Optical disc drives, you know CD-ROM type drives, are pretty much on all computers these days (except maybe netbooks - - where you may need to buy an external optical drive) . While this drive is extremely useful, some very common some questions still arise about them. In this Tech Tip we’ll be providing a refresh look at optical drives as well as looking at common failures and replacement strategies.
The BIG Picture
OK, to start off, optical drives have come a long way (baby). As most of our readers know, they progressed from the read-only days of the CD-ROM, through the burner days with CD-R, the rewritable days of CD-RW and then the DVD came along. From there you had read-only DVD-ROMs, CD-RW/DVD-ROM, DVD-RW. DVD+RW, DVD±RW, DVD±RW DL, blue-ray, yada, yada, yada!
The important thing to know is that the drives are pretty much backwards compatible, so if you get a DVD±RW DL it can pretty much read and write to the formats before it (for example, a DVD±RW DL can read a CD-ROM disc, burn to a CD-RW disc, etc.).
All that alphabet soup of letters can be confusing, but all you need to know are the three basic (currently used) optical formats: CD, DVD, BLU-RAY (also called BD). Each of these formats have a read-only mode (-ROM), a write only (recordable) mode (-R or +R) and a read-write (re-recordable) mode (-RW, +RW, -RAM or –RE). The DL tacked onto the end of the alphabet soup means that the drive is a Double Layer drive (it can read or write to 8.5 GB double layer discs).
Optical drives are also commonly advertised by their speed, represented by a number of how much “faster” the drive is than the original single speed spec. Thus, a CD-R drive that rates at 52x speed writes faster than a 32x drive (in theory – like many other things that run through marketers' hands, these numbers are sometimes foot-loose and fancy free, in that 52x speed may be the most inside track of a drive while the outer track actually records at a slower speed). Also, note that the original single speeds of CD, DVD and Blu-Ray discs are actually different, and that those multiplier numbers are meant for comparing to the single speed number within that category. Basically, all you need to know is that, pretty much, the larger the number, the faster the drive. Drives these days also come with two basic loading mechanisms, slot loaded and tray loaded (by far the more popular); two different interfaces (SATA and PATA (also called IDE or ATA); and two form factors, 5.25-inch desktop and 5.25” slimline (laptop and mini-desktop) sizes. Optical drives can also incorporate cool extra features such as LightScribe disc labeling technology as well.
If you bought a prebuilt system, then you usually have the software installed to use all these cool features, though maybe not to its full capability. Many times vendors may incorporate very basic software that gets the job done, whether its writing to a disc or watching a movie – but that’s about it. There are several very good software packages available, usually packaged as suites, that can enhance your experience using a optical drive, and many of them even have trial versions to take them for a test drive. Some of the more popular ones are Nero’s software package, Roxio’s software suite, Alcohol Software’s 120% program as well as many others.
By far, the most common failure is that the drive can no longer read a disc. It may be intermittent (sometimes reads, sometimes doesn’t or it may read CD discs and not DVD discs (or vice-versa). If the drive does this, the first thing to do is to make sure that the drive is compatible with the disc you are trying to read (after all, a DVD drive will not read a Blu-Ray disc but again, because of backwards compatibility, a Blu-Ray player will usually read a DVD disc). Next, you can try cleaning the disc itself (from the inside out, not in circles) with a clean, soft cloth and disc cleaner. If this doesn’t correct the issue you can try to clean the drive lens (either with a cleaner disc or denatured alcohol and a cotton swab). Admittedly these are stop gap measures, because truthfully this is usually a sign of a failing drive.
Another common failure is that the drive will refuse to eject either via the button or the software eject command. When this happens, try rebooting the computer (rebooting cures a number of ills), or ejecting the disc manually (if you see a small hole in the drive's bezel you can use a handy, dandy drive ejection tool also known as an unbent paper-clip). If the drive still does not eject then it is more than likely a failed drive (in which case, pull any discs in the drive before replacing it - admittedly, retrieving discs from a slot loaded drive can be more daunting than pulling them from a tray loaded drive – sometimes it actually requires a drive's disassembly). In case of a failed drive, the best bet is to replace the drive entirely.
Replacing the Drive
Replacing an optical disc drive is a pretty straightforward process – you pull the old drive and put in the new drive, and if this is not covered under warranty, you can do it yourself. Manufacturers complicate this process. The first thing to know is that both slimline and desktop drives have the same form-factor, however manufacturers may do some interesting things with the bezels. For example, a desktop computer may have a drop-down door in front of the drive, and if you buy a replacement drive, you’ll need one whose eject button lines up with where that door thinks the eject button should be. Desktop drives are secured either by four screws (two on either side of the drive) or drive rails. While optical drives DO NOT need any special drivers, if you are upgrading to a DVD or Blu-Ray drive, you may want to get a drive that includes player software to watch movies (also be sure to watch the system requirements for these drives). Another thing to look for is to be sure that you are replacing the drive with the same data interface SATA or PATA (if it is a PATA drive, set the new drives master/slave -abbreviated M/S or MA/SL- back jumper to match what the old drive was set to).
Slimline drives also can have the added aggravation of the bezels not matching with the replacement drive. Thus, unlike a desktop drive, the best bet with slimline drives is to find an exact replacement (these drives will typically have manufacturer part numbers on the top of the drives). Slimline drives also sometimes saddle a cradle around the drive – simply remove it from the old drive and screw it onto the new drive. These drives are either held in the computer with a couple of screws or a quick release mechanism. Again, make sure to watch the interface (SATA vs. PATA). Of course, if all else fails call a tech or a computer geek computer savvy friend.
Optical drives make up one part of the wonderful machine that is your computer. While the drive itself may be confusing at first and the thought of possibly replacing it daunting, with a little know-how you’ll find yourself an optical drive expert in no time.
Some good sources: http://www.laptopparts101.com/cd-dvd-