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What is an Optical Drive? Our Introduction to Data Storage Technology

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What is an optical drive?

An optical drive is a computer accessory that allows you to read to and write from optical discs using a laser or visible light.

The most common optical media are Compact Discs (CDs), Digital Video Discs or Digital Versatile Discs (DVDs), and Blu-ray Discs (BDs).

An optical drive could be a CD drive, DVD drive, or a BD drive. Some common uses of optical drives are watching movies on a DVD, listening to music on CDs, installing software, playing games, and backing up data.

Note that a CD drive can only access CDs, a DVD drive can access CDs and DVDs, while a BD drive can access CDs, DVDs, and BDs. But all these drives are collectively referred to as optical drives.

What are some advantages of optical drives?

An advantage of optical media is their substantial storage size, compared to the floppy disks that were popular earlier. A floppy disk used a floppy disk drive and could store only 1.44 MB of data. In comparison, a CD can store 700 MB, a DVD up to 8.4 GB, and a BD up to 50 GB of data.

Optical media are more durable and last up to seven times as long as floppy disks. They are inexpensive to manufacture and are unaffected by magnetic or electrical disturbances. Because they are small and light, they are easy to store and transport. Optical media access data randomly, not sequentially, so data retrieval is fast.

This makes optical discs well-suited for storing home movies, videos, and photos.

How do optical drives work?

In all three disc formats, data is encoded in flat areas and hollows and stored in spiral tracks on circular disks. The flat areas are known as lands and represent “1”, and the hollows are called pits and represent “0”. A low-power blue-violet laser beam reads the pits. The laser is reflected back with different intensities and is converted by a photodiode sensor to electric 0’s and 1’s.

Optical drives are named so because they use light, in the form of lasers, to access the data on the discs.

What are the different types of optical drives?

Optical disks, and drives, may be:

  • R (Recordable) or WORM (Write Once, Read Many) – can be written once
  • RW (Rewriteable) – can be re-recorded several times

Drives that can write to discs are also referred to as writers or burners.

Also, based on the disc loading mechanism used, drives may be:

  • Tray Load Drive: The disc is placed in a tray that moves in and out of the computer
  • Slot Load Drive: The disc is inserted into a slot. Rollers inside the drive move the disc in and out.

Both laptop and desktop computers can have optical drives. Lenovo offers a range of laptops and desktops with built-in optical drives.

What is an optical drive on a laptop?

Optical drives in a laptop tend to be slot-loaded, as they are available in a smaller form factor. Their form-factor is known as slim type and is about 1 centimetre tall.

You may have an extensive collection of CDs, DVDs, and BDs, and sometimes, you feel the urge to listen to the music or watch the movies stored on them. It is really convenient to pop them into the optical drive of your laptop and enjoy them. You can do this at home, on the move on flights or on trains, and in the office. No more fumbling around searching the Net for something you like and then being subjected to the vagaries of your Internet connection.

You may have a collection of vintage games on CDs. You can play them on your laptop.

Another use of CDs in laptops is for system recovery. Create a system recovery disc and keep it handy. If the OS (Operating System) on your office laptop crashes, you can simply pop the recovery CD in and get going again.

Optical drive laptops cost only a fraction more than equivalent systems without an optical drive.

What is an optical drive for a desktop or PC?

An optical drive for a PC comes in a half-height, or desktop drive, form factor. They are about 4 centimetres tall. The half-height drives consume more power than the slim types but operate at higher speeds.

The form factor of a desktop allows for dual optical drives. Having dual drives is often very convenient. You can play a disc in one drive, at the same time copying another disc from the second drive. Both drives can also copy discs simultaneously to or from the hard disk, saving time.

Optical drives are handy for sharing large amounts of data in an office environment. If you have generated a large amount of data on your desktop, like 40 GB, and want to share it with your colleagues, it would take a good deal of time to upload to cloud storage and then download from there. Popping in a disc, copying your data to it, and handing over the disk to your colleague would be much quicker and a lot more convenient.

Desktop computers usually have tray-loading drives, as space is not an issue.

Optical drive desktops with a built-in optical drive are priced very similarly to desktops that do not have an optical drive.

External Optical Drive

As you have seen, optical drives are very convenient. What if you already have a computer that does not have an optical drive? Or if your computer already has an optical drive, but it is rather old?

It is a simple matter to buy and install an external optical drive because they are affordable and plug-and-play. External drives are also called portable drives. Optical drives are available for as low as $15, and you can get drives made by well-known brands for around $50 or less. Most optical drives connect through the USB port, so the installation process is a breeze.

If you have a desktop that does not have an optical drive, check if it has room for an internal drive. If it does, fitting an internal drive is preferable to an external, portable drive, as it will be cheaper and faster. And if your desktop already has an old internal optical drive, it is a piece of cake to upgrade it with a newer model.

On the other hand, an external drive is shareable, and you can also use it with a laptop.

What should you look for in an external optical drive?

Here are some things you should look for when buying an external drive:

  • The drives should have both Read and Write capability
  • The speed at which the drive moves data between the disc and the hard drive-the faster the better
  • The price should be affordable
  • The drive should be as quiet as possible
  • It should use standard, detachable cables so that you can independently replace them if needed
  • The drive should be plug-and-play and not require any special drivers
  • The drive should be of robust construction and reasonably sturdy

Another point to keep in mind when buying an external drive is the different media types it can play. Most drives can play CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs, but some older models may not support Blu-rays.

Alternatives to carrying an optical drive around

If you don’t want to carry the portable drive around, you have a couple of options. You can transfer your disc content (a game, for instance) to your hard disk and use third-party software to create an ISO file. You can play the ISO file from your hard drive the same way you would play the game on a CD or DVD.

You can also rip music or video content from your discs to your hard disk to enjoy at your leisure. Of course, you need to be aware of possible copyright restrictions.

External optical drives from Lenovo

Lenovo offers a wide selection of external optical drives. These sport a USB connector, are ReWriteable, and are compatible with desktops, laptops, Windows, Linux, and Mac. They are sleek and come in attractive form factors. All are ultra-slim, lightweight, and are accompanied by a warranty. Prices start at about $20.

All-in-one computers

All in one desktop computers integrate all of the parts of a PC into one unit, except the keyboard and mouse. They are typically very sleek and attractive to look at and occupy very little space. Many models of all-in-one computers come bundled with built-in optical drives. If not, most models have a provision for adding an internal optical drive for a small additional cost. Of course, an external drive can always be connected to the available USB ports.

In Closing

We have seen that optical drives are affordable and useful. If you are planning a new desktop or laptop purchase, consider buying a model that has an optical drive built into it. Lenovo has a selection of laptops and desktops with optical drives at affordable prices. Check them out at:

https://www.lenovo.com/us/en/desktops/results?visibleDatas=860%3AOptical%20Drive
https://www.lenovo.com/us/en/dc/accessories-and-software/memory-and-storage?visibleDatas=706%3ADVD%20Players

And, if you already have a computer without an optical drive, you could consider adding an internal optical drive (in the case of a desktop), or a portable optical drive.

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