Laptop Optical Drive – Should You Have One?

Laptop Optical Drive
Buyer Guides

Whether you call it the DVD burner/CD writer/DVD drive, they all refer to a desktop’s or laptop optical drive.

This device basically works like this – you insert a CD in the drive – a motor rapidly rotates the CD and a laser attached to the servo reads the data off the disc.

Because of the movements within a drive, it can be pretty loud when called into action. Plus, it also draws a lot of power. This is why it is best not to use the drive when you are running your notebook off the battery – unless it is necessary.

Like a hard drive, an optical drive has memory but a much smaller amount.

The conventional DVD drive has a modular design – the ones with pop-out trays. But in recent times, we are seeing a greater number of notebooks with slot-loading drives such as those in Apple and some Dell laptops.

Breaking Down A Disc

For you to understand the workings of a laptop optical drive, you need to be aware of how an optical disc works. Fundamentally, a CD is comprised of 3 layers.

The large plastic part of the CD is on the bottom; in the middle there is a a reflective surface and then on top is where the art or label is located. It is the top part that provides protection of the data.

The data is housed within microscopic pits in a CD’s reflective surface – the middle. This is why scratching the disc may not be entirely disastrous. However, you still want to handle a CD with care because too many scratches can render a CD unplayable.

The laser within your laptop optical drive is calibrated very precisely and so scratches can block the beam and make the data difficult to read.

The sensitivity of the middle layer of a CD is another reason you must be when careful handling a CD. You wouldn’t want to use a felt tip pen or marker when writing the label on a disc. The label layer purpose is to protect reflective middle layer which is where the data is housed.

What Type Of Laptop Optical Drive Is Suitable?

From the top end to the bottom end, your media choices are Blu-ray, DVD, and CD. the first two are backward-compatible, which means that a higher format can play a lower format. So for example, Blu-ray can play itself and the other two but CD cannot play Blu-ray or DVD.

CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays are all fundamentally just different ways to calibrate the same core technology in order to stuff more capacity onto a disc. Every new laptop optical drive has at least a DVD-ROM drive, if not a DVD burner.

DVD ROM (Digital Versatile Disc) has a maximum capacity of 8.54GB in dual layer while a single layer DVD can hold 4.7GB. You can’t watch Blu-ray with this drive or write DVDs.

The laser used to read DVDs is somewhat fine which results in great capacity. This makes DVDs great for video and data backup tasks.

This, if you are going to be backing up a lot of files, go for a laptop with a DVD burner (DVD±RW drive) instead. They are common enough that you should have little difficulty finding a laptop with one at a very reason price.

By the way, the terms DVD+RW, DVD-RW, DVD±RW, or DVD±RW DL mean that the DVD Drive is writeable so you can burn data, music, and pictures to DVDs.

Just to give you an idea of storage capacity – a single DVD can store around 6 times as much data as “grandpa” CD. For backing up data, we suggest you use an external drive. It is a lot better than having to stack boxes full of DVDs.

If you love watching Blu-ray movies on a notebook, you’ll want to upgrade to a Blu-ray drive. Otherwise, it should be ok to just stick with a DVD burner.

If you have a large collection of Blu-ray discs, you want to be able to watch them on your computer whenever you please. Therefore, go for a notebook that has at least

DVD±RW with Blu-ray: This drive won’t allow you to burn Blu-ray discs you’ll be able to burn DVDs and CDs.

If your notebook comes with an HDMI port, you will be able able to connect it to a HDTV and use your notebook instead of a standalone Blu-ray player. Honestly, you can hardly tell the difference between DVD and Blu-ray films on your notebook screen.

For burning huge amounts of info to discs, go with a BD-R or BD-RE, a Blu-ray writer. BD-R writers are only able to write to discs one time. BD-RE units support rewriteable Blu-ray discs.

If you go this route – be prepared – Blu-ray burners are very costly as so are blank single write or rewriteable Blu-ray discs. However, for creating you own Blu-ray home movie library, you are gonna need a Blu-ray burner.

Laptop Optical Drives – Sub Types

Laptop Optical Drives - Sub Types

Okay, now that you know the types, let us take a look at the the sub types. You can recognize sub types by the suffixes that are attached to the disc types.

Just so you know, while Blu-ray films are typically referred to as “Blu-ray,” in computer speak, Blu-ray discs are called “BD.”

“ROM” means “Read Only Memory.” As the name suggests, the disc can only be read, not written to.

“R” means “Recordable.” Such a disc can only be written to once.

“RW” means “Re-writeable.” This means that a disc can be written to, erased and written to again. Blu-ray discs however use the notation “RE” as opposed to”RW”

“RAM” stands for “Random Access Memory” and applies only to DVDs. DVD-RAM discs are essentially designed to be used in a similar way to floppy discs. DVD-RAM are heavily used in camcorders that write directly to these discs.

The drawbacks are that these discs are costly, typically have lower write speeds than their “RW” relatives and are not as compatible as other other formats.

“DL” means “Dual Layer” and applies to DVDs

“DVD+R” or “DVD+RW” applies to to DVDs. All current DVD writers can write to each other one and the majority of these drives can also read each one fine.

“+” type discs are typically quicker and somewhat less expensive. On the other hand, “-” type discs have on big plus – they have far reaching comparability.

Typically, you won’t go wrong with having DVD+R discs as they work well in most drives that can read DVD. But if there are instances where they don’t work, DVD-R virtually always work.

Laptop Optical Drive and Disc Speeds

Disc Speeds

You don’t need to be too concerned about reading speeds for laptop optical drives. Read speeds for any given drive is typically “quick enough”. You can expect that a drive will read faster than it burns.

When doing an evaluation of drive speed, the only number you need pay attention to (which is often times the only number listed) regards the quickness of the drive for the most advanced function. Therefore if you are checking out DVD burners, pay attention to the speed for DVD burning – not the speed for playback or burning CDs.

Speed ratings for laptop optical drives are measured in multiples. Original CD drives could read data at 150 kilobytes per second (or 1X). Therefore if you see a CD drive with a 52X read speed it can read data at (52*150 kilobytes/second)

When DVD drives first came on the scene, their reading rate was 9 times that of a CD. You’ll notice that newer DVD drives have a 16X read speed which is equivalent to a 144X CD. Newer DVD drives have a 16X read speed – about the same as a 144X CD drive.

Having a laptop optical drive that is not fast enough may affect DVD Video playback or the performance of a game. Having a speedy drive should improve the performance of playback and games.

The read speeds of Blu-ray drives far exceed the read speeds of CD or DVD drives. For instance, Blu-ray drives are known to transfer data at increment of 4.5 megabytes (MB) /sec (and “X”). Therefore the 8x Blu-ray is twice as fast as the current 16X DVD drive.

The minimum speed for for a Blu-ray drive intended for commercial movie playback is 2X.

Where write speeds are concerned, you need to pay more attention. The “X” speeds are the same as with reading – however, you are given an option as to how fast you want the “writing” to be done.

The key is that writeable or re-writeable optical discs offer a safe range of speeds where you can reliably write to them. However, there are some laptop optical drives that are designed for “high speed.”

A CD-RW or DVD-RW drive typically has two write speeds. The first is the CD-R write speed or the DVD-R write speed.

The second is the CD-RW or DVD-RW write speed. So a combined CD-RW and DVD-RW drive described as “16x6x16x DVD-RW / 48x32x48x CD-RW” would have the following speeds:

DVD-R write speed 16XDVD-RW write speed 6XDVD read speed 16XCD-R write speed 48XCD-RW write speed 32XCD read speed 48X

Note that the last “X” value denotes the read speed.

A complexity of the CD-RW has to do with the fact that discs come in various speeds. Discs of lower speeds can only be recorded at low speeds.

And high speed discs can only be recorded at high speeds. However, high speed drives are backward compatible in that they can write low speed discs.

If your intention is to write a lot of CDs or DVDs, getting a drive with a higher write speed would be a great timesaver.

It also is worth mentioning that re-writeable discs are typically much slower than regular writeable media.

Laptop Optical Drive – Regional Coding

We would be doing you a disservice if we didn’t mention this – but to comply with DVD digital rights management, optical drives are coded to a specific region. These codes affect Blu-ray, DVD and HD-DVD movies.

The most restrictive codes of the bunch affect DVDs. They have six regional lockout codes – the most preferable code being region 0. Region 0 disks can be played anywhere, worldwide.

The other codes are:

Region 1 USA and Canada

Region 2 Western Europe

Region 3 (Southeast Asia and Japan)

Region 4 Caribbean, Central America, South America, Caribbean, New Zealand, Australia, Papua New Guinea and much of Oceania, region

Region 5 – Africa (except Egypt, South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Afghanistan, Belarus, Central and South Asia, DPRK, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Ukraine and Russia,

Region 6 – People’s Republic of China

Blu-ray is much less restrictive, having only three regional lockout codes: “A” affects the Americas, India, Japan and Southeast Asia; “B” affects Australia and Europe and C covers China and Russia.

HD-DVD had no restrictions in this manner, so it didn’t take off.

Do You Need An Optical Drive?

There are a lot of people who feel that optical drives on laptops are redundant and financially and physically burdensome. They argue that the space optical drives use up could be better utilized for other components such as additional hard drives, cooling fans, graphic chips and bigger batteries.

Take the Acer Travelmate 8481T-6440 as an example of what can be achieved without the optical drive. The extra space created has allowed this laptop to accommodate a larger battery, which has resulted in greater battery life – 11 hours.

Even if a laptop does not have a DVD burner and offers no additional components – the weight saved is nothing to scoff at.

But perhaps you thinking, “wait a minute” – I need a laptop optical drive to watch and burn DVDs, install software and run emergency discs. If this were 2004, we would agree with you. But things have changed since then.

You can download and install just about any app or utility you need from the web. And in some cases you don’t have to download as some productivity software are web based. There are just so many avenues today for consumers to acquire what they need on the web.

You can get music and movies at Amazon and iTunes and store your purchases in the cloud or on your hard drive. You can buy, play and store games on Battle.net.

And videos can be put on a laptop from digital camera memory cards and uploaded to Youtube rather than being burned to CDs.

We suppose a laptop optical drive could come in handy on a long boring trip. You could carry your DVDs with you and watch them to pass the time. Just remember that when the laptop optical drive is in use, it sucks power like crazy.

The better solution is to store films on a couple of flash drives. In this case, you won’t need to engage the optical drive to play films because no moving parts are used. Consequently, use of battery power is minimized.

For the downloading of games, Origin, Gog and Steam covers this pretty well. OnLive allow you to stream games straight to your computer.

For the streaming of content, Hulu Netflix, Hulu and Slacker Radio is your ticket. Just make sure storage space on your hard drive is sufficient and that you have enough memory, a decent processor and a fast internet connection.

You could even use a software like Handbrake to “rip” and encode videos for iPad, iPod and Zune etc and save them on an external drive.

Let’s Talk Money

For argument sake, let say an inexpensive DVD Burner costs $30 and a Blu-ray player costs $80 for a laptop manufacturer to buy and install in a notebook that you are about to own. Let us also assume that over your lifetime, you will buy 5 notebooks.

This means that for those 5 notebooks, you would have spent $150-$400 for an optical drive you hardly use. In the alternative, you could buy an external DVD drive for $30 or buy an external Blu-ray drive for $80. Either of these devices could be used during the entire time you would have owned those 5 notebooks.

Laptop Optical Drive – Distinct Trends

Currently, we are seeing two distinct trends in the laptop optical drive marketplace. DVD burners are more or less standard and Blu-ray players are increasing in popularity. But we are also seeing more laptops being sold without a built-in optical drives.

Prior to buying a laptop, you’ll need to do a self-assessment regarding your needs for an laptop optical drive. If you tend to download software a lot or backup to an external hard drive and do not watch films on your laptop, you probably could do without a laptop optical drive.

However, if you envisage frequently burning disks and watch movies etc, then think about the type of disk would you want to play or read and getting a notebook optical drive.

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