/ Technology

Formats aren’t forever: what will happen to your disc collection?

James Bond boxset

There’s an air of inevitability about format changes – a consequence of rapidly evolving technology designed to enrich our lives. But how would you feel if items you’d paid for were suddenly rendered obsolete?

For Richard, this is a real worry. ‘Discs are finished,’ he tells me matter-of-factly, ‘looking at how things are developing there’s just no place for them in the future – they’re unnecessary’.

The problem is that Richard, a film blogger and British Film Institute member, has a DVD collection that he estimates to be worth in the region of £5-10k.

Say farewell to discs

New laptop models are being manufactured without DVD/CD drives, while downloads and streaming are growing in popularity – it all marks the beginning of a slow phase-out for media in disc form.

I can’t help but draw comparisons to the rather sudden change-over from VHS to DVD, probably due to the fact that his James Bond collection still adorns the shelves. From 1962’s Dr No, up until 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, that is.

‘Post-2000, continuing to buy the Bonds on video would have been ridiculous, and later, impossible,’ he says. ‘I leave those ones on display because I’m quite proud of that collection, but they’re useless now aren’t they? Dust collectors’.

Copying CDs and DVDs

While the total exclusion of the disc is surely some years off, I still wonder whether it should be easier to safe-guard your media from becoming nothing but spectres that haunt the attics of the future – losing their value entirely.

The good news is that the law was modernised last year to allow you to make personal copies of your media, whether that’s a CD or DVD. However, ripping a DVD isn’t a straightforward process and they often have copy protection that was added by the film studios. This would also involve months of manual work for someone like Richard.

It could be argued that the media is still playable – but if there’s eventually no hardware to support it, then it’s as useful as a 3½” floppy disc. While you certainly can’t legislate for upgrades and improvements (I wouldn’t expect to be given the latest version of my car every year!), do you think entertainment creators could do more?

It’s not uncommon for the latest Blu-ray discs to be accompanied by a digital download, which is a positive step. But for the millions of discs already purchased, what’s to stop them from joining the technology of yester-year on the scrap heap?

Do you think it’s fair that you often have to pay again for the same media in a new format just so you can continue to enjoy it? Have you ever bought a CD/digital copy of a vinyl album you’d already paid for? A download of a DVD you already own? Or a DVD of a VHS you once paid in excess of £10 for?

I know I have, I’m just not quite sure whether I should have had to.


The availability of the technology to play different media generally seems to last as long as necessary. You can still easily buy record players, cassette tape players, and VHS recorders and players. Betamax is the most significant extinct video recording technology but that was doomed at an early stage through lack of inter-compatibility. Starting with reel-to-reel tapes I have been through all these iterations of sound and vision reproduction [including quadraphonic sound on the way] and done the upgrades – usually for superior fidelity and durability. Tapes, cassettes, and records all suffered terribly from wear, distortion, and the snap, crackle and pop of imported impacts on the medium. Digital downloads and streaming are the future [for the time being] and will before long displace mechanical systems.

Personally I enjoy the physical properties of CD’s and like having a visible music collection. I am not so bothered about DVD’s – we seem to have rather a lot of them, many unplayed, and they rarely get a second viewing. I think they will shortly be joining the thousands of others on the charity shop shelves.

Blockbuster went bust, which says it all really.

I recently bought a laptop without a DVD drive and wanted to load some old but expensive software that is on DVD. I know I have a USB-DVD drive somewhere because I bought it when my computers only had CD-drives. When I remembered I could use the DVD drive on an older Mac to access files on the old one, I gave up looking. It was not fast via Wi-Fi but it worked.

My searches for the DVD drive had been unsuccessful but I unearthed a Zipdrive and a DVD-RAM drive, with lots of disks for both. When I have nothing better to do I will fire up these drives if my first laptop still works. It’s the only one that has the requisite SCSI connector. I might find something interesting. I don’t think I will bother with the USB-floppy disk drive because I have thrown out most of the floppies. I might as well check what’s on the large external hard drives that have the capacity of a modest flash drive.

I still listen to my records and occasionally to tapes, despite being a fairly early adopter of CDs. There is something satisfying about these old physical formats that music files and streaming does not match for reasons I don’t quite understand.

I will have a purge of the old computer hardware soon but I’m keeping the turntable and tape deck for a bit longer.

There really is a certain je ne sais quoi about putting a record on. Choosing the album, looking at the picture on the sleeve, easing the enclosed cover and disc out of the sleeve, carefully turning the disc around to check the label and select the side to play, slipping the record carefully out of its cover and placing it on the turntable, activating the tone arm and watching it gently lower the stylus onto the disc. Sit back, relax and enjoy. Now it’s a case of pick a track and click a button – no build up, no sensation of anticipation as you perform the ritual, no emotional immersion in the experience. Never mind; obsolescence is the way forward.

Not to mention the superior analogue sound quality, but yes it is ritualistic, something we never realised until the advent of digital.

I think we have to make the distinction between formats like Mp3 and jpg. which almost certainly will be playable in a hundred years times and physical formats like vinyl, CD, tape and DVD’s.

DVD’s are slightly hampered both by the format region restrictions and not being totally ubiquitous as MP3’s and jpgs. Fortunately there are ways around these things I am told.

One thing I am keen on is the archival quality of DVD size disks which which will last hundred plus years which is something commercial disks, hard drives and tapes cannot do. If there is a widescale adoption of M-Disk and similar than the ability and likelihood of having hardware and software to read them is highly likely many decades into the future..

We have mp3 and jpg formats because they are convenient and small files, but both are examples of lossy compression and associated with loss of quality. For archival purposes, uncompressed files or lossless compression are better alternatives.

The M-Disk may offer the possibility of long term storage but I find it hard to believe that the future lies in mechanical devices of any type.

I can see the virtue of streaming subscription services for those whose main interest is in popular music and film.

I find it interesting how our attitudes have changed in the digital age. In the 70s/80s, if we broke an LP, we wouldn’t even think about taking it back to the record shop and arguing we should be entitled to a free replacement because we had already paid for the content.

On the topic of formats going extinct, it is sad that a very large proportion of scientific footage – video and data – taken during the moon landings is kept on tape, but has never and will never be examined because we no longer have any equipment capable of playing those tapes.

For today’s formats, I agree that the popular, non-proprietary ones such as JPG and MP3 will live on (despite the patents on MP3). I am slightly worried that Microsoft may in future make the WMA and WMV formats obsolete. Microsoft have done it before: I have many MDI (Microsoft Document Imaging) files created with previous versions of Windows, which Microsoft no longer support and you have to go through hoops to get software that can read them. I’m not just having a go at Microsoft, as I think Apple can be just as bad. Yet, I still tend to prefer ripping my CDs to WMA format rather than MP3 as the compression is supposedly slightly higher quality. I hope I will still be able to use these files in 10-20 years’ time, but haven’t got complete confidence.

Just because we were supposed to pay the full price to buy music in a different format, it was only corporate greed that prevented legal format switching for so long. Commonsense has prevailed at last.

I acquired some Standard 8 film that was around 40 years old. I would have liked a telecine conversion but I managed to find a contemporary projector, replaced the belt and had a friend point a rather good quality modern camera at the screen and the result was perfectly adequate. If the moon landing video and data are worth recovering, it would be worth building suitable players.

mp3 files are relatively poor quality, reflecting the limitations of the equipment for which they were originally designed. I’m surprised at how long they have survived.

My view is that with all dat becoming digital then memories of your life, your favourite tunes , pictures, texts and memories will no longer exist in paper form at all. So all the paper data that curently families have access to about prior generations will not exist.

If I were to be buried why not have an M-disk to accompany me? When they dig up the grave hundreds of years hence it may be interesting.

Why not provide copies to members of the family. In theory I know this could all be in the cloud. However unless someone is guaranteed free access and the cloud never fails or is attacked and corrupted I am unhappy that it is superior to physical data.

I realise that jpeg and mp3 are not the best quality but it is a pragmatic view as to what formats might still be relatively common decades hence. There is absolutely no reason why you should not save the same photo in RAW and jpeg. Ditto music files – I have wav., ogg. and mp3. I do also have some wma. and aac. however proprietary systems should be avoided.

Microsoft have a record of formats that are not now easily useable and Apple will be exactly the same given another decade in trying to tie people into their formats.

I have not followed the debate about archiving digital information but my thought is that providing that we retain the ability to convert different image formats it may not matter if files cannot be used directly on modern equipment. Maybe an expert could comment on that suggestion.

I agree that we should avoid proprietary systems, but my understanding is that what we regard as RAW image format actually depends on equipment manufacturer, so cannot be considered a useful standard.

I’m still able to use TIFF images created in the early 90s and that Graphic Converter is still available, although you have to pay for this marvellous piece of image conversion software these days.

I love my DVDs & CD, always have. As soon as i buy a CD album I rip it onto my iTunes & Amazon Cloud, then pop the CD into my collection. While I mostly listen to music via iTunes & Amazon Cloud I still like to have my collection…. & show it off where possible lol

But it’s another story for DVDs, I like to watch the DVD itself, take the new Jersey Boys film that came out last year. I bought the movie online via Blinbox. But it didn’t feel the same so i kicked off on Twitter, got myself a refund & bought the DVD from Amazon. But then we get other DVDs, like when i bought One Direction: This Is Us (please don’t judge me), i got the DVD, plus a UV code so i could watch the film online too. Best of both worlds there!

I like watching TV shows / movies with subtitles so i can upload screen shots to my Twitter/Tumblr, plus my charities Twitter feed too, like: https://twitter.com/StopSelfHarm/status/584810357602025472, & at the moment ITVPlayer is having problems showing correct subtitles that I’m tweeting them about pretty much weekly, so i feel it’s a long cry before we get subtitles on all download films.

I also enjoy DVD extra’s like bloopers / behind the scenes stuff etc, that’s another thing you can’t get on download only films.

I have transferred all of my DVD’s to a Network Attached Server (“NAS”). Using my optical drive attached laptop I have and continue to save all my DVD’s to the NAS using Slysoft software. This is for my personal use. The software removes the copy protection.

It takes about 20 min per DVD to transfer to my QNAP NAS. The original format of the DVD is retained including menu and subtitles.

The NAS has 8TB of storage and an average DVD uses about 8GB so lots of storage space

For me, CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays are all I need and, while my equipment plays them I see no need to digitise. I have ripped about ten days worth of music for use in the car but still use the same CDs in the house. I am lucky enough to have accumulated most of the media I want over the last thirty plus years of disc production and despite dire warnings of degradation I can still play all of them. They are going to last me until I no longer need them. Someone starting out, will probably not buy a disc of any type, that’s as it should be since technology has moved on. There are enough of us out there buying CDs to encourage producers to supply them, so the medium isn’t dead yet and when manufacturers stop making players, there will still be convertors to read discs. You sit on your cloud and I’ll spin my disc. Now, who is going to replace the loudspeaker which has been with us for over a century?

Jerome Perkins says:
15 April 2015

The problem with the moon landing records is not that they can’t be read anymore but that they don’t exist anymore. During the early seventies NASA had a shortage of magnetic tape to record data from satellites so they reused existing tapes destroying the records in the process. (Not unlike the BBC at the same time.)

Personally I try to keep the capability to read obsolete formats if I can, much to my son’s amusement. He is into downloads but his younger sister prefers DVDs as she likes physical media. I do, however, intend to put my content onto hard drive for convenience and so I can store the originals safely elsewhere.

Often when a title is released on a newer media extras are added as a sweetner which may make a new purchase worthwhile regardless. There may be some titles which would not be economically worthwhile to convert from VHS to DVD but would become viable as a download.

Ian Kennedy says:
18 April 2015

Back to square 1
I find I can often save a ‘non-copy’ CD/DVD to my old videocassette recorder.
I can then save it to computer or stick!

Hunting for something the other day in the spare room I came across a whole box full of VHS cassettes including dozens of watched and unwatched films, TV programmes and numerous blank tapes. These had obviously survived a house move two and a half years ago when they were probably put in the ‘deal with them later’ category. Perhaps the VHS player is also lurking in an unopened box in the spare room but I don’t think we’ll want to set it up again. At the moment I think the outlook is that they are going in the bin unless any of the charity shops want them.

Well, at least it’s an active write-off rather than a passive gathering of dust and cluttering up the place.

I think there might be some sort of market or recycling opportunity for unwanted/unplayed DVD’s and CD’s [I’ll let the charity shop do the donkey work on that] but for VHS Cassettes I think it’s all over now – no point in fretting. The only consolation is that, with music and movies, some of it is probably still in our heads and awaiting recall.

Nora q says:
18 April 2015

I belong to the pre calculator generation. I am mesmerised by all the techno stuff I have just accessed! I shall cling to my CDs and DVDs for dear life as long as possible!

“…the archival quality of DVD size disks which which will last hundred plus years…”

When I converted to digital photography in 1998 I stored all my files on CD’s. These, I was informed, would last for up to a 100 years. 10 years later, having upgraded to a larger computer hard-drive in the meantime, I decided one day to transfer all the early original files (two years worth) to my swish new hard drive. Only one-third of them were still readable. I lost most of my early photos. They were stored on everything from El Cheapo CD’s bought in packs of 100 to some extremely expensive gold disks. The failure rate was the same on all kinds. Some of the El Cheapos are still readable. So please don’t talk to me about the longevity of CDs. I no longer trust any kind of CD/DVD storage. Sadly, hard-drives aren’t that much better. Over the years three have died on me. Fortunately, two of them gave me notice. These days I use a belt-and-two-sets-of-braces approach, which involves multiple hard drives as well as Cloud storage ( which I don’t really trust, either).
I won’t go into what happened to many of my old-fashioned negatives and prints in a flood…
There was a salutary story about an American photographer who made the definitive archival collection of his best photos, then stored them and the original negatives in a temperature-controlled bank vault deep in the basement of a bank – in the Twin Towers… There is no such thing as safe storage – but CDs are one of the worst.

briana – I have had great success with storing files on CD and hard disk. I’ve just dug out one of the first three CDs I bought, in the early 90s. I remember they were very expensive. Images in .jpg, .eps and .gif formats all open, so do pdfs and Word files. So far, I have not had any problem with hard drives, internal or external at home, though I did have one of each fail on computers at work.

briana – You do appear to have been unfortunate. However I do remember in the early days being warned regarding storage of CD’s and the varying qualities. The length of storage was AFAIR never quoted to extreme lengths. In fact reading some of the links below I am astonished how quickly sunlight can degrade DVD’s and CD’s.

Though not mentioned apart from one site the quality of the laser as it ages can apparently mean a poorer quality copy. It seems logical but I am not an expert on laser writers.

The gold disks currently available can carry 100GB’s but I have only used the M-disc’s because I think there is a benefit in using “stone” compared to a gold film – and I expect it will be cheaper in the long term..


At the time that CD-R and CD-RW disks were fairly new, it was recommended that it was best to avoid maximum writing speed. I did that in the early days in the days when it was necessary to purchase software to write a disk.

I hope you haven’t already thrown away your unreadable CDs. Sometimes, when a CD has deteriorated and can’t be read in one drive, it can still be read in another. Try your CDs in friends’ drives until you get lucky, or take them to a data recovery shop.

Ray Cox says:
19 April 2015

Perhaps formats need to last 3 score years and 10?

After that we shall be dead and not care a lot. 🙂



David Berry says:
19 April 2015

Using programs that are free downloads on the internet the copyright of DVD’s can be masked from copying programs and copies can be made on a computer to any storage media in the background while the computer is used for other things.



Falkenna says:
19 April 2015

I have been saying this since CDs were first forced down our throats. However, I agree that no medium is safe. I recently lost a computer and was relieved that I had saved the most important documents to the cloud – only to find that some of the documents were missing and at least one had missing data.

I would love not to have a couple of hundred DVDs cluttering up my living room, but do not have the time, the inclination, or the confidence in any virtual medium required to change over. I hope to whittle down as the years go by, but in general it’s simply not going to happen.

PeterM says:
20 April 2015

The BBC Domesday Project was a case in point. Only 15 years after creating the “New Domesday Book” on 12″ Laser Disc there were no machines left to read it (http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/mar/03/research.elearning )

So far, the discussion has focused on recording media and the equipment needed to play it.

Another major problem software becoming obsolete. The main reason I keep a 2002 iMac in a cupboard is that I have numerous files created in Aldus FreeHand, then Macromedia FreeHand, then Adobe FreeHand. I still have the software but it cannot be used on a modern computer with a modern operating system.

When I bought a new computer recently I was pleased to find out that my old Adobe CS4 still works on it. If there had been a problem I would have had to install it on my desktop computer, which has a non-current operating system because of some other old software.

I enjoy using a new computer with the latest operating system but sometimes I have to live in the past simply to use old files and software.

Formats? My first record purchase was a 78 rpm version. I paid royalties again for the same track on a 45 rpm record. Then again for a stereo version on a 33 rpm record. Then again for a CD. I could have paid royalties many times over on more platforms over the decades: a mono 33 rpm record, a mono reel-to-reel prerecorded tape, a stereo reel-to-reel prerecorded tape [never compatible with the mono version – it could not be played on mono tape recorders], a musicassette [prerecorded cassette], an 8-track stereo cartridge, or a download. In fact I created my own mono and stereo reel-to-reel and cassette versions from my disc versions and felt justified doing so having paid several times already for the royalties, even though this was a legal grey area at the time. That is the history: the future will surely bring us just more platforms….

Steve says:
21 April 2015

What’s this streaming then? And what are downloads when they’re at home?


Streaming removes the need to worry about keeping up to date with formats to listen to music and watch videos. It helps ensure that the service providers have a continuous revenue stream and is one of the drivers for fast broadband – though most would not need fast broadband for any other reason than streaming.

I’m sure that the way forward will be music, video and TV on demand, whether we like it or not.