Do You Need an Optical Disk Drive?

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 LGASUS, Memorex, 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

Picture of an Asus 24x DVD-RW Serial-ATA Internal OEM Optical Drive DRW-24B1ST
An optical drive that's meant to be installed inside the computer. Asus

An optical drive is a piece of computer hardware about the size of a thick softcover book. The front 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 have pre-drilled, threaded holes for easy mounting in the 5.25-inch drive bay in the computer case. The optical drive is mounted to the end with the connections facing inside the computer and the end with the drive bay facing 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 the manufacturer for details if you're not sure what to do while installing the optical disc drive.

Alternatively, an external optical drive may be a self-contained unit that connects to a computer via a USB cable.

Optical Disc Drive Media Formats

Most optical drives can play and/or record numerous disc formats. Popular ones 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.

Recordable and Rewritable Discs

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.

CD and Blu-Ray Discs

Discs that have the "CD" prefix can store around 700 MB of data, while standard 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.

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. Fortunately, 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 back up your DVDs to your computer. Unfortunately, this type of setup isn't ideal for the 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 requiring a disc drive even once.

Backing Up Files Without an Optical Disc Drive

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 store files online, and offline backup tools can be used to save your data to a flash drive, another computer on your network, or an external hard drive.

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 one (see some external disc drives 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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