Letting go of having an optical drive in my machine

September 9, 2017

For various reasons I'm finally getting somewhat serious about planning out a new PC to replace my current one, and this is forcing me to confront a number of issues. One of them is the question of an optical drive.

I've had a succession of PCs over the years, and from the start they've had at least one optical drive (initially CD-ROM drives and then DVD drives). Back in those days it was somewhere between a required feature (for reading CD-ROMs and playing music) and a slam-dunk 'why not' thing. For example, look at what I said for the last machine:

I definitely want a DVD reader and the extra cost for a DVD writer is trivial, even if I haven't burned any DVDs at home over the past five years that I've had a DVD writer in my current home machine.

That emphasis is foreshadowing. It's been five years since I wrote that, and in those five years I don't think I've actually used my current home machine's DVD drive more than a handful of times (and I definitely haven't burned anything with it). In fact right now my DVD drive has been broken for more than a year and I haven't missed it.

(At work, I've burned a handful of DVDs over the years because we still do Ubuntu installs from DVDs for various reasons.)

Under normal circumstances I would put some sort of optical drive into my next machine as well, but unfortunately the circumstances are not normal (as far as I know). I now want to be able to connect at least six hard drives to my machine (although I expect to normally have only four), and modern optical drives are all SATA drives and so consume a SATA port on your motherboard. The current generation of Intel chipsets provide at most 6 SATA ports, which means that motherboards with more than 6 SATA ports are much less common and are supplying those extra SATA ports through some additional controller chipset that may or may not work really well with Linux.

(I have a jaundiced view of add-on controller chipsets of all sorts. Even server vendors have cheaped out and used chipsets that just didn't work very well, such as old nVidia Ethernet chipsets.)

In addition, not putting an optical drive in my next machine doesn't mean going without an optical drive at all, because external optical drives generally work fine, both for reading and for writing (and probably also for things like playing music and watching movies). At work we've mostly given up on getting new servers with optical drives unless they're basically free; instead we have a collection of external DVD drives that we move around as needed.

All of this is completely sensible and logical, but it's still something I've had to talk myself into and it's going to feel weird and a bit unnerving to have a machine without an optical drive. It feels like I'm going to be traitorously giving up on the old optical disc media that I have, even if I have an external drive that should be perfectly good for working with them.

(Humans are not entirely rational creatures, myself included, and so this entry is partly to talk myself into this.)

Sidebar: Blu-ray drives aren't a consideration right now

The short version for why not is that Linux can't really play Blu-ray discs. I mean, yes, it's theoretically possible, but reading about it doesn't inspire me with any confidence for its long term viability or general usability. For the immediate future I expect that if I want to view Blu-ray media, I'm going to need a standalone player with all of the annoyance that that implies.

Blu-ray discs don't have enough data capacity to deal with my backup issues, which are going to call for external hard drives for the foreseeable future.

Comments on this page:

By Brendan Long at 2017-09-09 12:12:19:

I don't suppose you plan to tell us why you need six hard drives?

I'm not sure if this helps, but you might be able to connect some of your hard drives with M.2 or PCIE (not with an adapter - some hard drives are natively PCIE cards).

I recently disconnected the DVD drive in my desktop since it makes noise and I haven't used it in at least 8 years.

By cks at 2017-09-09 20:15:39:

My normal four drives are a mirrored pair of SSDs and a mirrored pair of larger HDs for bulk storage. I have six drives in my machine right now because of a sort of ongoing transition from a pair of system HDs to the pair of SSDs. I want to keep the ability to have six drives at once because I'll probably eventually want to do another such transition, either with the SSDs or with the HDs.

As far as M.2 stuff goes, my understanding is that on current chipsets, using M.2 slots actually eats up some of your SATA ports because the relevant PCI lanes overlap (well, are reused between M.2 slots and SATA ports). This makes sense from a general system design perspective (in that people usually have one or the other) but is a bit inconvenient for someone like me who wants a lot of drives.

I made the switch to a USB DVD drive a decade ago. I was hesitant for the same reason I took years to switch from PS/2 to USB for my keyboard: a lingering distrust of the reliability of the BIOS to speak with USB devices, since USB requires discovery and enumeration with a complex protocol, which is not a concern with dumb connectors. Once switched, I got used to it immediately, though, even at the time. Now it’s just another appendage buried in a drawer that I use roughly every other year. For you, that’s not even a factor.

I don’t know how sentimental attachment to physical media might have affected me – I never had a lot of CDs or DVDs –, but my guess is still that the transition will feel like a complete non-event from the other side.

By Miksa at 2017-09-11 07:20:26:

As far as M.2 stuff goes, my understanding is that on current chipsets, using M.2 slots actually eats up some of your SATA ports because the relevant PCI lanes overlap

I believe that only applies to M.2 SATA drives. If you use M.2 NVMe drives they should normally have dedicated PCIe lanes. NVMe drives cost a bit extra, but who doesn't want those 3GB/s speeds.

Written on 09 September 2017.
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