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What is an Optical Drive & What Does an Optical Drive Do?

Do you need an optical drive? Are you unsure of what an optical drive is? In this post, we cover what an optical drive is, what it does, and whether or not you need one.

What is an Optical Drive
For many years, you could find an optical drive in almost every computer. Slowly, the situation has shifted, and now, fewer and fewer devices, in general, come with an optical drive (or ODD).

So, why did this happen, and is an optical drive still worth using? To answer those two questions, we must first ask another: what is an optical drive?

By the time you finish reading this guide, you will know what an ODD is, why they are becoming obsolete, and whether or not you should still own one.

What Is An Optical Drive?

An optical drive is a device that reads and/or writes data onto a disc.

To read/write data onto a disc, an ODD uses a laser diode to receive and send electromagnetic waves. Receiving these waves allows your computer to access what’s on the disc. Sending these waves enables the computer to write files onto the disc.

You can use an optical drive to watch DVD movies, listen to music from your CD collection, install software (like Windows), and back up important files to a CD, to name a few.

What Types Of Optical Drives Are Available?

Right now, there are several types of optical drives available. Each one of these optical drives performs a similar set of functions. The way they perform these functions tends to vary. Before we dive into those functions, there are two types of optical drives to be aware of.

Internal Optical Drive
An internal optical drive is operates from within your system. It is built into your laptop, or it is installed inside of your computer’s case.

The two types are internal ODDs and external ODDs. Just as the name suggests, an internal optical drive is built into your computer, while an external optical drive is not and must be connected using an external cable.

External Optical Drive
An external optical drive operates outside of your system and connectes to it with a cable (typically USB.) This allows you to use it on multiple devices.

Even though there are some differences, internal and external optical drives essentially do the same thing. Some optical drives can read discs. Some optical drives can not only read discs, but can also write onto discs.

If you own a read-only ODD, you can access the files stored on a DVD, for example, but you can’t write data onto a DVD.

If you own a read-and-write optical drive, you can access the files stored on that same DVD, while also being able to write data onto a blank DVD.

Every ODD is compatible with a particular set of disc formats. For the most part, every optical drive available today is compatible with CDs and DVDs.

If you own music CDs and DVD movies, you can use a standard optical drive to play those. Some ODDs can read-and-write CDs and DVDs, as well as Blu-Rays. Since Blu-Ray is a data-dense format that requires more elaborate technology, optical drives that support the Blu-Ray format cost more than standard optical drives.

What Can You Do With An Optical Drive?

A standard optical drive gives you access to numerous possibilities.

You can watch movies. You can listen to music. You can access the files on a burned CD or DVD. You can copy the contents of those discs onto your computer. You can back up important files to a CD or DVD. You can access those files years later.

An optical drive that supports Blu-ray discs gives you access to each one of those possibilities, as well as a few more. You can watch Blu-Ray movies. You can back up large files onto Blu-Ray discs. And, you can transfer files from those discs onto your computer.

Why Are ODDs Becoming Obsolete?

For quite some time, optical drives were considered a necessity. Just about every laptop and pre-built PC came with one.

Throughout the last ten years, though, things have shifted quite a bit. Fewer people purchase ODDs for their desktop PC builds, and fewer laptops come with a built-in optical drive.

Some game consoles, such as the Xbox Series S and PS5 Digital Edition, no longer come with optical drives.

So, why is this?

The answer can be traced back to three factors:

Since internet speeds are faster, many have turned to digital services for movies, television, music, and video games. Since storage space is inexpensive, storing large media files on a hard drive is much easier than it used to be. And, since ODDs are large and are less popular, many laptop and computer manufacturers choose to save some money by not including them in their systems.

Or, in other words, everything that an optical drive does can now be done just as easily with an internet connection.

Why Should You Still Use An Optical Drive?

To answer this question, let’s return to our first question: what is an optical drive? It is a piece of computer hardware that can read and/or write various disc formats.

So, if you own CDs and DVDs, you can use an ODD to access the contents of those discs.

By doing so, you can watch DVD movies and shows, listen to your favorite music, install old video games, install hardware drivers using the often-included driver disc, and install Windows directly from the DVD.

Those are just some of the possibilities that an optical drive, and the formats that particular optical drive supports, allow for.

Since CDs and DVDs are a reliable storage format, you can use your ODD to create physical back-ups of your most important files.

Beyond those particular reasons, a standard optical drive tends to be very inexpensive. In fact, you can pick up an external or internal optical drive for ~$20.

So, even though optical drives are somewhat dated, they still offer a ton of value and are well-worth owning and using if you like what they offer.

Max Akin

Hey there, my name’s Max. I’ve been passionate about computers ever since I was just 5-years old. My passion for writing began around that same age. I love writing about computer hardware, useful peripherals, and the different types of software available to PC users.