Desktop CD, DVD, and Blu-ray Buyer's Guide

How to select an optical drive for your desktop PC

LG B16NS40 SATA Blu-ray Burner

LG Electronics

Optical drives are becoming less relevant. But, many people may still want the ability to load software from physical media, play a high definition Blu-ray movie on their computer, listen to a CD, or burn photos and videos to a DVD. When considering a new computer, it's important to know the type of drive that comes with it, as well as the drive's speed.

The Windows 10 operating system is now being distributed via USB flash drives rather than traditional media because fewer systems feature optical drives.

Drive Types

There are three basic forms of optical storage used in computers today: compact disc (CD), digital versatile disc (DVD), and Blu-ray (BD).

The optical drives that run them are read-only (ROM), or writers (designated with R, RW, RE, or RAM). Read-only drives allow you to only read data from discs, while writers (or "burners") can be used to save data such as music or videos, which can later be played back.

CDs

CD storage was derived from the media used for audio CDs. Storage space on a CD is usually around 650 to 700 MB of data per disc. CDs can contain audio, data, or both on the same disc. Formerly, most computer software was distributed on CDs.

When you're shopping for a computer, CD burners may be listed as a CD-RW/DVD drive. These drives can read and write to CD media and read DVD media.

DVDs

DVDs were designed as a compact digital video format and, like CDs, evolved into a storage medium. The DVD format is primarily used for video content and has become the standard for physical software distribution. DVD drives can also be used to read CDs.

A variety of media types can be used with DVD recorders. Another format is the dual-layered or double-layered (typically listed as DL), which supports almost twice the capacity (8.5 GB instead of 4.7 GB).

Blu-ray

For a time, Blu-ray and HD-DVD competed for the top high-definition spot and Blu-ray won. Each is capable of storing high definition video signals or data capacities ranging from 25 GB to over 200 GB depending on the number of layers on the disc. HD-DVD-compatible drives are no longer made but Blu-ray drives are compatible with both CD and DVD.

Blu-ray drives come in three varieties. Readers can read any format (CD, DVD, and Blu-ray). Combo drives can read Blu-ray discs and read and write CDs and DVDs. Burners can read and write to all three formats.

Speed Limit Ahead

All optical drives are rated by a multiplier that refers to the maximum speed at which the drive operates when compared to the original CD, DVD, or Blu-ray standards. This identifier may be confusing because it doesn't represent the sustained transfer rate while reading the whole disc. Even more confusing, some drives have multiple speed listings. Because of these complexities, many manufacturers no longer list the speeds.

Read-only

ROM drives may list up to two speeds. For a CD-ROM drive, a single speed is listed, representing the maximum data read speed. Sometimes a second CD ripping speed is also listed, referring to the speed at which data can be read from an audio CD for conversion to a computer digital format such as MP3. DVD-ROM drives typically list two or three speeds, the maximum data read speeds for DVD and CD. There may be an additional number listed that refers to the ripping speed from audio CDs.

Burners

Information for an optical burner can be complicated. It may list over ten multipliers for various media types. To avoid this complexity, manufacturers may just list a single number representing the media it can record the fastest. For example, a 24x drive may run up to 24x when recording on DVD+R media, but it might only run at 8x when using DVD+R dual-layer media.

When shopping, try to read detailed specs to see what speeds the drive is capable of in the media type you use most often.

Information for Blu-ray burners lists their fastest recording speed for recordable Blu-ray (BD-R) media, even though a drive may actually have a faster multiplier for handling DVD media. If you want to burn media for both formats, consider getting a drive that has fast ratings for both media types.

Which is Best for Me?

Optical drives are inexpensive enough that even the cheapest computer should include a DVD burner if not a Blu-ray combo drive if it has the space for it (some small form factor systems don't have room for them). A DVD burner can handle tasks associated with CD and DVD media, so this type of drive should be adequate for people who only want to use it to burn CDs or create DVDs. Computers should at least have the ability to read DVDs, which are still used for physically distributing software. For systems that don't come with an optical drive, it is very affordable to add in a SATA DVD burner.

Blu-ray burners are much more affordable than they used to be but their appeal is very limited. Blu-ray recording media is not as expensive as it once was but it is still higher than DVD or CD.‚Äč