Choosing the best optical drives – DVD, CD writers and Blu-ray: Buyer’s Guide review

DVD writers and CD Drives and DVD drives
Photo of Choosing the best optical drives – DVD, CD writers and Blu-ray: Buyer’s Guide

While some of the latest ultra-portable laptops dispense with any optical drive, a device that can read – and in may case, write – to optical discs including CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-RW and Blu-ray is still a useful component, enabling users to rent the latest movie releases, as well as providing an easy way to install new software from disc.But choosing one isn’t always straigthforward. Luckily, you have IT Reviews here to guide you through.

In addition to those who don’t have any kind of optical drive with their PC, users with a slightly outdated machine may find they have difficulty installing the very latest software. Just as publishers moved from CD to DVD to supply their products a few years ago, a trend is now starting – slowly – to see software released on new Blu-ray discs that hold even more data.  And even if you don’t need a new Blu-ray drive for software installation, the ability to watch your favourite films in high definition is not to be sniffed at.

There’s good news and bad news when it comes to installing an optical drive: if you’re a laptop user, you’re almost certainly going to be limited to using an external drive, but desktop users will have the choice of an internal unit if they want to save space.  As with buying hard drives, it’s important to be aware of what connectivity you have on your system before you go shopping – unless you want to end up with a drive that doesn’t fit.

Internal drives
One thing you won’t have to worry about when it comes to fitting an internal optical drives is its physical dimensions. Known as ‘half-height’ drives, all internal optical drives fit into the same industry standard 5.25in-wide drive bay. Instead, what you will need to figure out is what kind of connector you need to plug the drive in to your system. If you’re upgrading an existing drive, this is easy: take a look at the back of the drive. If there’s a wide ribbon-type cable plugged in to it, then you’ll need an IDE – sometimes known as a PATA – optical drive. If, instead, there’s a thinner cable, you’ll need a SATA drive.

IDE and SATA optical drive connections
IDE/PATA cable and drive connections (top), and SATA cable and connections (bottom).

Of the two standards, IDE is the older. It serves its purpose, but has some drawbacks – not least of which is speed – and you may struggle to find the latest Blu-ray drives in an IDE format. If that’s the case, don’t fret: you may find that your system’s motherboard has one or more free SATA ports available, into which you can plug a new SATA drive. If not, an add-in card can be purchased relatively cheaply that will add two more SATA ports to your system.

SATA, a newer standard, is significantly faster than IDE, but that doesn’t always translate into higher performance. Unlike hard drives, optical drives are limited more by the speed at which the disc itself spins in the drive, rather than the connecting circuitry. If you’re using an IDE drive now, don’t think that you have to upgrade to SATA – and if you do, don’t expect to see a sudden increase in performance as a result.

External drives
If you have a laptop, the chances are good that you’re stuck with the optical drive with which it came. Many laptop optical drives are customised to the case in which they’re installed, so in most cases any replacement will need to come from the manufacturer – and usually has a hefty price tag attached.

Plextor - PX-L611U
An external USB-attached DVD writer is handy for writing music or data discs or watching DVDs.

Thankfully, external drives have increased in performance and quality in recent years. While it’s another item to carry around with you, an external drive is likely to be your only choice if you’re upgrading an older laptop on the cheap.

Most external optical drives use USB 2.0, the second-generation version of the Universal Serial Bus standard. This allows for reasonably fast read speeds, and in most cases carries enough power – if you use the supplied double-ended cable – to run the drive without the need to plug it into the mains. While being ‘bus-powered’, as this feature is known, is not a requirement for desktop users, it’s a handy attribute in a drive that you’ll use with a laptop – and certainly worth paying the few pounds extra it might cost.

Some newer drives use the USB 3.0 standard, the latest version of USB, which is even faster and approaches the speed of modern internal connectivity standards such as SATA. These are still relatively rare, but if you’re looking to splash out it’s a good option: because it’s backwards-compatible with USB 2.0, a USB 3.0 optical drive will work on almost any existing system at a reduced speed, and reveal its hidden potential as and when you upgrade.

Those looking to add an optical drive to an Apple Mac computer might want to look into FireWire. Although not as popular as USB, FireWire offers impressive transfer speeds and drives equipped with the right port can be had fairly cheaply.The most common versions of FireWire available are the original FireWire 400, with a theoretical maximum throughput of just under 400Mbit/s – slightly less than the theoretical top speed of USB 2.0 – and the newer FireWire 800, with a maximum speed of nearly 800Mbit/s.

If you’re looking for a device you can use on multiple systems, however, FireWire isn’t really the best choice: PCs rarely include FireWire ports as standard, and Apple has recently dropped them in favour of the new Thunderbolt port on its latest models.

Compatibility and features
If you’re looking to add the facility to write CDs and DVDs to your system, there’s some very good news: the cost of a DVD writer has come down so much that it’s now almost impossible to find a read-only drive. The once-confusing rivalry between the DVD+R and DVD-R formats has also gone away, replaced with multi-format drives that are capable of reading from and writing to both.

As with hard drives, a key feature to look at when buying an optical drive – especially if you’re going to be using it to write, as well as read, discs – is the drive’s built-in cache. As well as improving its performance, the more cache a drive has the less likely it is to burn bad discs if your system is under heavy load. If your computer’s processor is over-worked, it may not be able to supply data to the drive as quickly as it’s required. The larger its cache, the better a drive is at smoothing out these fluctuations in data flow. Although most drives feature technologies designed to improve these ‘buffer under-runs’ caused by limited cache, it’s still better to aim for a unit with more cache in the first place.

Disc formats supported
A modern internal DVD writer, with support for CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM, shouldn’t cost more than £30. If you want advanced features such as LiteScribe, a technology that allows you to flip the disc and burn a label onto the top, you may end up paying slightly more. If you want a more stylish drive – such as a silver one to match a metallic case, or one with a slot-loading mechanism rather than a tray – you can expect to pay a little more, but not much.

If you’re looking beyond DVDs as a technology and want the latest and greatest, then you’ll want a Blu-ray drive. Unlike DVD writers, the cost of a Blu-ray writer is still prohibitively expensive – so the chances are you’ll end up with a read-only drive. The good news is that even read-only Blu-ray drives are typically capable of writing to both DVDs and CDs, while adding the facility to play back high-definition films – even, if your graphics card supports it, 3D films.

Blu-ray writers can be had if you’re willing to spend the cash, but beware the running costs: currently, blank Blu-ray discs are extremely expensive, and while the cost will drop as production methods improve, they’re likely to stay at a level higher than that of DVDs for quite some time to come.