Blank Discs Not Created Equal By Aaron Weiss http://www.wired.com/news/digiwood/0,1412,66911,00.html 02:00 AM Mar. 18, 2005 PT There was a time when burning a blank CD-ROM in your own home sparked feelings of wonder and joy as if you were performing a minor miracle. What once seemed like a technical marvel has, like so many small wonders, become routine. Now we can also burn our own DVDs. Sprinting down to the local mega-mart for a stack of blank CDs seems like a no-brainer, and it's quickly becoming so for DVDs. But the story doesn't actually end there. Blank media still possess an air of mystery, at least to some people. When you buy a stack of shiny new platters packaged by Fujifilm, TDK Electronics, Ritek, Verbatim, Imation, Hewlett-Packard or another recognizable brand, you cannot count on the name that appears on the label to reveal the whole story. In fact, most of this blank media is manufactured by a short list of companies: India's Moser Baer, Japan's Ricoh and Taiyo Yuden, and Taiwan's CMC Magnetics, Prodisc Technology and Optodisc Technology. Taiyo Yuden is the granddaddy of them all. Together with Sony and Philips, it invented recordable CD media in 1988. Today, these manufacturers produce a variety of product lines. Some are in-house formulations bought and resold under brand names, while other lines may be designed to the specifications of a particular vendor. Just how much of each is out there "is an area where speculation takes hold more than fact," says Kevin Pieper, who maintains the resource site digitalFAQ.com. In Pieper's experience, the name brands "purchase the media being made by the manufacturers, and put their pretty little logo in it -- nothing more." Verbatim spokesman Andy Marken describes the company's facilities in Singapore and Japan as using "our own processes and procedures" and says "our own production and quality engineers monitor the work flow." It is not uncommon for brand names to draw on more than one manufacturer to fill their inventories, selling blank media with different ancestries. And so ... who cares? People who take their burns seriously care a lot. They hang out in online forums such as Club CD Freaks, a community with more than 100,000 members and 5 million visitors a month. A smaller community of about 10,000 members frequents CDRLabs.com. Hot topics at these sites include reviews of the latest DVD recorders and hot tips on blank-media bargains. "Good," by these standards, has several meanings. Most importantly, people don't want to wind up with coasters -- discs that fail to burn properly and are rendered useless. It used to be that producing coasters was a fact of life, back when recording technology was immature. These days, most coasters are the result of poorly made media. In fact, says Pieper, "there is actually more bad media now than there was just two years ago." Even with a successful burn, the question of durability and longevity remains key. All burns produce a certain number of errors -- the CD and DVD data protocols are designed to handle this. But too many errors can result in a disc that does not stand the test of time -- readable in the short term, but possibly not years later. Some media can burn reliably faster than its rated speed. A DVD+R might be rated at 4X burn speed, yet with certain recorders, it can be burned at 8X. The factors that contribute to high- or low-quality media are varied. Several choices of dye are on the market, and which one is used can affect a disc's reflectivity, and thus its readability. But beyond that, says Pieper, "if your dye is unevenly spread, or the other materials and workmanship are shoddy, it doesn't matter what dye is used." Also, Pieper says if the glue job on the platter is sloppy, "the media literally falls apart." Taiyo Yuden media stands as the golden child for blank-media enthusiasts. Popular opinion swings the other way for manufacturers such as CMC Magnetics and Princo. Individual community members, however, have their own personal favorites. Wesley Novack, a system administrator in Phoenix, is a review coordinator for Club CD Freaks. He prefers Maxell and Verbatim media along with the reigning favorite. But in these murky waters, he cautions that Verbatim media made in Singapore is generally preferable to Verbatim media manufactured elsewhere, because that plant is directly owned by the company. Every blank platter is encoded with an MID, or manufacturer identifier, which indicates the real manufacturer of the media. The MID can only be read with software such as the popular recording suite Nero 6, and niche utilities such as DVD Identifier and KProbe, all for Windows. A roar of excitement goes up on message boards when someone buys a discounted pack of, say, Fuji DVD+R and discovers the blanks have an MID of YUDEN000T02 -- in other words, a Taiyo Yuden batch. But you can't read MID codes in a store aisle. Community members share clues that are almost mystical for identifying "the good stuff" on the shelves. One poster suggests that Verbatim-branded DataLife DVD-R discs on a gray spindle are made by Ritek (considered above-average) while those on a black spindle come from CMC. Another secret shared by the connoisseurs: Fuji-branded package labels may read in small print either "made in Taiwan" or "made in Japan." Like children combing store shelves for that cereal box with the special decoder ring inside, media sleuths know Fuji discs made in Japan are the sought-after Taiyo Yudens. Another clue, according to Novack, is that with Taiyo Yuden-made media, "the cakebox bubbles out and is wider at the bottom of the spindle." Despite all the back-room whispering and tip-of-the-day gossip, it's easy to buy Taiyo Yudens online -- just order them. Taiyo Yuden discs, like those from many of the other original manufacturers, can be bought straight up -- no brand-name middleman needed. So, why all the fuss? What everyone wants is a great deal. Sure, you can visit online retailer Newegg.com and pick up a 50-pack of 8X DVD+R discs guaranteed to be Taiyo Yudens for just under $40. But the bargain hunting keeps these communities buzzing. Unlike most online retailers, the big-box chains run heavy loss-leader discounts on recordable media. Nearly every week, recordable media go on sale for half-price or even less at a local mega-mart. And sometimes, just sometimes, these bargains reveal a gleaming stack of gems beneath the brand label. "About a month or two ago," Novack says, Club CD Freak members hit upon a mother lode at Best Buy. "You could find a 25-spindle of Fujifilm 8X Taiyo Yuden DVD+R discs for $9. Now even though that was a sweet deal already, many stores had a shelf tag marked at $4 for a 25-spindle!"