Macworld Buying Guides: Optical Drives

Optical storage consists of a drive that uses a laser to read and write (or burn) data onto optical discs; CDs and DVDs are the most common. A standard CD holds 650MB to 800MB of data, a standard DVD holds up to 4.7GB, and a dual-layer DVD holds up to 8.5GB. Storing stuff on CDs and DVDs is the least-expensive storage solution; discs cost less than $.50 each.

CDs and DVDs are best for storing files you want to hang onto but don't need to access every day.

If you have a Mac with a Combo drive (CD burner that can read but not write to DVD) or a single-layer DVD burner, buying an external optical drive is an affordable and attractive upgrade.

Optical drives buying advice

Supported Media Look for drives that offer dual-layer support. You'll notice that there are different optical-disc formats, like CD±R, DVD±R, DVD±R DL; most new optical burners are compatible with all formats.

To see which formats are supported by the optical drive in your Mac, click on the Apple menu and select About This Mac. Click More Info, which opens System Profiler, and in the left Contents column under Hardware, select Disc Burning. The right pane displays all formats your Mac can read and write. Pay attention to the "write" formats, noting the "+" and/or "-" stats, and purchase discs that bear this info.

Write Speed If you don't like waiting, look for a drive with fast write speeds. While the difference between 32x and the fastest, 52x CD-R write speed is about a minute, the speed of larger-capacity DVD±R and DVD±R DL media is more significant. It takes about 15 minutes to burn a full DVD±R with a 4x write-speed drive, about 8 minutes with an 8x writer, and under 3 minutes with the fastest 22x writer. For DVD±R DL discs, most drives offer up to 8x write speeds.

The discs themselves have a speed rating, too. Your optical drive (which has different write/rewrite/read speeds for each media format) and optical discs bear write speeds that impact each other. Buying a DVD-R with a 16x write speed won't offer any benefit if your optical drive has an 8x DVD-R write speed. Likewise, buying a DVD-R with a 4x write speed may force a faster optical drive to write at a slower rate, though not always. There's also debate about whether it's better to burn discs at a slower or faster speed to prevent errors; as a general rule, find media that matches or exceeds your drive's write speed and experiment.

Portability If you need portability, look for a USB or FireWire bus-powered drive, which draws power from your Mac to operate. Also look for a small, rugged case design that can withstand the bumps that come with being stashed in a bag. (Note that portable drives often sacrifice write speed for their willowy figures.)

LightScribe Built into many optical drives, LightScribe is the technology that laser-etches monochromatic graphics and text onto specially coated LightScribe discs. If you want professional-looking discs, look for a LightScribe burner. However, note that the etching is prone to fading, and the time it takes to etch your design can far exceed the disc-write time.(If you don't commit to labeling discs somehow, though, it'll be needle-in-a-haystack time when you need to find files.)

Our favorite optical drives

With 20x DVD, 8x dual-layer DVD, and 48x CD write speeds, the LaCie d2 DVD±RW with LightScribe ( Macworld rated 4.5 out of 5 mice ) is a FireWire 400 writer that also offers LightScribe and Roxio's Toast disc-burning software. Read our full review. [$120 (Buy the LaCie d2 DVD±RW with LightScribe direct from LaCie); LaCie]

The skinny LaCie Portable DVD±RW with LightScribe, Design by Sam Hecht ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) is a highly portable USB drive that offers bus power and support for dual-layer DVDs. Read our full review. [$100 (Buy the LaCie Portable DVD±RW with LightScribe, Design by Sam Hecht direct from LaCie; LaCie]

What about Blu-ray?

It delivered a resounding TKO to HD DVD in the high-definition format bout, but Blu-ray discs (BD) aren't just for playing Hollywood movies. They can store a vast amount of data (25GB on a single-layer BD and 50GB on a dual-layer disc), and they can showcase your own HD video creations, too.

Of course, to take advantage of the technology, you need a Blu-ray optical drive. But Apple has yet to offer BD capabilities in its Macs, and there's no sign that anything is coming soon. However, there are other sources.

If a burner is what you seek, you'll find internal and external Blu-ray recordable drives that support Blu-ray, DVD, and CD burning, though they're pricey and discs are relatively expensive. For Mac Pros and Power Macs, the internal MCE 6x Blu-ray Recordable Drive ($499) offers 6x Blu-ray writing. External drives include LaCie's d2 Blu-ray Drive ($550) and OWC's Mercury Pro Blu-Ray ($450). For people who need portability, the Amex Portable Super Multi Drive ($469) offers 2x BD-R (single and dual-layer), bus-powered USB 2.0 connectivity, and DVD/DVD-RAM/CD burning in a slim case.

While burning files to a Blu-ray disc requires nothing more than Mac OS, you need third-party software to create a video Blu-ray disc. Roxio Toast 10 Titanium with the High-Def/Blu-ray Disc Plug-in ($100 plus $20 for the plug-in) lets you author HD video content onto Blu-ray--or even onto standard DVD-Rs (no Blu-ray burner required)--for playback on Blu-ray or HD DVD set-top players. Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) might not have Final Cut Pro's clout, but it does come with Encore CS4 software for Blu-ray video production, something Apple's DVD Studio Pro 4 doesn't support. (Note that there currently isn't any Mac software that plays video from a Blu-ray disc.)

[Writer, music composer, photographer, and pack rat Kris Fong has archived tens of thousands of files. Now if she could only remember what's stored where...]

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