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Laptop Optical Drives: Component Guide

From read and write speeds to the multitude of available formats, here’s what you need to know.

by Dana Wollman on September 4, 2009

pp_opticalAn optical drive allows you to play back media from—and burn data to—CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs. Traditionally, optical drives have been modular in design, but lately we’ve seen more notebooks with slot-loading drives, which forgo a pop-out tray for an eject button on the keyboard (you’ll find this on all Apple notebooks and the Dell XPS series, among others).

Do You Need an Optical Drive?

We’re seeing two divergent trends in optical drives: DVD burners are standard, and Blu-ray players are becoming more common. On the other hand, we’re also seeing more notebooks without integrated optical drives.

Before you feel short-changed, ask yourself if you really need one. Nowadays, people mainly use optical drives to watch movies, burn backup discs, and install software. If you tend to download software, back up to an external hard drive, and don’t watch movies on your laptop, then going without could mean enjoying a lighter notebook. However, if you currently use an optical drive to do any of these three things, we don’t suggest giving it up now: check out our guide below.

When configuring your notebook, you won’t have a choice as to whether the optical drive is slot-loading or modular, but you will have to decide two things: First, what kind of discs do you want to be able to be able to play back or read? Secondly, will you want to burn anything to these disc? And if so, how much space do you need?

From highest- to lowest-end, your media choices are Blu-ray, DVD, and CD. Each one of these is backward-compatible with whatever formats preceded it. So, Blu-ray drives can read and play back all three types; DVD drives read DVDs and CDs; and CD drives only read CDs.

Since every new notebook that comes with an optical drive has at least a DVD-ROM drive (if not a DVD burner), we’ll skip the CD category and just break down the differences between DVD and Blu-ray drives.

Which Optical Drive is Right for You?

DVD-ROM: With a DVD read drive you can watch DVD movies, as well as view and transfer information stored on data discs. Almost all new notebooks come standard with a DVD player. Without a DVD drive, you’re limited to watching movies digitally. However, DVD-ROMs cannot write DVDs or play back Blu-ray movies.

If you imagine backing up documents, music, or photos to a disc, opt for a notebook with a DVD burner (DVD±RW drive) instead; they’re standard enough that you shouldn’t have any problem finding one at a low price. However, if you only back up to USB devices, you can live with a DVD-ROM.

DVD+RW, DVD-RW, DVD±RW, or DVD±RW DL: With a writeable DVD drive you can also burn data, music, and photos to DVDs, which hold 4.3GB on a single disc (7.2GB for dual layer discs, a feature indicated by "DL"). A single DVD can store six times as much data as a CD, and certain tasks, such as backing up purchased music, are best done through DVD burning. However, these days most backups can be done using an external storage device, which is more space-efficient than a stack of DVDs.

If you own Blu-ray movies and you’d like to watch them on your notebook, you’ll want to step up to a Blu-ray drive. Otherwise, a DVD burner should be fine.

DVD±RW with Blu-ray: TIf you already have a collection of Blu-ray discs and want the freedom to watch them on your computer, opt for one of these drives drive (also called DVD±RW with Blu-ray), which play back (but doesn’t burn) Blu-ray discs. You’ll also be able to burn DVDs and CDs. If your notebook has an HDMI port, you can hook it up to an HDTV and use your laptop in lieu of a standalone Blu-ray player. That said, you won’t notice much of a difference between DVD and Blu-ray movies on a notebook screen.

BD-R and BD-RE: If you want to burn large quantities of information to disc, choose a Blu-ray writer. BD-R writers can only write to discs once, while BD-RE units support rewriteable Blu-ray discs. The only problem is that Blu-ray burners are extremely expensive, as are blank Blu-ray discs, whether rewriteable or single write. However, if you want to create your own Blu-ray home movies, you’ll need a Blu-ray burner.

Optical Drive Speeds

You’ll notice that each of the optical drives’ functions has its own speed. This is because a drive will always read data much faster than it burns it. When evaluating speed, the most important number -- and often the only one listed -- is the speed for the drive’s most advanced function. So, if you’re looking at DVD burners, check out the speed for burning DVDs, not playing back media or burning CDs.

Although 6X DVD write speeds are acceptable, 8X is faster and fairly standard. Although the first 8X Blu-ray burners shipped this year, 2X, 4X, and 6X are still more common. Unless you plan to start your own movie studio where you mass produce discs, you should be fine with any current DVD writing speed.

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