Optical Disc Drives

Everything about an optical drives, including if you really need one

Picture of an Asus 24x DVD-RW Serial-ATA Internal OEM Optical Drive DRW-24B1ST
Asus DVD-RW Optical Drive (DRW-24B1ST). © Asus

Optical drives retrieve and/or store data on optical discs like CDs, DVDs, and BDs (Blu-ray discs), any of which hold much more information than previously available portable media options like the floppy disk.

The optical drive normally goes by other names like a disc drive, ODD (abbreviation), CD drive, DVD drive, or BD drive.

Some popular optical disc drive makers include LGMemorex, and NEC. In fact, one of these companies probably manufactured your computer or other device's optical drive even though you never see their name anywhere on the drive itself.

Optical Disc Drive Description

An optical drive is a piece of computer hardware about the size of a thick soft cover book. The front of the drive has a small Open/Close button that ejects and retracts the drive bay door. This is how media like CDs, DVDs, and BDs are inserted into and removed from the drive.

The sides of the optical drive have pre-drilled, threaded holes for easy mounting in the 5.25-inch drive bay in the computer case. The optical drive is mounted so the end with the connections faces inside the computer and the end with the drive bay faces outside.

The back end of the optical drive contains a port for a cable that connects to the motherboard. The type of cable used will depend on the type of drive but is almost always included with an optical drive purchase. Also here is a connection for power from the power supply.

Most optical drives also have jumper settings on the back end that define how the motherboard is to recognize the drive when more than one is present.

These settings vary from drive to drive so check with your optical drive manufacturer for details.

Optical Disc Drive Media Formats

Most optical drives can play and/or record a large number of different disc formats.

Popular optical drive formats include CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD, DVD-RAM, DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, DVD-R DL, DVD+R DL, BD-R, BD-R DL & TL, BD-RE, BD-RE DL & TL, and BDXL.

The "R" in these formats means "recordable" and the "RW" means "rewritable." For example, DVD-R discs can be written to just once, after which the data on them cannot be changed, only read. DVD-RW is similar but since it's a rewritable format, you can erase the contents and write new information to it at a later time, as often as you'd like.

Recordable discs are ideal if someone is borrowing a CD of photos and you don't want them to accidentally delete the files. A rewritable disc may be handy if you're storing file backups that you'll eventually erase to make room for newer backups.

Discs that have the "CD" prefix can store around 700 MB of data, while DVDs can keep around 4.7 GB (nearly seven times as much). Blu-ray discs hold 25 GB per layer, dual layer BD discs can store 50 GB, and triple and quadruple layers in the BDXL format can store 100 GB and 128 GB, respectively.

Be sure to reference your optical drive's manual before purchasing media for your drive to avoid incompatibility issues.

More Information on the Optical Disc Drive

Some desktop and portable video game consoles use optical disc drives too and work in the same way as one attached to a PC.

Here are some resources here on my site that have to do with disc drives:

How to Use a Computer Without an Optical Disc Drive

Some computers no longer come with a built-in disc drive, which is an issue if you have a disc you want to read or write to. Luckily, there are some workarounds for you...

The first solution might be to use another computer that does have an optical disc drive. You can copy the files from the disc to a flash drive, and then copy the files off the flash drive onto the computer that needs them.

DVD ripping software is useful if you need to backup your DVDs to your computer. Unfortunately, this type of setup isn't ideal for long-term, and you may not even have access to another computer that has a disc drive.

If the files on the disc exist online as well, like printer drivers, for example, you can almost always just download the same software from the manufacturer's website or another driver download website.

The digital software you purchase nowadays is downloaded directly from software distributors anyway, so purchasing software like MS Office or Adobe Photoshop can be done entirely without using an ODD. Steam is a popular way to download PC video games. Any of these methods will let you download and install the software without needing a disc drive even once.

Note: Some software may not install correctly unless the files exist on a disc drive. If you've downloaded an application or ripped a disc to your computer, there are free tools available that can use those files in a virtual disc environment to simulate a physical disc drive. You can read more about this in my discussion of the ISO format.

Some people like to use discs as a way to back up their files, but you can still store copies of your data even without an optical disc drive. Online backup services provide a way to backup your files online, and offline backup tools can be used to save your files to a flash drive, another computer on your network, or an external hard drive.

Some tutorials and software reviews here on my site talk about writing/burning a program to a disc so that you can use it from outside of the operating system (like for testing system memory or removing malware).

If you don't have a disc drive, you can usually burn the same software to a flash drive. This process is explained here.

If you decide you do need an optical disc drive but you want to go the easy route and avoid opening your computer to install it, you can just purchase an external disc drive (see some on Amazon) that works in most of the same ways as a regular internal one but plugs into the computer on the outside via USB.

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