What Is an Optical Drive?

By Jason Artman

High-speed broadband Internet coupled with cloud-based and lightweight digital data storage is fast making optical drives obsolete, but there was a time when nearly every computer came equipped with an optical drive. These drives utilize lasers to read data from, or write data to, CDs or DVDs, enabling a system of convenient, removable storage for the computer. Optical drives were common from the 1990s to the 2000s and, during this time, they went through a constant process of refinement and improvement.


The first system for storing computer data on a compact disc was agreed by Sony and Phillips in 1985, but it wasn't until the early 1990s that these new storage units, called CD-ROM drives, became affordable for the average consumer. Computer users were amazed by the ability of a single CD-ROM to store all of the content from an entire encyclopedia, and were dazzled by the medium's ability to play full-motion video clips on a computer.

Recordable CDs

By the end of the 1990s, optical drives with the ability to write data to a CD began to find their way into electronics stores. These new CDs, called CD-Rs (the "R" being an abbreviation for "Recordable"), could store up to 650MB of data on a single disc. This technology enabled consumers to easily back up the contents of their computers, or to copy audio CDs to share with their friends.


When DVDs took the home video market by storm in the late 1990s, the computer world was not far behind. Optical drives now read and write on both CDs and DVDs. The highest-capacity DVDs, called "dual-layer" DVDs, can hold up to 8.54GB of data, over 13 times as much information as the first recordable CDs, and cost just pennies per disc when purchased in large amounts.


The next generation of optical drives supported Blu-ray, a technology developed by Sony. The storage capacity of a single Blu-ray disc underscores how far optical drives have come; the highest-capacity Blu-ray discs can hold up to 50GB of data, 76 times that of the earliest CD-Rs. However, even Blu-ray is now being superseded by newer technologies.


Smaller, lightweight laptop, notebook and "netbook" computers typically don't come equipped with an optical drive. Rather than saving data on CDs or DVDs, netbooks utilize memory cards, which are scarcely larger than postage stamps, hold up to 64GB of data, and can be written on many times before they must be replaced. As these memory cards continue to decrease in price, they have become more popular than optical discs. Cloud-based data storage, lightweight USB data storage and on-demand video, music and software services have all helped ring the death knell for the optical drive.