Optical drives – CD and DVD-Rom drives and CD/DVD-writers - are not going to disappear overnight because too many people still use them. However, an increasing number of new computers have abandoned them and they have no ability to access CDs and DVDs.
Why is this? One reason is that CDs were used to distribute music and software, but both of these are easily downloaded from the internet these days. Why bother with a stack of music CDs when you can buy tracks online, or better still, subscribe to unlimited streaming music from services like Google Play Music, Microsoft Groove, Apple Music, Spotify, Deezer and so on?
DVDs were mainly used to distribute movies, but as with music, you can buy movies online and download them from Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, and you can stream them from services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and others.
Occasionally, software, such as operating systems, were distributed on DVDs, but now these are downloadable too.
The main use for CD/DVD-rom drives is for accessing old discs and you may have a large library of DVD movies and CD music albums that you built up when the format was popular. Selling them isn’t an option because they will fetch only a small fraction of their original purchase price, so it is hardly worth it.
Add an optical drive
One solution is to simply add an optical drive to the computer. Internal models were standard for many years, but compact computers like ultra slim laptops and all-in-one desktops just don’t have the space them these days.
A better option is to use an external CD/DVD-writer that plugs into a USB socket on the computer. They cost a bit more than internal models, but they are still reasonably cheap. An advantage of an external model is that it can be used on any computer and some models don’t even need a power supply. The computer’s USB provides all the power it needs.
USB gadgets are portable and can be plugged into whatever computer you want to use. An optical drive can therefore be shared among all of your computers and it is not tied to one as would be the case with an internal drive. When you swap the computer for a newer and better model, you can keep the optical drive.
To find a USB optical drive for your computer, just enter ‘USB DVD-RW’ into the search box at Google. Click the Shopping link afterwards and a wide range of drives are listed, some of which are very cheap indeed.
Save discs to disk
CDs and DVDs can be turned into image files with the .iso extension and then stored on the computer’s disk drive. They do tend to use up a lot of disk space, but with 1TB drives even in budget PCs and laptops, most people have more disk space than they need anyway. External USB drives with 2, 3 or even 4TB are available, so disk space isn’t much of a problem.
Music CDs can be stored on the disk drive by turning them into audio files, such as MP3s. The MP3 file format is highly compressed and so you can store hundreds or even thousands of CDs on a large disk drive. iTunes and Windows Media Player can be used to rip CDs to disk and store them as MP3s in a library.
You obviously need a PC with an optical drive to copy music CDs to MP3s on disk, so it is not an option if your only PC is one without an optical drive. However, some people are on their second or even third PC and they may have old ones with CD/DVD-rom drives that can be used to copy the discs. The tracks can then be transferred to the new drive-less computer over a home network or using a USB flash memory drive.
Software CDs and movie DVDs can be converted into .iso files and stored on disk. However, this is only if they are unprotected. If you have created DVDs yourself then they will be unprotected and can be copied, but you might find Hollywood movies do not copy because of various protection systems. Just try them and see.
BurnAware Free, ISO Wordshop and CDBurnerXP can all be used to read CDs and DVDs and save them to disk as .iso files. (Opt out of any unwanted extras when installing them.) Do it on your old PC and then transfer the files to your new PC.
Play CDs and DVDs
Any CDs or DVDs that have been converted to .iso files can easily be accessed. Just double click the file in Windows and the disc image is added like a virtual optical drive. Windows 8 and 10 mount the .iso file like a virtual optical drive and it then appears in Windows Explorer and other software like a real physical drive.
If you have Windows 7 or XP, get Virtual CD-Rom Control Panel from Microsoft.
After double clicking and mounting a .iso image of a CD or DVD, it can then be accessed in the usual way. Go to Explorer, select This PC or Computer, and double click the drive to open it. Software can be run by double clicking it on the virtual disc. Media players will play movies on the virtual disc and so on.
For example, if you have converted a DVD to a .iso file, double click it to mount it. Now run VLC media player, select Discs on the left under Devices, double click the disc drive and it will begin to play the movie.
Who needs optical drives?
Streaming music and movies avoids the need to play physical discs. You can rip music CDs to MP3s or some other audio file format and store them in a music library on the PC. Software CDs and movie DVDs can be converted (where possible) to .iso disc images, which can then be mounted and accessed through a virtual CD/DVD-Rom drive