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CD-Safe Pens Can Preserve Your Data


Question: Popular Photography has the following tip in the February 2001 issue: "Always use a felt-tip pen specifically made for writing on digital media. Using the wrong pen can cause the ink to etch its way into the top protective coating of the CD and continue to travel into the dye area where the data is stored."

What the article does not say is where one can buy a felt-tip pen specifically made for writing on a CD disc. Are there different brands, and how does one know a pen is safe to use?

Answer: The friendly geeks at Q&A labs thought this was an urban legend, but then we looked a few things up and discovered that, yeah, using the wrong kind of felt-tip pen can indeed leave you with a damaged CD.

Those felt-tip pens with smelly ink have a solvent in them. The solvent can, over time, dissolve petrochemical byproducts such as plastic. So you don't want to use one of those on your CD. And we need to make clear here that your precious CD will not turn to glop before your eyes if you use one of these pens on it. But if you're using that CD as an archive, better find a pen with water-based ink.

Note that you should label your CDs in the clear center ring if possible, to minimize the risk of data loss.

And here's a less-than-comprehensive list of companies that make CD-safe pens, along with the instrument's name: Dixon Ticonderoga "Redi-Sharp Plus," Sanford "Powermark" and TDK "CD Writer." They all cost under $5 and are widely available in art and office supply stores. You also can find them online.

Q: I have a quick question regarding CD-R speed. I have quite a few blank CD-Rs and I recently bought an internal CD writer that runs at 16x10x40. The problem is the CD-Rs are labeled compatible up to 12x. So my question is, what would happen if I used them on my CD writer?

A: Well, if you're worried, you should be able to slow down the burn rate on your CD writer using the software you'll be using to burn the CDs. But in our experience, you shouldn't have to. Best guess is you've just got a stack of CDs manufactured when 12x was state of the art and some marketing type stuck that label on there to sell more discs.

The only difference we've noticed in buying blank CDs for recording data is that cheap CDs are slightly more prone to recording failure than expensive CDs.

Note that when we say failure we don't mean the CD will fly apart flinging razor-sharp shards through your living room. It just means your data won't get recorded.

But even a high failure rate might be worth the savings if you've gotten an especially good deal.


Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist. Submit questions to Tech Q&A at Please be specific about your computer and operating system and include a daytime phone number.

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