Friday, August 7, 2009

Burning Question: How Do I Future-Proof My Digital Media?

You've spent years hoarding digital media, tossing aside those flimsy tape and plastic prisons after transmuting the information into its purer form. No outdated vessel is going to prevent your endless enjoyment of its contents, right?

Think again, Highlander.

Digital media is not immune to the winds of time. In many ways, it's even more ephemeral than the analog forms it's meant to usurp. Unlike, say, books or photographs—which can be placed on a shelf and enjoyed decades later—the binary codes of today's movie, photo, and music collections may not be decipherable on future machines.

"Most people still haven't realized that digital files require software to render them into forms that humans can perceive," says Jeff Rothenberg, a computer scientist at the Rand Corporation and an expert in digital preservation. Making matters worse, that rendering software often becomes obsolete as companies go belly-up or stop supporting file formats.

So how do you keep filling the bit bucket without spilling valuable 1s and 0s? It's rarely easy. There are already a bazillion methods of compressing and encrypting media, and the number is only increasing. The safe road sticks to open standards and popular formats, Rothenberg says.

For music, your choices are pretty well defined: If you're more concerned about space than fidelity, go with the ubiquitous MP3. If you need to hear every nuance and have the gigs to back your play, WAV (the CD's audio format) is a good bet for lossless audio.

When dealing with images, most archivists recommend a raw format (if you've got terabytes to spare) or TIFF. But both can be tricky. Raw files are the unmolested data captured by a camera's sensor. Each manufacturer has its own version, and you'll need special software to decode it. As long as you keep the program (there's also a Photoshop plug-in), you should be OK, and you'll benefit from the best possible image quality. TIFF, on the other hand, is a high-quality compression scheme that has remained mostly unchanged since 1992. But it's a proprietary Adobe format. If that makes you nervous, use common compressed standards like JPEG or PNG; they'll likely be readable for years, though they can't match raw or TIFF files for quality.

Unfortunately, movies are a bit dicier, as digital video is relatively new to the mix. The H.264 standard seems poised to emerge as a universal format, at least for HD video. But MPEG-2—the native language of DVDs—is the undisputed king of standard-def moving pictures. Either one should buy you peace of mind for a few years.

It's tempting to seek out a single magic format that preserves everything forever. You won't find it. The only surefire way to future-proof is to stay current. If that seems like too much work, there's another option: Keep your hard-copy photos, CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays (plus your old hardware). Have fun re-sorting them on the fly.

Posted via web from swathidharshananaidu's posterous

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