Apple SuperDrive review

Starting with the MacBook Air, Apple began to abandon the optical disc as a standard fitting to its Mac computers over six years ago. But for those times when you do need a real CD or DVD drive to hand, there’s always the Apple USB SuperDrive, a popular add on for people buying new Macs who aren't quite ready to let go of the CD or DVD as a means of storage yet.

The USB SuperDrive – What is it?

The Apple USB SuperDrive is an external drive for reading CD and DVDs, and additionally for writing to CD-R and DVD-R discs. It was originally designed to complement the MacBook Air but may now prove of benefit to users of other Macs that now do not include a built-in optical drive.

Like all Apple’s optical drives since the 1990s iMac, it a slot-loading design, which means there’s no fiddly tray to attach the disc to before sliding a wobbly mechanism closed. Inserting a disc is like posting a letter through its single wide slot. And when you eject the disc, it pops out through the same slot.

In fact, the SuperDrive is designed to only work on Macs without their own CD/DVD drive. If you plug it into a pre-Retina MacBook Pro, for instance, you’ll see a notification that the Apple USB SuperDrive is not supported on your Mac. On a Windows PC it won’t even power up to accept an inserted disc.

To see if your Mac supports the SuperDrive at https://support.apple.com/kb/HT5630

And if you do need to use the SuperDrive with a Mac that Apple does not officially support, you can modify a plist string to enable it. See http://www.hardturm.ch/luz/2011/10/how-to-make-the-macbook-air-superdrive-work-with-any-mac/. There’s also a simpler method requiring a single line in the Terminal to modify nvram settings, although it’s believed that this is not such a universal fix. Read: Is it worth buying Apple's SuperDrive?

SuperDrive: Build and Design

The Apple USB SuperDrive is a utilitarian device that serves one purpose, but its simple, clean design is quintessential Apple.

Built around a solid slab of aluminium, it measures 139 mm square and stands 17 mm tall on the desk. At a weight of 344 g it also tends to remain where it is put, unlike lightweight third-party plastic optical drives which slide around when you try to handle them.

That rootedness is particularly important for a slot-load mechanism, which requires a little pushing effort before a disc is first accepted into the mechanism.

The SuperDrive connects to your computer through USB, using a short 33 cm cable that’s already attached to the drive. It’s only USB 2.0 rather than the latest USB 3.0 standard, although that is sufficiently fast for reading and writing optical discs.

To illustrate, a ‘1x’ datastream from a DVD is nominally 11.08 Mbit/s. Converting bits to bytes, that’s equivalent to 1.385 MB/s. So a ‘16x speed’ DVD-R blank disc may be able to run at 16 x 1.385 = 22.16 MB/s. That fits comfortably within the circa-30 MB/s typical top speed for the USB 2.0 bus.

As to how fast the USB SuperDrive is rated by Apple, that’s harder to ascertain. In the case of the remaining Apple Mac computers that feature built-in SuperDrives, the given speed is typically ‘8x’, so it’s likely the same specification applies to this external model.

With a blank disc inserted, we also saw a maximum speed option of 8x, using a 16x-rated TDK DVD-R disc.

Regarding types of disc supported, this information is documented in a Mac’s System Profiler with the USB SuperDrive attached. As well as reading CD-ROM data discs, CD music discs and DVD films, here we can see it supports the writing of CD-R, CD-RW and DVD-R, DVD-R, DVD-R DL, DVD-RW, DVD+R, DVD+R DL and DVD+RW. Read: Best Apple SuperDrive alternatives

SuperDrive: Performance

The USB SuperDrive performs well in its role as an external optical drive. We tried burning a 1 GB Linux ISO to DVD-R, and the blank took 4 minutes to write, excluding verification time.

The unit stays relatively quiet in operation, in contrast to high-speed optical drives that aim for fastest possible speed and resemble a Harrier jumpjet preparing for takeoff.

For the final word on its usefulness, you may like to consider if you need an external drive at all. With at least one Mac on the network with a CD/DVD drive, you can access DVDs on a optical disc-free Mac by taking advantage of OS X’s built-in disc sharing feature.

You need to enable this on the Mac with a drive, from System Preferences/Sharing. At the top of the listed options is ‘DVD or CD Sharing’. By ticking this box, any other Mac connected by ethernet or Wi-Fi to the same network will be able to access the contents of a disc loaded on this machine.

And if you do really need an optical drive, you may like to consider an external Blu-ray version which will enable you to watch Blu-ray films (once you’ve found the required software from a third party, since Apple does not enable this). Build quality and attention to detail will be poor in comparison, but there are options for around the same price as the USB SuperDrive. Read: How to burn a CD, DVD, or Blu-Ray on a Mac and How do I play a DVD movie on my Mac?

OUR VERDICT

The Apple USB SuperDrive remains a sturdily made and useful addition for anyone with a Mac that lacks its own optical drive. It’s not essential for most users these days, but if you need a no-nonsense unit built to the highest standard with the minimum of needless frills, this is still the drive for you.

Find the best price