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Updated July 2022
Best External DVD Drives Review by BestReviews
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Buying guide for best external DVD drives

Before broadband internet became widespread, optical discs like CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs were the best way to install large programs, software packages, and operating systems onto your computer’s hard drive. Compare that to the present, when everything from shareware programs to OS releases can be downloaded to your computer’s SSD drive, while many programs are web- or cloud-based.

The fact that they’re no longer a popular option in today’s computers doesn’t mean external DVD drives, external CD drives,  and other optical drives don’t have a place. DVDs are still one of the most popular formats for watching movies. Many people have years of backups on DVD-Rs and DVD-RWs, not to mention pictures, media, and older application installers. As there’s no sign that built-in internal optical drives will be making a comeback anytime soon, especially in laptops and notebooks, and as tablets and tablet convertibles become more popular and more compatible with external USB accessories, there’s never been a better time to buy an external DVD drive.

Open external DVD drive on a table
High-end external optical drives can include software that improves reliability when reading discs that have fingerprints or minor scratches.

The evolution of the drive

It wasn’t that long ago that optical drives such as CD-ROM readers and DVD players were among the most sought-after features in a desktop or laptop computer. Now, they are all but an afterthought on many current models, especially among laptops and notebooks. As laptop designs have become ever thinner and lighter, eliminating DVD players and optical drives became one of the easiest ways to drop weight and free up additional space.

Optical drives like CD and DVD drives read and write data from optical discs by means of a laser. The laser, emitted from a lens, reads tiny pits or marks on the surface of an optical disc, the pattern of which is then interpreted into digital data. Burning optical discs involves the laser creating these pits or marks in a layer or layers of pigment sandwiched inside the optical disc’s plastic surfaces. Some discs can be read-only. Some can only be written once. Others can be rewritten multiple times.

DVD drives are usually downward compatible. For example, if you buy a drive that can write formats like DVD-R and DVD-RW, it will also read DVDs, as well as read and write CDs.

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Key considerations when choosing an external DVD drive

Compatibility

The most important factor to consider when shopping for an external DVD drive is compatibility. Will your system recognize it when you plug it into the USB port? Will your system let you play music or movies? Can you read documents from it? Can you use it to burn data onto a disc?

While major compatibility issues are largely a thing of the past, it’s still worth double-checking to make sure your external DVD drive is supported by the hardware and operating system you use. This is especially true if you run Linux.

Also, check to see if a drive is compatible with the formats of the optical discs you want to use. For example, few external DVD drives support the once-popular DVD-RAM format.

Some computer manufacturers, such as ASUS, HP, Apple and Dell, sell their own external DVD drives. Obviously, these offer the best and most worry-free compatibility with their products, although these benefits often cost a premium.

Tray-loading, slot-loading, and top-loading

External DVD drives can load optical discs via a tray, a slot, or by lifting the top.

Tray-loading drives are the most common. They open in front at the touch of the open or eject button and either extend a motorized tray or pop the entire mechanism forward. You pop or drop the disc into the tray and then either push the tray closed or press the eject button again.

Slot-loading drives offer a slot into which you introduce an optical disc. A mechanism grips the disc and pulls it inside.

Top-loading drives pop open a lid that allows you to place the disc onto the spindle.

Noise

Noise is another factor to bear in mind when shopping for an external DVD drive. There’s nothing more distracting than trying to work on archived documents or enjoy a movie only to be disturbed by the sound of your external DVD drive spinning, whirring, and vibrating. While all optical drives make some noise, try finding one that’s as quiet as possible.

Speed

Another factor to consider is the drive’s speed. Most external DVD drives offer similar read and write speeds, such as 24X CD read speeds and 8X DVD write speeds. As a general rule, you’re probably not going to use an external drive all the time, so it may not be worth spending a lot of money for the fastest possible speeds. Most fast external DVD drives boast 24X DVD write speeds, which can write an entire dual-layer DVD in minutes.

If you’re shopping for a DVD drive for your desktop, you’re better off buying and installing an internal optical drive. As a general rule, internal optical drives are faster and less expensive than external ones.

External DVD drive features

Since the external DVD drive market is so mature, there’s not a lot of feature differentiation between models. Even so, there are a few things you should be on the lookout for.

Read vs. write

The majority of external DVD drives on the market read and write both DVDs and CDs. Also called DVD writers, DVD burners, and combo drives, these models can write data to recordable formats such as DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, CD-R, and CD-RW. Some drives even offer M-Disc support, an optical disc format available from Ritek and Verbatim with a lifespan of around 1,000 years. A few models only read DVDs and CDs. While these may not be versatile options, they can be cheaper than DVD burners or combo drives.

Software

While popular operating systems like Windows and macOS come with the built-in ability to write to CDs and DVDs, third-party software is often more powerful and has additional features. Check the manufacturer’s description to see if a DVD drive comes with software and whether that software is compatible with your system.

Blu-ray support

Blu-ray is a high-definition format that was originally intended to replace DVDs. Although Blu-ray discs have not completely replaced DVDs, they do offer many advantages, including high-definition movies and larger storage capacities. Blu-ray drives and blu-ray writers that include support for the Blu-ray XL (BDXL) format can write disks up to 128GB.

Shock resistance

Another feature to consider is whether a drive is shockproof, especially if you plan on taking the drive on the road with you. Many drives are specifically designed to withstand the rigors of daily travel, making them an ideal option for road warriors. Even if you don’t bring your DVD drive with you, a shockproof, skip-resistant design will improve its performance on your desk and help keep it from being affected by accidental bumps.

Portability

If you’re buying a portable CD or DVD drive for use while traveling, try to find one that offers a carrying case as well as an ultra-slim and lightweight design.

Orientation

Some optical drives are designed to operate lying flat on a desk or other surface, while others are designed for vertical use. There are even some drives that can be operated in either orientation. Depending on your available space, a drive that supports vertical orientation may be a more convenient option.

USB 2.0, 3.0 and USB-C

Most computer manufacturers have moved to using USB ports that support the USB 3.0 standard and USB-C connectors. USB 3.0 offers improved power efficiency and faster data transfer over USB 2.0, while a growing number of desktops, laptops, and tablets use USB Type-C ports. The older USB 2.0 standard, however, remains popular in external DVD drives and is plenty fast enough for most optical disc uses.

external DVD drive
DID YOU KNOW?
The DVD- (DVD-R, DVD-RW) format was invented by Pioneer in 1997. DVD+ (DVD+R, DVD+RW) came in 2002 from a coalition of companies led by Sony. They’re not interchangeable, so drives that support DVD- may not support DVD+.
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External DVD drive prices

While the majority of external DVD drives are similar in price, there are some features that can significantly impact their cost.

Inexpensive

Entry-level external DVD drives can cost less than $20. These basic disc drives can read DVDs, CDs, and CD-ROMs and can often write to DVD-R, DVD-RW, CD-R, and so on. They usually offer USB 2.0 connectors and slower read and write speeds.

Mid-range

Mid-range external DVD drives can cost $30 to $50. These offer more features than their budget siblings, such as improved software, the ability to read and write the M-Disc format, travel accessories, and higher-quality materials.

Expensive

Top-of-the-line external DVD drives can cost $50 to $150. These can include support for Blu-ray discs, the BDXL format, M-Disc, the fastest read and write speeds, and premium software.

Accessories

Blank DVDs and optical media

If you plan on burning your own data DVDs and CDs, you need blank media. A standard single-layer blank DVD holds 4.7 GB of data, which may not be enough for even one HD movie, although you can pack a lot of documents and photographs into a single DVD-R or DVD-RW.

Double-layer DVDs, as their name implies, offer twice the amount of storage, or 8.5 GB. Quality is important in blank optical media, so pick a well-known brand with good performance over the cheapest discs you can afford.

USB hub

If you have a laptop or other computer with a limited number of USB ports, and adding an external DVD drive means having yet another peripheral to plug into your system, look into getting a USB hub. USB hubs plug into one of your computer’s USB ports and expand it into two, three, or more ports. Choose a powered USB hub as external optical drives tend to need more juice than some other accessories.

USB cables

A good USB cable is a must-have when using a lot of computer peripherals. Choose a USB cable that matches your external DVD drive’s interface. USB 2.0 cables are different from USB 3.0 cables, and USB-C cables have a different configuration altogether. There are some USB cables that boast high-end materials, but in general, a solid USB cable from a reputable company will do the job.

Make sure you choose a USB cable of the appropriate length, too, which may be as short as 1 to 3 feet if you’re using an external DVD drive right next to your computer.

DVD cleaners

DVD players and optical drives occasionally need to be cleaned, which primarily means removing dust from the drive’s lens. CD and DVD player cleaners are available that combine a disc with a soft brush or wipe and an alcohol-based solution that can be placed inside a DVD drive and cleans the lens while it spins. For some external DVD drives, you can see the lens and clean it yourself with a cotton swab and a mild solution of alcohol and water. Don’t get the solution in any other part of the drive.

The rise of faster internet speeds and cloud computing has furthered the trend of dropping internal DVD and optical drives, but that doesn’t mean the external DVD drive is obsolete.

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Tips

  • Give it enough power. Most external DVD drives are designed to draw power from your laptop’s USB port. If you have an older laptop with USB ports that don’t provide the required power, you will need to find a drive that has an AC adapter or other dedicated power source.
  • Set the region. When you first plug in a DVD drive, it will ask you what region to lock it to. Select the region you live in or the region where you will primarily use the drive. In most cases, you can only change the region five times before it permanently locks to a location.
  • Watch the slot size. If you have a slot-loading external optical drive, be careful not to insert smaller discs into the slot, as the drive won’t be able to grip or remove them. Tray-loading and top-loading drives can often use smaller optical discs.
  • iPads don’t play well. While tablets have become better at connecting to external accessories and more useful for productivity, Apple’s iPads and iPadOS do not support connecting, reading, or writing optical media of any kind.
  • BDXL isn’t backward-compatible. Although the ability to write 128GB discs is an appealing selling point of a Blu-ray burner or Blu-ray drive, bear in mind the format is not backward compatible. Any BDXL discs you create will not play in many older DVD and Blu-ray players.
Person putting a DVD into an external drive
Movie DVDs are locked to 10 different geographic regions for copyright and licensing control. External DVD drives that have been locked to one region can’t play DVD movies from other regions.

FAQ

Q. Is USB 2.0 fast enough for an external DVD drive?

A. Yes, USB 2.0 is fast enough for most people who need to use external DVD drives. USB 2.0 has a top data transfer speed of 60 Mbps. While slower than USB 3.0’s 625 Mbps, this is much faster than 24X top speeds of most external optical drives and is the equivalent of over 45X, which DVD drives can’t reach.

The only time USB 2.0 might have a problem is if you’re using an HD Blu-ray. That said, USB 3.0 drives are backward-compatible, although they can only reach USB 2.0 speeds when plugged into a USB 2.0 port.

Q. Will my external DVD drive work with my USB hub?

A. An external DVD drive may need more power than a USB hub can supply on its own. External DVD burners in particular have higher power requirements. If you plug an external DVD drive into a USB hub, make sure that the hub has enough power to support the drive, such as with an AC adapter for the drive or the hub.

Q. Can I use an external DVD drive with my Chromebook?

A. Devices that run Chrome OS can only read files from optical discs such as CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs. Chromebooks and other computers running Google’s Chrome OS do not support writing to optical media, nor do they support audio CD or DVD movie playback.

Q. Do I need to install drivers to make an external DVD drive work with my computer?

A. In most cases, no. Many external optical drives are designed to be plug-and-play. Both Windows and macOS generally recognize external DVD drives automatically. Chrome OS allows reading but not writing or playing optical discs. However, you may still need to install separate software to watch movies or perform specific functions.

Q. What if my external DVD drive doesn’t have an eject button or the button stops working?

A. Among popular operating systems, both Windows and macOS include methods to eject a disk from within the operating system. On Windows, open File Explorer, right-click on the drive, and select Eject. On macOS, find the drive in the Finder, drag it to the trash or right-click on it, and select Eject. If nothing else works, find a small hole near the slot or eject button. This is a manual eject mechanism common to most optical drives. Use a straightened paper clip or SIM tool to activate this manual release.

 

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