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Installing An Optical Drive Guide

Selecting Fast, Inexpensive CD/DVD/HD DVD/BluRay Optical Drives, What to Look For in a Optical Drive, and How to Install Them

What Is An Optical Drive?

To the hi-tech newcomer, the term optical drive may not mean very much. Simply put, the optical drives read (and may write) CDs; DVDs, HD DVDs; and BluRays. Virtually every modern PC contains an optical drive (either internally or externally), used as a media player, for installing new software, or as large capacity storage medium for computers.

Information is stored on high-density disks in the form of tiny pits "read" by laser. The term refers to the general category of disk drives that read information optically, using a low-powered laser. Large 12inch Pioneer LaserDiscs drives (1982) were the first optical units available on PCs, with CD-ROM drives from Sony appearing in 1983.  CD-ROM drives were the breakthrough product, that began as novelties for high-end users and then grew in popularity as they dropped in price and increased in performance.  By The mid-1990's, the point arrived where they were mandatory equipment on any new PC system.

Optical drives are considered a part of the storage subsystem of your computer, be it a notebook, a desktop, or a server. They usually interface either through the standard IDE/ATA controller ports on the motherboard, a SCSI interface host adapter, or a dedicated adaptor card, but may also interface through a USB port or a Firewire port, or integrated into a network storage device. The optical drive in a system is an important factor in the PC's ability to install and run software, since most software is now distributed on optical disks (CDs, and now more than ever on DVDs, in the future perhaps Blu-ray). In the case of writeable optional drives (CD or DVD Burners), they also are often the only real backup devices in the PC (as hard disks continue to increase their capacity, optical media is somewhat keeping pace).

Types of Optical Drives

CD & CD-ROM Players
CD-R & CD-RW Burners
DVD & DVD-ROM Players
DVD-R & DVD-RW Burners
Blu-ray Players
Blu-ray Burners

Optical drives usually have a physical connection to the sound card, or audio circuits on the motherboard. Optical drives also usually send data to the system through the motherboard. When you purchase an optical drive you want too match the interface to that of the system, usually IDE/ATA or SCSI.

Today we have not just CD-ROM drives, but DVD drives, and Blu-ray drivers. We also have writeable and rewriteable CD-ROM drives, called CD-R and CD-RW respectively. These expand the capabilities of optical drives by letting you actually write to CD-ROM media.

Adding a fast optical drive will increase your PCís flexibility an life span. 

What Happened To HD DVD?

In February 2008, Toshiba (the creator and promoter of HD DVD) acknowledged that it was not winning the HD media battle.  Toshiba announced that it would discontinue all HD DVD player production, but that it might keep producing PC HD DVD players and burners.  How long this continues is very much open at this point.  Thus, while HD DVD exists in the marketplace, it is by definition a dead-end platform.  Sony, for once, not only introduced a superior media (remember Betamax?), but succeeded in making it dominant.  For the purposes of this article, HD DVD is really no longer recommended.

Speed - How Much is Optimal?

Almost all CD/DVD burners are relatively fast. Even second-tier products can can write an entire disk in less than 5 minutes. Plus, CD burning speeds are fast enough that the difference between one speed an another isnít critical. In other words, if you are on a budget there is no reason to pay for a high-end DVD burner or insist on buying the fastest CD-RW drives you can find.  However, speed may naturally be a benefit if you want other features.

Optical drives are normally specified with an "X" rating, intended to represent the speed of the drive. For example, a CD-ROM drive may be specified as "56X", or a DVD drive as "20X". This is supposed to mean that these units operate at 56 times and 20 times the speed of the first CD-ROM and DVD drives, respectively. These "X" ratings do indicate approximate drive speed, but they have become "magic numbers" and don't really represent as much of the performance picture as you might think. Note that the CD and DVD standards are different; a 1X DVD drive actually has throughput of about eight times that of a 1X CD-ROM drive.

Speed vs. Storage

A 5 inch dual-layer DVD disk can hold 8.5 GB of data. Most stand-alone DVD players can play the dual-layer discs that these drives burn, boosting the amount of video, audio, or data that will fit on one disc. Youíll pay a small price premium for early dual-layer drives, and for compatible media.   Also, writing to dual-layer discs is slower than writing to single-layer, but depending on your need, may well be worth it.  Generally speaking, buy the most compatible drive, with the best performance your budget will allow.

Adding an Extra Drive to an Older PC

Unfortunately, this process often requires more technology than merely plugging in the new optical drive. Your older PCs may use parallel ATA technology - 2 drives share one cable (known as a channel, and most PCs came with at least two IDE channels for a maximum of 4 drives.

So before buying a drive, investigate the computer you have to determine what you will need.  It is entirely possible that the deference between buying the components you will need, and buying a new PC, may only be a couple of hundred dollars.  We suggest you make a buy vs. build decision, since the new PC will probably come with a new optical drive.  Or, you can upgrade the chassis & motherboard (and processor).  These are all options to carefully consider.

If you go forward with the upgrade to your old PC, there are several things you will encounter.  Take each step carefully, and make sure you have the 3T's (tools, time, and temperment) you need. 

If you old system as a parallel ATA interface (IDE) - setting a jumper designates each drive as either a master or a slave, which permits a single cable to connect two drives to one IDE channel. The jumper settings for each designation are usually labeled on the drive itself. A few simple rules should guide your configuration choices. If possible, each drive should sit on its own IDE channel configured as a master drive, but this may not be possible because of hard disk drives in your system already configured as Master(s). If you have two drives on one channel always make the faster drive the master drive. For example, suppose that you wanted to add a second hard drive and a DVD burner to a PC equipped with one hard drive and one CD-RW drive. In that case, you would want to set the new, faster hard drive as master on the primary IDE channel. Your older hard drive should be the slave drive on the primary channel, with the two optical drives as master and slave on the secondary channel (keep in mind this would require re-installation of software, since the drive letters may change).

Installation Installing your optical drives is an easy process that requires a bit of attention to detail. Hereís an easy-to-follow-installation guide:

Gather up all your drives. Many cases use removable drive rails or cages to house drives. Use the included screws to attach your drives to the rails or cage, and slide them into the case. For externally accessible drives such as a DVD recorder, you can save time by installing one drive rail and sliding the drive in for a test fitting to make sure that its front is flush with the case. When the drives are installed, connect power and data cables to each one. Parallel ATA drives use wide, flat data cables that can be installed only in the correct way.

1. First, if your PC is running, shut it down and turn off the power switch.
2. Next, remove the power cord just in case - itís an important safety measure.
3. Now find and remove the screws holding the case together.
4. Next, remove the case cover or panel from your PC.
5. Find the 5.25-inch external drive cover. Thatís where the drive will be installed. Remove the cover.
6. Before sliding the drive into the drive bay, use the jumpers to set the drive to be either a master or slave. If the drive will reside on its own IDE cable, select the master setting. If the drive will be added to an existing IDE cable, choose slave.
7. Note: if your drive bay requires slide rails, attach the drive rails onto the sides of the drives.
8. Next, Slide the drive into the drive bay.
9. If the case does not use drive rails, attach the drive to the bay using screws.
10. Attach the CD-Audio cable to the connector on the drive.
11. Attach the other end of the CD-Audio cable to the motherboard or audio card.
12. Next, plug the IDE cable into the motherboard, if one isnít already in place.
13. Plug the drive connector of the IDE cable into the drive.
14. Attach the 4-pin power adapter in the drive.
15. Replace the case cover or panel.
16. Attach the case cover or panel with the screws.
17. Reattach the power cord to the computer.
18. Finally, turn the power switch on the power supply back on.
19. Done Now your drive is installed (physically) into your computer. When you power up the system, it should detect the new drive.  You may need to install drivers that came with the drive, and it is always a good idea to go online to see if updated drivers are available.
Tags:  CD Burner, DVD Burner, Blu-ray Burner, CDROM Drive, optical drive