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What is an Optical Disk?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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An optical disk is a compact disc or CD. Its formatting will dictate whether it is a DVD, CD, read-only or rewritable. They have replaced vinyl records, cassette tapes, videotapes and floppy disks.

The optical disk became the preferred medium for music, movies and software programs because of its many advantages. Compact, lightweight, durable and digital, they also provide a minimum of 650 megabytes (MB) of data storage. A double-layered and double-sided DVDs hold up to 15.9 gigabytes (GB) of data.

This form of media is so named because its technology is based on light. As the disk spins, a laser beam follows a spiraling trail of pits and lands in the plastic material of the disk. The pits reflect light differently than the lands, while a device translates the reflective difference to bits of "on/off" or 1 and 0. The bits form bytes that carry the digital code of the data stored on the optical disk.

A standard optical disk measures 4.724 inches (120 mm) in diameter and 0.0472 inches (1.2 mm) in thickness. It is made from polycarbonate with a reflective layer of aluminum, coated in lacquer. The master disk is made from glass. Nickel stampers are produced from the glass master and used in an injection-molding machine to "press" or produce multiple copies for distribution. If the disk is double-layered, there will be stampers for each layer, after which the two layers must be bonded together. A double-sided disk requires different stampers for each side, in addition to each layer.

Notwithstanding music, movies and digital photographs, the optical disk is increasingly being used for data storage such as back up and archiving. Instant access to files and the ability to use a built-in DVD player all make it a superior choice over legacy tape backup units for the average computer user.

A blank optical disk can be purchased in many formats. The least expensive will be an audio CD, as these are single-sided, single layered, and not rewritable. DVDs are more expensive, with a double-sided, double-layered disk being the most expensive. Before purchasing this type, be sure that your DVD player can handle the format. Blank disks are available nearly everywhere music, DVD movies and computers are sold, including discount department stores.

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Discussion Comments

By Armas1313 — On Feb 22, 2011

We've come a long way since the record, which measured bumps with a small needle. Now we use lasers, which are much more precise and do not skip. Scratches in optical discs do not stop the normal course of the recording.

By Renegade — On Feb 20, 2011


I would disagree, because the disk is an easy way to record music, transport games, and store any kind of data. We are not at the point yet where we have these assets available on the internet to the same extent, and people also prefer to keep a hard copy of information rather than leaving it free on the internet.

By arod2b42 — On Feb 17, 2011

These disks are becoming as obsolete as records. We still use them for games and movies, but those are already becoming readily available via download on the internet. Soon, we might have absolutely no need for optical disks.

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