Optical Drive Value Proposition

I have the absolute worst luck in the optical drive department. Ever since I started building my own computers in 1995 — close to the beginning of the CD-ROM epoch — I have burned through a staggering number of optical drives. Seriously, especially in the time period between about 1995-1998, I was going through a new drive every 4-6 months or so. This was also during that CD-ROM speed race where the the drive packages kept advertising loftier ‘X’ speed ratings. I didn’t play a lot of CD-ROM games during that timeframe, though I did listen to quite a few audio CDs through the computer.

I use “optical drive” as a general term to describe CD-ROM drives, CD-R/RW drives, DVD-ROM drives, DVD-R/RW drives, and drives capable of doing any combination of reading and writing CDs and DVDs. In my observation, optical media seems to be falling out of favor somewhat, giving way to online digital distribution for things like games and software, as well as flash drives and external hard drives vs. recordable or rewritable media for backup and sneakernet duty. Somewhere along the line, I started to buy computers that didn’t even have optical drives. That’s why I have purchased at least 2 external USB drives (seen in the picture above). I don’t have much confidence that either works correctly. My main desktop until recently, a Mac Mini, has an internal optical drive that grew flaky and unreliable a few months after the unit was purchased.

I just have really rotten luck with optical drives. The most reliable drive in my house is the one on the headless machine that, until recently, was the main workhorse on the FATE farm. The eject switch didn’t work correctly so I have to log in remotely, 'sudo eject', walk to the other room, pop in the disc, walk back to the other room, and work with the disc.

Maybe optical media is on its way out, but I still have many hundreds of CD-ROMs. Perhaps I should move forward on this brainstorm to archive all of my optical discs on hard drives (and then think of some data mining experiments, just for the academic appeal), before it’s too late; optical discs don’t last forever.

So if I needed a good optical drive, what should I consider? I’ve always been the type to go cheap, I admit. Many of my optical drives were on the lower end of the cost spectrum, which might have played some role in their rapid replacement. However, I’m not sold on the idea that I’m getting quality just because I’m paying a higher price. That LG unit at the top of the pile up there was relatively pricey and still didn’t fare well in the long (or even medium) term.

Come to think of it, I used to have a ridiculous stockpile of castoff (but somehow still functional) optical drives. So many, in fact, that in 2004 I had a full size PC tower that I filled with 4 working drives, just because I could. Okay, I admit that there was a period where I had some reliable drives.

That might be an idea, actually– throw together such a computer for heavy duty archival purposes. I visited Weird Stuff Warehouse today (needed some PC100 RAM for an old machine and they came through) and I think I could put together such a box rather cheaply.

It’s a dirty job, but… well, you know the rest.

6 thoughts on “Optical Drive Value Proposition

  1. Anonymous Coward

    “Mac Mini, has an internal optical drive that grew flaky and unreliable a few months after the unit was purchased”

    Sometimes I wonder if Apple is trying to kill off optical media with their terrible drives. If I had to guess, I’d say about 80% of their slot-load optical drives fail in one way or another within 6 months.

    My MacBook can currently burn CDs, and read CDs and DVDs, but cannot burn DVD+Rs nor DVD+R DLs anymore.

  2. compn

    i’ve always gone with the cheap stuff. my advice: have multiple drives from different manf just in case a particular drive wont read a cd/dvd. i bought an amazon on-demand dvdr which worked in 2 out of 3 of my dvdr’s. damn copy protection.

    my friends’ external cdrom failed because the grease on the laser rails had dried up. so ventilation (or a lack of?) is a good idea.

    now i forgot, is it better to have the harddrive on the same ide cable as the cdrom, or does that slow things down?

  3. Multimedia Mike Post author

    @compn: If memory serves, I think it’s a speed liability to have the CD-ROM and HD on the same IDE chain, while SCSI does not suffer from the same issue.

  4. Reimar

    IDE channel stuff is a difficult mess.
    But there are two major issues: CD drives often did not support the faster DMA modes, often stopping the HD modes from using them as well.
    And then, only one device on an IDE channel can be active at the same time, so in case you use both (e.g. copying from one to the other) throughput more than halves (SCSI devices can talk directly to each other, though we you can’t take advantage of that – e.g. when reading from two SCSI devices on the same cable – that issue exists the same way as for IDE).
    But I actually have only one IDE CD drive left, all others are SATA by now.
    As to which drives to buy: Well, I only ever promised myself to never ever buy Creative, they produced utter crap – but they don’t exist anymore for drives anyway.
    Apart from that it is mostly hit-and-miss.
    I am somewhat partial to LiteOn since I remember them as the first to produce actually working and affordable CD burners.
    But I’d go with anything that is just not too cheap that it seems impossible to include decent mechanics. So I sure wouldn’t pay below around $30 (well, 25 EUR) for DVD burner.
    In the past looking for DVD-RAM support was a good indication but nowadays everyone seems to support it (funnily they all support 12x DVD-RAM. “Funnily” because it’s simply impossible to buy DVD-RAM media that works beyond 5x…).

  5. lord rel

    Get a Plextor they make the most reliable drives i have ever seen, while they are very much more more expensive they more solid and reliable.

  6. zeus

    Original Plextor drives where very good drives, however they no longer manufacture their own drives and just re-badge others. The last Plextor made drives are the PlextorPremium 1/2 for CDS only and the PX-760 for DVDs/Cds. They made a few SATA drives but they are exceedingly rare.

    As far as modern drives you dont have to resort to ebay to buy.

    NEC chipset based drives are very good burners but tend to deal very poorly with scratched discs.

    Mediatek based drives are good with dealing with scratched disks but average writers.

    LG based drives are fairly rare in my neck of the woods but they are ok with dealing with scratched disks and average writers.

    Renesas and Panasonic chipset drives I don’t have much experience with.

    I deal with a lot of scratched CDs and CDRW drives tend to be much better than modern DVDRW drives.

    My advice buy a couple of drives with different chipsets keep them internal if possible, failing that use esata.

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