Optical Drive

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What Does Optical Drive Mean?

An optical drive is an internal or external computer disk drive that uses laser beam technology to read and write data.

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Optical disk drives are associated with compact discs, DVD and Blue-Ray technology. Like the floppy disk drives of the last century, ODDs have fallen out of fashion and are no longer included as a default component of new desktop and laptop computers. It is possible to find external disk drives if you need to access information that is stored on a disk, but due to lessened demand in the market, they are increasingly difficult to source.

Optical drives work by rotating the inserted disc at a constant speed, calculated in revolutions per minute (RPM). The rotating disc in an optical drive is read with a laser beam using a lens embedded within the optical drive’s head. Optical drives mainly use an Advanced Technology Attachment (ATA) bus or a Serial ATA (SATA) bus, along with Small Computer System Interface (SCSI) to send and receive data from a computer.

An optical drive may also be referred to as an optical disc drive (ODD).

Techopedia Explains Optical Drive

Some of the popularity and utility of disc drives has to do with their capacity for data storage and the less intrusive build, compared to hard disk and floppy disk drives. Users particularly liked the ability to download (rip) songs from one CD and save them on another CD.

Optical Disk Drive Obsolescence

When optical disc drives started to be commonly used in desktop and laptop computers, a disc could hold something like 650 MB, which at that time was more capacity than the average floppy disk.

Over time, engineers were able to put several gigabytes onto a disk for DVD and Blu-ray purposes. However, the first trend to put a stumbling block in the way of using optical disc drives as media technology has to do with Moore's law.

Advance of Flash Drives and Disc-Less Media

Moore's law holds that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit can double annually. Over time, the realization of Moore’s law led to much smaller storage devices that held ever larger amounts of data and flash storage media began to replace optical storage media as the price of 16GB and 32GB and 64GB flash drives went down.

Consumers became less willing to use optical discs when the same data could be stored on a flash drive that had a significantly smaller form factor and did not require a dedicated drive with moving parts.

The Cloud Revolution

Years later, cloud computing really took off. In the media world, that led to ubiquitous streaming video, where no physical media was necessary to access music, movies and everything else that used to be delivered on optical discs.

The idea that it's no longer necessary to hold data at the local device level is a large part of what is making optical drives obsolete. For example, smartphones have no such drives, but can still access music and movies and other digital media. Those changes eventually killed the ODD and the physical media that went along with it, making discs “legacy media."

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Margaret Rouse
Technology Expert
Margaret Rouse
Technology Expert

Margaret is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects to a non-technical business audience. Over the past twenty years, her IT definitions have been published by Que in an encyclopedia of technology terms and cited in articles by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, ZDNet, PC Magazine, and Discovery Magazine. She joined Techopedia in 2011. Margaret's idea of a fun day is helping IT and business professionals learn to speak each other’s highly specialized languages.