Polishing gadget can rescue scratched or abraded disks

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September 23, 2004|By Mike Himowitz

About 15 minutes into the movie Twisted, the lovely face of Ashley Judd dissolved into a blob of pixels on our TV screen and froze there.

I fumbled with the fast-forward and reverse on the DVD remote. No luck. I pushed the button to shift to the next scene, figuring what the heck, we'll only miss a few minutes. It played for 20 seconds, then froze again. Same with the next scene. The scene after that froze, too, and then the movie skipped a couple of more scenes before picking up again.

By that time, the plot was already a couple of murders deep, and we couldn't even figure out who was dead, let alone speculate on who killed them. My wife and I were not amused. I knew the DVD player was in good working order, so I pulled the disk out and held it under the light. I found a couple of major scratches and an abrasion or two.

I had run into CDs and DVDs with an occasional skip, but never anything this bad. In fact, with even marginally careful handling, compact disks are supposed to be immune to this kind of damage. But who knows how many hands this particular disk had been through? It also was late, and neither of us felt like running back to the video store to exchange it.

Then I remembered a gadget sitting on a basement shelf reserved for gadgets that I might someday get around to reviewing if I can figure out why anyone would want to buy them in the first place. This one was called the SkipDR, and it's designed to rescue scratched-up CDs, DVDs and game disks.

Much to my amazement, it saved the evening. And I can see now why it's worth having around - not necessarily for the odd mangled rental video, but certainly for a collection of CDs, DVDs or game disks that suffer from mishandling.

First a word about compact disks. I use the term generically here because audio CDs, DVDs and video game disks all rely on the same basic technology - they store music, video and game programs in digital form, as a stream of ones and zeros known as bits.

Those bits are "burned" into the disk as a series of microscopic pits on a reflective coating. The pits are protected with a clear substrate. A CD or DVD player retrieves the ones and zeroes by bouncing a laser beam off the rotating disk.

Compact disks have a major advantage over the old vinyl records, cassettes and VCR tapes they replaced. The very act of putting a needle in a record groove or passing a tape over a magnetic playback head subtly degrades the recording. Vinyl records and tapes also are easy to damage physically.

The laser beam of a CD player doesn't damage the disk or change the pits in any way, so a performance should sound or look as good the 100th time you play the disk as it does the first.

The protective coating of a CD is also relatively tough, compared with naked vinyl or magnetic tape. As long as you take reasonable care of it, a CD should last a long time.

Generally, that means nothing more than keeping your fingers off the shiny side and returning it to the box after you play it. Still, CDs can be abraded, scratched or pitted. If the damage is bad enough, it will throw off the laser beam, and you'll get stuttering or skipping of album tracks, or entire movie scenes. If the damage is bad enough, the disk will be virtually unplayable - like the movie we rented.

But as long as the data layer isn't destroyed, it might be fixable. Enter the SkipDR, manufactured by Digital Innovations, which specializes in products that clean up digital messes. The same gadget is also sold as the GameDR and DVDDr.

At first glance, the SkipDR looks like a small, plastic circular saw, but instead of a blade, it has a flexible wheel with a polishing surface and a circular disk holder that fits into a slot at the bottom of the wheel.

To repair a scratched disk, you snap it into the holder, squirt it with cleaning solution (actually, distilled water), and slip the holder into the slot. What comes next depends on which model you have. The original SkipDR ($30) comes with a crank that you turn by hand. The fancy model ($50), which I had, uses an electric motor and plugs into a wall outlet.

When you push the button, the motor turns the disk slowly while the polishing wheel rotates over the surface, removing a thin layer of substrate, and with it the scratches and abrasions.

The company recommends two passes through the machine for the average damaged disk. That done, it's time to dry the disk and buff it with a small polishing cloth (provided). By that time, the scratches should be removed, or at least rendered harmless, although the cleaning process leaves its own radial impression on the disk.

My wife eyed this entire process rather skeptically (she gets skeptical whenever I pick up a new gadget). But when we put the disk back into the DVD player, the movie played without so much as a hiccup.

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