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Optical Drives & Media: Everything You Need to Know

Optical drives are an essential piece of computing hardware. They let you play CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays on your PC or laptop, as well as install critical disc-based software and drivers. Some optical drivers also give you the creative power to burn your own music albums and create your own family movies. If your computer doesn’t have an optical drive, or you need to replace a broken one, read on to learn more.

How Optical Disc Drives Work

Optical drives use lasers and lenses to read and write data to and from optical discs, such as CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays. Each type of disc requires a different type of laser, or electromagnetic wavelength. CDs and DVDs share a very similar wavelength, so they can share the same lens. Blu-ray discs, on the other hand, use a very different wavelength, and require a specific lens. Most Blu-ray optical drives include two separate lenses — one for Blu-rays, and another for CDs/DVDs.

Advantages of Optical Media

The biggest benefit of optical discs is their massive storage capacities. DVDs offer around 4GB of storage per disc and dual-layer DVDs offer around 8GB of storage per disc. Blu-rays offer an average of 25GB of storage per disc and dual-layer Blu-rays offer around 50GB of storage per disc. Discs are also lightweight, easy to store, making them ideal for backing up files or sharing large amounts of data. 

Types of Optical Disc Drives

Today’s computers are thinner, smaller, and lighter than ever. One of the main reasons why is because more and more PCs and laptops don’t include a built-in optical drive. Luckily, with an external optical drive, you can add this functionality to your computer in no time. Most external drives connect via USB for simple plug-and-play setup. This is especially helpful since you might only need to use an optical drive every now and then. 

If your computer previously had a built-in optical drive that needs to be replaced or upgraded, you can opt for an internal optical drive. These drives are installed directly into your computer tower or laptop, and will require a little bit of technical know-how when installing.

Types of Optical Drive Formats  

There are three main types of optical discs formats available: CD, DVD, and Blu-ray. Not all optical drives support all three formats, so when you’re searching for a new drive, make sure you get one that supports the media formats you need. Typically, a Blu-ray drive will also support all three.

Beyond these three formats, different drives support different read-write functions. For instance, a DVD-R optical drive can record data to DVD discs, whereas a DVD-RW drive can rewrite data to DVD discs, meaning it can record over the same disc again and again.

These same designations apply for CD, DVD, and Blu-ray discs. CD-R, DVD-R, and BD-R (Blu-ray) optical drives can record data to those disc types. CD-RW and DVD-RW optical drives can rewrite data to those disc types. Rewriteable Blu-ray drives, meanwhile, have a slightly different designation: BD-RE.