Sometimes I love my job. Most often it's when I, or my editor in this case, find a freeware gem like WinCDEmu. There are plenty of worthy optical disc emulators out there--Daemon Tools, AnyDVD, etc.-- and while they may offer features or emulation modes (such as mounting copy-protected discs) that WinCDEmu does not, they're not nearly as easy to use.
After installing WinCDEmu, you simply double-click any .iso, .cue, .raw, or img image file and it mounts (i.e., appears as a drive letter under Windows). At that point, the CD/DVD will autorun if Windows is set to do so--or you can browse it and extract files. Right-click on the resultant drive letter, select Eject and the disc and drive letter disappear. There's no system tray applet, nor even a Start Menu program to configure the app. That's because the program is meant to function as an integral part of Windows, and it does--quite well. There is an Add/Remove programs entry so in case it causes trouble (it didn't for me) you can ditch it.
As I said, WinCDEmu worked perfectly for me with all the image types listed above, including those for DVDs. It seemingly invoked the Windows new hardware wizard each time a new image type was mounted, but subsequent mounts of an image type did not. If I have any complaint at all about WinCDEmu, it's that I could find no way to make the mounted discs persistent through a reboot. You'll have to re-open the images each time you run Windows.
Persistence through reboots is rarely a useful feature, and I'm not losing any sleep over WinCDEmu's lack of it. As a matter of fact, WinCDEmu has received the highest form of praise I can dole out--it's made the leap from my VMs and test bed onto my main systems.
--Jon L. Jacobi