified for high-speed recording, as well as printable and CD-RW discs.

Mitsui bundles up its media in a protective surface called Diamond Coat. It is also used throughout the line, including branded, unbranded, and various printable models.


The growing market penetration of autoloading systems, integrated production solutions, and industrial-grade network-attached print-to-disc configurations has made printability paramount.
As CD-R's use in publishing and production applications has exploded in recent years, demand for media that can be labeled with a suitable-for-publication sheen has increased in parallel. The growing market penetration of autoloading systems, integrated production solutions, and industrial-grade network- attached print-to-disc configurations has made printability paramount. It's also been the single greatest driving force in the exponential growth in media sales over the last few years.

A handful of popular CD-R printers dominate the market today, Primera's Signature III [See Hugh Bennett's review, February 2000, pp. 54-56] leading the way on the inkjet side, followed by Affex, Copytrax, and IMT, with more recent entrants like Verity vying for marketshare as well. Rimage's Perfect Image thermal transfer printer (offering monochrome and color printing) has emerged as the product of choice for high-volume professional production applications. It is widely deployed in Rimage's own Protégé, Autostar, and Amigo systems, as well as in high-end disc production solutions from the likes of MediaFORM and Microtech. Designed for use in industrial-strength automated systems, the Rimage printer has found a home in mass-consumer operations like Kodak's Picture CD (Kodak also offers a retail version of its thermal-ready CD-Rs). However, its airtight hold on the thermal transfer market may be tested when Primera's own thermal transfer CD printer--scheduled for a mid-June release as of this writing--hits the streets this summer.

Thermal transfer printing is more smudge-resistant than inkjet printing, and thus better-suited to long-term archiving applications. But it's also harder on the discs. Inkjet printing essentially requires a clear surface for lucid labeling, since it basically involves little more than spraying liquid ink on a disc. Thermal printing, on the other hand, transfers solid pigment from a coated ribbon onto a disc's printable surface through a combination of heat and pressure, which demands a more resilient surface.

Most manufacturers offer printable discs of both kinds. Mitsui, for example, offers silver and white versions of its inkjet CD-R discs, as well a thermal transfer disc that carries Rimage's endorsement. Both are DiamondCoat-fortified discs.

One long-time provider of printable discs is MicroBoards Technology. Although not a disc manufacturer, MicroBoards has likely sold as much or more CD-R media than any company on the planet, and as a leading distribution partner of Primera and Rimage (as well as Cedar Technologies, developer of the Primera-bundling Desktop CD-R Publisher solution, recently acquired by Rimage), has a vested interest in the availability of printable media. Primarily a reseller of Taiyo Tuden media, MicroBoards offers both white and silver versions of its printable PrintWrite media, which was the first brand of printable media to bring its costs in line with contemporary non-printable CD-R pricing. While the difference isn't vast, printable media (particularly for thermal and silkscreen) tends to run about 20% more expensive than its non-printable counterparts.

Other providers of printable discs include HHB, with its phthalocyanine-based CDR74 Silver media; TDK with its CD-R74 PT (silver printable matte) for inkjets and CD-R74B for use with high-end silkscreen printers; Maxell, which also offers printable white matte (CD-RPW) for inkjet and "blank shiny silver" (CD-RBS) for thermal or custom silkscreen finishing; and Sony, which augments its vast CD-R line with inkjet-printable versions.


With any nagging compatibility issues or price premiums eliminated, why wouldn't the market seize the opportunity for increased capacity that 80-minutes discs offer, or at worst, not recoil in horror because they hardly noticed.
The two most visible evolutions in CD-R media in the last year have been in the proliferation of discs promising two numeric enhancements: 80 minutes of audio recording and 12X recording speeds.

Eighty-minute media, which clock in at 700MB for those of us who can imagine non-aural applications, have been with us for a while, but it's only in the last year or so that the discs have been either available from a range of manufacturers or sold at prices roughly comparable to those of standard 74-minute (650MB) media. The distinction is even rendered a bit more confusing by the ambiguity of what we mean when we say megabytes--that is, whether you're working in Base 1000 or Base 1024--and companies who have traditionally taken advantage of that ambiguity to spec out their media at 680 instead of 650 for discs of essentially the same number of bits or bytes [See Dana Parker's March column, "What's in a Megabyte?" p. 72].

When 80-minute discs were first introduced by TDK in 1997, they were priced at roughly $17 a disc, in spite of the fact that 74-minute media had settled into the $2 range by then. The numbers didn't make a whole lot of sense if all you were trying to do is increase storage capacity by 1/13th. What was the real reason anyone thought these discs might fly at that price? Well before 1997, many record companies, particularly in Japan, had made two discoveries: first, that they could get more than 74 minutes of music onto newly improved pressed discs; and second, that discs over 74 minutes couldn't be directly copied onto CD-R.

Today's 80-minute discs present interesting possibilities. On the one hand, filesystems can be spread over multiple CD-Rs, and the frequency of archive-bound filesets weighing more than 650MB but less than 700MB likely doesn't justify all this disc-stretching. Plus, the availability of much larger optical storage formats like DVD-RAM make the difference seem inconsequential. On the other hand, an extra six minutes of audio recording, whether for duping, mixing, or MP3 dumping, is mighty nice to have. And if the discs can be made and sold just as cheaply as 74s, and played back as widely, why shouldn't the whole world go 80-minute?

With the spate of recent announcements, that's exactly what seems to be happening. Memorex is only one of several companies claiming first-to-market with 80-minute CD-R; even Smart and Friendly, notorious for trying inventive methods to squeeze the most out of its back catalog on the drive side, seems to have gone all 80-minute, all-the-time with its current line of Rocket Fuel discs. Verbatim has also recently taken the 80-minute media plunge, as has newcomer Leda Distribution, and Kodak with its Ultima 80. Meanwhile, TDK, with the strongest first-in-field claim for 700MB CD-R, marches on with its aptly named CD-R80s.

However quick the 80-minute onslaught may seem, the decision seems a safe bet for any media maker or vendor involved. With any nagging compatibility issues or price premiums eliminated, why wouldn't the market seize the opportunity for increased capacity, or at worst, not recoil in horror because they hardly noticed?


If we view CD-R's future through the lens of the past, the sudden ubiquity of 12X-certified media may be more cause for caution. Remember when 8X CD recorders debuted, and selecting applicable media was somewhat like navigating a minefield? When Smart and Friendly's 8X Rocket debuted, hardly any 8X media was available, and only one or two brands were actually approved for use with it. The early days of eight-speed often felt more like a quad-speed or six-speed revival, as media struggled to get up to speed and hard drive and processor sluggishness complicated matters further. Early 8X owners sadly spent most of their time down-shifting to 4X or 6X, or whatever worked.

The good news is, 12X has arrived, all pistons firing. Not only are system deficiencies a thing of the past, but the first drives have debuted with an abundance of suitable media waiting to cater to their every need. A good thing, since the booming duplication market has descended on 12X like mold on cheese. Hardly a week has passed in recent months without a 12X media announcement. Grab yourself a fleet-a-foot 12X recorder from Smart and Friendly or Plextor (or a 12X-equipped duplicator from MediaFORM, MicroBoards, or any market-savvy vendor), and pick your favorite media vendor, and odds are you'll find them hawking 12X discs locked and loaded to burn your data in six minutes flat. Ricoh, Mitsui, Imation, Smart and Friendly, Ritek, Philips, Taiyo Yuden, Verbatim, and MicroBoards all offer media recordable at speeds up to 12X. These discs, of course, can also be recorded at 1X, 2X, 4X, 6X, and 8X when copying from a poor source disc or using a slower system or recorder.

Or if you're feeling bold, pile up 700MB of data, pop in a hard-coated printable disc, let 'er rip at 12X, and watch the present and future of universally distributable optical storage unfold before your eyes. But don't blink--it'll be over before you know it.

Companies Mentioned in This Article

185 Paularino Avenue, Suite A, Costa Mesa, CA 92626; 714/434-1242; Fax 714/434-1247; http://www.affex.com

Cedar Technologies, Inc.
7667 Cahill Road, Suite 250, Edina, MN 55439; 612/830-1993; Fax 612/830-1039; info@cedar-tech.com; http://www.cedartechnologies.com

Eastman Kodak Company
460 Buffalo Road, Rochester, NY 14650; 800/235-6325; http://www.kodak.com/go/cdr

Hewlett-Packard Information Storage Group
815 SW 14th Street, Loveland, CO 80537; 800/826-4111; Fax 800/231-9300; http://www.hp.com/storage

HHB Communications
1410 Centinela Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90025-2501; 310/319-1111; Fax 310/319-1311; sales@hhbusa.com; http://www.hhb.co.uk

Hi-Space Canada
5042 Thimens Boulevard, St-Laurent, QC, H4R 2B2, Canada; 514/745-2244; Fax 514/745-7650; info@hi-space.com; http://www.hi-space.com

Imation Enterprises Corporation
1 Imation Place, Oakdale, MN 55128-3414; 888/466-3456; info@imation.com; http://www.imation.com

IMT Média Technologies
53 rue Casimir Perier, Bezons, France 95871; +1 34 34 37 77; Fax +1 34 34 37 70; http://www.francexport.com/imedia-technologies

Leda Distribution
10811 Shoemaker Avenue, Santa Fe Springs, CA 90670; 562/941-5332; Fax 562/941-0409; http://www.leda-dist.com

Maxell Corporation
22-08 Route 208, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410; 201/794-5922; Fax 201/796-8790; http://www.maxell.com

400 Eagleview Boulevards, Suite 104, Exton, PA 19341; 610/458-9200; Fax 610/458-9554; info@mediaform.com; http://www.mediaform.com

MicroBoards Technology, Inc.
1721 Lake Drive West, Chanhassen, MN 55317; 800/646-8881; Fax 612/556-1620; http://www.microboards.com

Microtech Systems
2 Davis Drive, Belmont, CA 94002-3002; 650/596-1900; Fax 650/596-1915; sales@microtech.com; http://www.microtech.com

Mitsui Advanced Media, Inc.
2500 Westchester Avenue, Suite 110, Purchase, NY 10577; 914/253-0777; Fax 914/253-8623; mboetius@mitsuichem-us. com; http://www.mitsuicdr.com

Philips Disc Systems Professional
10243 Thumble Fields Drive, Knoxville, TN 37922; 423/966-5023; Fax 423/207-3235; http://www.prodvd.philips.com

Plextor Corporation
4255 Burton Drive, Santa Clara, CA 95054; 800/886-3935; 408/980-1838; Fax 408/986-1010; sales@plextor.com; http://www.plextor.com

Primera Technology, Inc.
Two Carlson Parkway North, Plymouth, MN 55447-4446; 612/475-6676; Fax 612/475-6677; cdrsales@primeratechnology.com; http://www.primeratechnology.com

Princo America Corporation
47517 Seabridge Drive, Fremont, CA 94538; 510/413-0999; Fax 510/413-0990; info@princo.com; http://www.princo.com

Ricoh Corporation, DMS-C
One Ricoh Square, 1100 Valencia Avenue, Tustin, CA 92780; 714/566-3244; Fax 714/566-3266; http://www.ricohdms.com

Rimage Corporation
7725 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55439; 612/944-8144; Fax 612/944-7808; http://www.rimage.com

Ritek Corporation
No. 42 Kuangfu N. Road, Hsin Chu Industrial Park, Taiwan, R.O.C. 30316; +1 886 3 596 5695; Fax +1 886 3 598 3023; http://www.ritek-cd.com

Smart and Friendly
20520 Nordhoff Street, Chatsworth, CA 91311; 818/734-2225; Fax 818/734-2244; http://www.smartandfriendly.com

Sony Electronics, Inc.
3300 Zanker Road, San Jose, CA 95134; 800/686-7669; Fax 408/955-4771; http://www.sony.com

Taiyo Yuden USA Inc.
Arlington Center, 714 West Algonquin Road, Arlington Heights, IL 60005; 800/368-2496; Fax 847/925-0899; http://www.t-yuden.com

TDK Electronics Corporation
12 Harbor Park Drive, Port Washington, NY 11050; 800/835-8273; Fax 516/625-0651; http://www.tdk.com

Verbatim Corporation
1200 W.T. Harris Boulevard, Charlotte, NC 28262; 800/421-4188; Fax 704/547-6609; info@verbatimcorp.com; http://www.verbatimcorp.com

Verity Systems
6246 Main Street, El Dorado, CA 95623; 530/626-9363; Fax 530/626-9395; sales@veritysystems.com; http://www.veritysystems.com

Yamaha Systems Technology, Inc.
100 Century Center Court, #800, San Jose, CA 95112; 408/467-2300; Fax 408/437-9741; http://www.yamahasyst.com

Stephen F. Nathans (stephenn@onlineinc.com) is Editor of EMedia Magazine.

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