Optical Drive Types
There are several types of optical drives available. Some can use only CDs, which typically store about 700 MB of data. Other optical drives can use DVDs, which typically store 4,700 MB to 8,500 MB of data. CD-ROM drives and DVD-ROM drives are read-only (the "ROM" part of the name). CD writers and DVD writers (also called burners or recorders) can write optical discs as well as read them. DVD is backward-compatible with CD, which means that a DVD drive can also read CD discs, and nearly all DVD writers can also write CD discs.
Verify Format Support
If you need a DVD-ROM drive that reads DVD+R/RW and/or DVD-R/RW discs, verify that the model you choose explicitly lists support for the writable DVD formats you need to read. Most current DVD-ROM drives read both "R" (write-once) and "RW" (rewritable) discs in both the "plus" and "minus" formats. Some DVD-ROM drives read "plus" but not "minus" discs, or vice versa. A few drives, mostly older models, read "R" discs, but not "RW" discs. Some models read burned 4.7 GB DVD discs, but not burned dual-layer (8.5 GB) discs. A few drives notably many Toshiba models can also read the moribund DVD-RAM format.
Roughly in order of increasing price and usefulness, the choices are:
When price is the absolute priority, installing a CD-ROM drive provides basic functionality at minimum cost. CD-ROM drives read only CD-DA (audio) discs, CD-ROM (data) discs, and (usually) CD-R/CD-RW writable discs. CD-ROM drives are commodity items that sell for $15. In fact, manufacturers make so little profit from CD-ROM drives that they have all but disappeared from retail channels. The sole advantage of a CD-ROM drive is its low price. The drawbacks of a CD-ROM drive are that it cannot read DVD-Video, DVD-Audio, or DVD-ROM discs and that it cannot write discs. Choose a CD-ROM drive only as an inexpensive replacement for a failed optical drive on an older system that does not require DVD support or recording features. CD-ROM drive choices are limited and likely to become more so as these drives disappear from the market. We consider any current ATAPI model made by Lite-On, Mitsumi, NEC, Samsung, or Sony acceptable. All are reliable, so buy on price. Unless the small extra cost is a deal-breaker, we strongly suggest installing a more capable optical drive.
DVD-ROM drives are also commodities, but cost a bit more than CD-ROM drives: $20 or so. Like CD-ROM drives, DVD-ROM drives read CD-DA, CD-ROM, and CD-R/RW discs, but they also read DVD-Video, DVD-ROM, and (sometimes) DVD-Audio discs. Even if you're repairing or upgrading on a tight budget, it usually makes sense to spend an extra $5 to get a DVD-ROM drive rather than a CD-ROM drive so the PC can read DVD-Video and DVD-ROM discs. Like CD-ROM drives, DVD-ROM drives are read-only devices, and cannot write discs. Nearly all current DVD-ROM drives read CDs at 40X or 48X and DVDs at 16X with similar access times and otherwise similar specifications, so there is little reason to choose a brand other than by price and manufacturer reputation. We consider any current ATAPI model made by Lite-On, Mitsumi, NEC, Samsung, Sony, or Toshiba acceptable.
CD-RW drives, also called CD writers, CD burners, or CD recorders, sell for $25 or so. CD writers read the same formats as CD-ROM drives CD-DA, CD-ROM, and CD-R/RW discs but can also write data to inexpensive CD-R (write-once) and CD-RW (rewritable) discs. Although CD-RW drives do not read DVD discs, they have the advantage of being able to write discs. In addition to being useful for duping audio and data CDs, CD writers also provide an inexpensive backup solution, albeit limited to about 700 MB per disc. Nearly all current CD-RW drives write CDs at 48X, 52X, or 54X and have similar read speeds, access times, and other specifications, so there is little reason to choose a brand other than by price and manufacturer reputation. We consider any current ATAPI model made by Lite-On, Mitsumi, Samsung, or Sony acceptable.
If you want the best CD-RW drive available, and are willing to pay the price, choose a Plextor model. Plextor drives are more reliable than any other optical drive we have used, and have the best digital audio extraction (DAE) for "ripping" audio CD tracks to your hard drive. Unfortunately, they're priced accordingly. A Plextor CD writer sells for more than some DVD writers made by other companies.
Combo drives combine the functionality of a DVD-ROM drive and a CD-RW drive, and typically sell for $30 to $35. Because they can read nearly any optical disc and write CDs, combo drives were quite popular until the price of DVD writers dropped. At current prices, we'd consider using a combo drive to replace a failed optical drive on an elderly system or in situations where the additional $5 to $40 cost of a DVD writer can't be justified. We consider any current ATAPI model made by Lite-On, Samsung, Teac, or Toshiba acceptable. If you need to read burned DVDs, make sure that the model you choose explicitly lists compatibility with the formats you use. If you need to read DVD-RAM discs, buy a Toshiba model. Otherwise, all are reliable and priced similarly, so buy whatever happens to be the least expensive.
Don't Pitch That Old CD-ROM Drive
Although all DVD-ROM drives and DVD writers read CD discs, even premium DVD drives may fail to read scratched or damaged CD discs that an old CD-ROM drive or CD writer may read perfectly. For that reason, we always keep one or two old CD-ROM drives and CD writers installed in older systems, even when we upgrade those systems with a new DVD writer.
If you encounter a CD that your newer optical drives refuse to read or copy, try the disc in an older drive. You may find it reads perfectly in the older drive, and you can make a backup copy to use in your newer drives. In particular, if you are ripping a copy-protected CD, you may find that a newer drive won't touch it, while an older drive copies it perfectly.
DVD writers do it all they both read and write both CDs and DVDs. That flexibility used to come at a high price, but current DVD writers are available for as little as $40 and even the best internal models sell for $100 or less. Here are the issues to consider in choosing a DVD writer:
DVD writable formats supported
All current DVD writers can write DVD+R, DVD+RW, DVD-R, and DVD-RW discs interchangeably. Most models can also write dual-layer DVD+R DL and/or DVD-R DL discs which store about 8.5 GB rather than the 4.7 GB capacity of standard single-layer discs although the least-expensive models may not support writing DL discs at full speed. A few drives remain available that support the moribund DVD-RAM standard.
WORSE CAN BE BETTER
Although DVD+R and DVD+RW (the plus formats) are technically superior to DVD-R and DVD-RW (the minus formats), the DVD-R/RW features of a drive may still be important. Although we would never use DVD-R/RW discs for backups or other applications where robust error detection and correction is important, DVD+R/RW discs are incompatible with some older DVD players. If you plan to use your DVD writer to make DVD video discs, check your player's compatibility with the various writable DVD formats. Many older players, and even some newer ones, refuse to read DVD+R discs, so you may have no choice but to write videos to DVD-R discs. Either that, or buy a player that supports the plus formats.
CD writing capabilities
Many people use DVD writers primarily for writing DVDs, and seldom or never write CDs. However, the CD-writing features and performance of a drive are important if you frequently use CD-R or CD-RW discs, perhaps to duplicate your audio CDs or for daily backups. If CD writing is important to you, make sure the drive you buy supports at least 40X CD-R writes and, if you use CD-RW, 24X CD-RW rewrites. Also make sure the drive supports BURN-Proof or a similar anti-coaster technology.
Early DVD writers recorded discs at only 1X. As was true of CD writers before them, rapid product development soon boosted the speed of even low-end DVD writers to the maximum practical write speeds for the various formats. In the case of writable DVD, that's 16X for single-layer R discs, 8X for DVD+RW and DVD+R DL, and 4X for DVD-RW and DVD-R DL.
If you have an older DVD writer and you write many DVDs, upgrading to a faster current model is probably worth the small cost. Using a 4X DVD writer requires patience; it takes 15 minutes to write a full disc. An 8X writer cuts that to 8 minutes or so, and a 16X writer to about 4.5 minutes. (In each case, the writing speed actually doubles, but writing the table of contents and closing the disc requires a minute or so regardless of writer speed.) Note, however, that for various reasons you may not always write discs at the maximum rated speed of the drive. For example, we often use 8X discs in our 16X writers, because the 8X discs are both less expensive and more reliable. Similarly, when we record video to 8X DVD+R discs, we write them at only 2X or 4X, because discs written at 8X, 12X, or 16X are often rejected by our DVD player or exhibit video and audio artifacts.
Nearly all internal DVD burners use the standard ATA/ATAPI interface. A few models notably some Plextor drives are available in Serial ATA. We suggest you avoid SATA models. The drives themselves are fine, and there's nothing wrong with the SATA interface, but using an SATA optical drive introduces numerous compatibility issues. Very few motherboards, even newer models with full SATA support, work properly with SATA optical drives. Even if the motherboard supports the drive properly, you may find that your operating system and applications don't recognize an SATA optical drive.
Internal versus external
For most systems, an internal ATA/ATAPI DVD burner is the best and most economical choice. However, DVD burners are also available in external variants that connect to a PC using the USB 2.0 and/or FireWire interfaces. Although external drives are more expensive than internal models, they do have a couple of advantages. First, you can share an external drive among several systems, for example for doing periodic backups. Second, an external drive can be used with a notebook computer or other system that doesn't permit installing an internal drive. If an external drive is right for your needs, choosing a model that provides both USB 2.0 and FireWire interfaces offers the most flexibility.
Plextor makes the best DVD writers available. They sell at a premium, but we consider their small additional cost worth paying for their superior reliability and the high quality of the discs they write. The Plextor PX-716A, their flagship model, is superb. It has every imaginable feature, top-notch performance, and is built like a tank. The Plextor PX-740A, their economy model, has a smaller buffer and fewer features, but is built to Plextor's usual high standards. For an external DVD writer, we recommend the Plextor PX-716UF, which provides both USB 2.0 and FireWire interfaces.
DRIVES THAT DON'T DIE
In the decade or more that we've been using (and abusing) Plextor drives, we've had only one Plextor die on us. And that one didn't die of natural causes; it was murdered. (Robert rammed his knee into the drive tray while it was extended, ripping it out of the drive.) During one extended testing session, we used a Plextor PX-716A drive to burn an entire spindle of 50 DVD+R discs one after the other, inserting a new disc as soon as the preceding one ejected. Every disc from first to last was perfect. The drive wasn't even breathing hard.
If you're on a tight budget, a Plextor model may be out of your price range. In that case, we recommend the NEC ND-3550A or the BenQ DW1640.
Unless you're counting pennies, we strongly recommend choosing a DVD writer rather than a less capable optical drive. Other than the SATA issue, you needn't worry about compatibility. Modern DVD writers function properly even in older systems.