Optical drive technology has been around for decades, and the most popular format in desktop and laptop computers is DVD (the jury is still out on whether Blu-ray will ever truly replace the DVD format.) Your optical drive is something you don’t pay much attention to – until it starts having problems. Unfortunately there is no 1-2-3 process to troubleshoot an optical drive, but there are common scenarios. Here’s a few of them.

Drive can read discs but not burn them

Troubleshooting step 1: Try a different brand of writeable disc

It’s totally possible that you bought a bad set of writeable DVDs. Try another brand to see if you can write data to a disc successfully. When you go to write data to a disc, stuff as much data as possible on it to see if the process completes. If so, your drive is most likely not bad.

Troubleshooting step 2: Use different software to burn the disc

If using the built-in Windows way of burning discs, try Nero (paid product) or ImgBurn (free.) If the writing process completes successfully, your drive is most likely not bad.

Troubleshooting step 3: Is there other software interrupting the disc writing process?

Let’s say for example you use Dropbox, an internet cloud-storage service. If attempting to write files to a disc from the Dropbox share while Dropbox is attempting to sync, this may cause problems (as in file locking issues.) Solution: Shut down Dropbox if burning files from that folder and restart it when completed.

Drive can burn discs but not read them

You burn a disc, it writes successfully, but it won’t read afterward – yet it will read when placed in another optical drive.

There’s really no troubleshooting involved here. If the drive won’t read a disc it just burned, replace it.

Drive will only read certain types of discs

It’s a common scenario when an optical drive gets older that it will only read commercially-written discs (like the DVDs from a game) but not recordables (blank discs you write data to.) 

Troubleshooting this scenario: There is none. Replace the drive.

It’s also a common scenario that some optical drives simply don’t "like" certain types of media brands. For example, in my personal experience I have always found Sony-branded media to be terrible (leaving no wonder as to why it’s always on sale at Wal-Mart) no matter which drive I use, new or old.

Troubleshooting this scenario: Try a different brand of media, and if that doesn’t work, replace the drive.

In rare instances, discs burned on one OS will not read on another. Unfortunately I have to get very OEM-specific here and say that it’s usually a Mac (yes, with proof) that has issues with their optical drives. Basically put, if someone gave you a disc where the data was written using a Mac and your Linux or Windows PC won’t read it but will read every other type of disc, you can safely point the blame squarely at the Mac for that one.

Troubleshooting this scenario: Get the Mac user to send you the files in email or on USB stick instead, because there’s no way to convince one something is wrong with their oh-so-perfect(-but-not-really) machine.

In ultra-rare instances, older (meaning pre-2004) Windows and Linux PCs using older optical drives will only write data to discs that can be read on that computer and nowhere else. Why this happens I have no idea, but thankfully new computers don’t do that anymore and haven’t for years.

Laptop specific optical drive tips

Don’t type when burning a disc

You’re shaking the chassis when doing that, and the laser gets all messed up when writing data to a disc. When burning a disc on a laptop, leave it sit until it’s finished.

Do not burn a disc when the laptop is on battery power

It is totally possible to write discs while on battery, but it’s not a good idea. Your laptop may enable a ‘power saving’ feature while the disc is writing and that can cause the whole process to mess up – and potentially damage your optical drive as well.

Do not slam the tray shut when closing it

I’ve seen this happen many times and it makes me cringe whenever I see it. User puts the disc in the tray and WHAP!, slams it shut. That’s a surefire way to end that optical drive’s life early.

You would think most people have common sense when it comes to this. Um, no, they don’t. WHAP!, in goes the disc. Sigh..

Do not close the screen lid when burning a disc

Laptop optical "slim" drives produce a fair amount of heat when writing a disc. If the screen lid is shut, you’re cutting off a method for heat to escape. Heat obviously rises, and whatever heat isn’t moved by the sink(s) and/or fans will rise up. Block that path by closing the lid and you can effectively turn your laptop chassis into an oven, damaging not only the optical drive but other components as well. The damage is not something you will see immediately but occur over time and end the laptop’s life early.

If you’re wondering who would have a screen lid closed while burning a disc, those that use external monitors routinely do. This is also incidentally why most laptop docking stations today place the laptop in the open position rather than closed. In the past they were closed in docking stations because CPUs used to physically be a lot cooler, and optical drives were a "luxury" option rather than a necessity.