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For Seniors: Laptop Buying Decisions — Which Optical Drive?

Your laptop is likely to come with an optical drive, which is a small drawer that pops out, allowing you to place a DVD in a tray, push the drawer back into the laptop, and access the contents of the DVD. You’ve probably played a movie from a DVD from your local video store or from services such as Netflix.

Laptops can also read data from or play movies or music from DVDs or store data on them (called burning). If you buy a software program, it may come on a CD or DVD, so you also need this drive to install software.

However, very small laptops such as ultrabooks have no DVD drives to keep their size and weight down. In that case, you can buy an external DVD drive and plug it into a port on your laptop.

When you buy a laptop with a built-in DVD drive or use an external drive, keep these things in mind about optical drives:

  • DVDs versus CDs: DVDs have virtually replaced CDs as the computer storage medium of choice, but you might still find a CD floating around with music or data on it that you need to read. For that reason, you might want a DVD/CD combo drive.

  • DVD drives: DVD drives are rated as read (R), write (W), or read-writable (RW). A readable DVD drive only allows you to only look at data on your discs, but not save data to them. A writeable DVD drive allows you to save data (or images, or music) to discs. A read-writeable DVD drive lets you both read and write to DVDs.

  • DVD standards: In the earliest days of DVDs, there were two different standards, + and –. Some drives could play DVDs formatted + but not those formatted –, for example. Today, you should look for a DVD drive that is specified as +/– so that it can deal with any DVD you throw at it.

  • Blu-ray discs: If you want to be able to play the latest optical discs, get a laptop with a Blu-ray player. Blu-ray is a great medium for storing and playing back feature-length movies because it can store 50GB, which is the size of most movies.

One of the first things you should do when you buy a laptop, if it doesn’t come with recovery discs, is to burn recovery discs you can use if you have to restore the laptop to its factory settings. You might need to do this, for example, if a virus corrupts your system data.

Your laptop should offer this as an option when you first start it, but if it doesn’t, check your laptop help system or the manufacturer’s website to find out how to burn recovery discs, which allow you to return your system to factory settings if you have a major crash.

So much can be done from the Internet today, such as downloading and installing software and streaming video movies, that many people can do without a DVD drive.

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