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Exploring Widespread SuperDrive Problems

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TidBITS reader Jim Griffiths recently tipped us off to a widespread issue with SuperDrives: the inability of some drives to read or write to discs. In his particular case, a MacBook Pro began having difficulty reading all kinds of optical discs shortly after its warranty expired. This led him to start a thread describing the problem in the Apple Support Discussion forums.

As of this writing, that thread now contains over 225 messages and has been viewed over 30,000 times. Those are big numbers for the forums - and in fact a similar thread has garnered more than 19,000 views - and indicate that Jim is far from the only one experiencing this problem.

While combing through the posts reveals an unusually high number of failing SuperDrives, the symptoms, causes, and solutions offered don't add up to a clear picture of the situation.


Symptoms and Variables -- These SuperDrive-related problems evince a few common symptoms: at some point, a user's optical drive fails to mount optical discs, usually ejecting a disc after a short period of attempting to read it. However, the systems affected, discs affected, and timing of the symptoms' arrival differ among users.

According to discussion forum posts, affected systems include the MacBook, MacBook Pro (13-, 15-, and 17-inch), MacBook Air, iMac and Mac Mini. The systems range in age from early 2006 to late 2009.

Specific optical disc drives that have been identified on the forums include:

  • HL-DT-ST DVDRW GSA-S10N (the most commonly listed)
  • HL-DT-ST DVDRW GWA-4080MA
  • MATSHITA DVD-R UJ-85J
  • MATSHITA DVD-R UJ-846
  • MATSHITA DVD-R UJ-857E
  • MATSHITA DVD-R UJ-857D
  • MATSHITA DVD-R UJ-867
  • MATSHITA DVD-R UJ-868
  • MATSHITA DVD-R UJ-875

Affected disc types vary: some users are able to mount DVDs but not CDs; other users, vice versa. Some are able to mount commercial CDs and DVDs, but not blank CDs and DVDs, and vice versa. Some are able to mount everything but blank CD-Rs, while others are able to mount everything but blank DVD-Rs. Some are unable to mount any disc of any kind. Some find the issue is intermittent, while others find it constant.

When these problems start happening for users varies as well. Some users noticed problems with their SuperDrives from the start, others say things started going screwy after a couple months, many others complain symptoms didn't appear until just after the 1-year warranty expired, and still others claim problems appeared only after Snow Leopard had been installed.

This breadth of dates, affected drives, and related disc types makes isolating the problem extremely difficult. It's possible - even likely - that the problem is actually a variety of problems. Or it might be a single problem with a variety of triggers, leading to variable symptoms and start dates.

Unfortunately, it's devilishly hard to pin anything down based on anecdotal reports from users, especially in this case. For example, the reported timing of a problem's arrival is dependent on the user's awareness of the problem. For instance, if a user's SuperDrive was dodgy from day one, but wasn't used with a problematic disc type until a year later, the user might report the latter incorrect date as opposed to the correct date as the problem's origin.

Similarly, the great disparity over which discs can or can't be read may point to different problems, one problem with inconsistent symptoms, or inconclusive testing by users. If a user tries only commercial CDs and DVD-Rs, he may report that those discs don't work and make assumptions about other discs or simply not report on them - skewing, or at least complicating, the data.


Causes Offered -- Given these symptoms, users have been putting their heads together, talking with Apple Geniuses, and consulting with other knowledgeable techies to arrive at some possible causes. As you might imagine, there are a variety of suggestions.

The basic debate seems to boil down to whether we're looking at a hardware issue or software issue. Some users believe the problem is simply rooted in faulty optical drives, while others are convinced problems were prompted by a recent firmware or security update.

A smaller group of users on the forums believe the installation of Snow Leopard is to blame, though many others are quick to point out that these problems have existed long before Snow Leopard.

Those arguing against faulty hardware as the underlying cause point to the fact that a wide variety of Macs and drives are affected. Supporters of a software-based theory are also usually convinced that their specific problems began only after a major software update (though there's no consensus regarding which update might have caused the problem). A common argument is that it's possible a faulty update could have lowered the operating system's tolerance to dirt or dust on a disc.

Another user argued in support of a software cause when he found he was unable to mount a disc on his Mac even when using an external optical drive. When he moved the same external drive to a Windows machine, it worked fine.

As both symptoms and the arrival of the symptoms seem to vary, the efforts to pinpoint a single underlying cause haven't gotten far.


Solutions Offered -- Despite ongoing debate over the causes of the problems, many solutions have been proposed. Below is a list of fixes suggested by forum users, all of which offer unpredictable degrees of success or failure.

  • Purchase and employ a DVD/CD drive cleaning disc. These discs are designed to remove dirt, dust, and static buildup from your optical drive. Alas, most users who tried this solution found that the cleaning disc would be ejected before it could do any good.
  • Use a can of compressed air to blow inside your computer's optical disc slot and clear away any built-up dust. While several users found this solution helpful, others claimed it didn't eliminate the problem, and at least one user found it actually made the problem worse - rendering him unable to insert a disc at all.
  • One user recommended tapping right above the disc drive as it begins to slow down its reading prior to ejecting the disc. While this one user swore by this solution, others found it had no effect and, frustrated, suggested that tapping with a hammer might relieve more stress.
  • Several users found that repairing permissions in Disk Utility and resetting PRAM/NVRAM cleared up their issues, though many others said this produced no positive effect for them.
  • One user, whose discs weren't being ejected but instead simply weren't mounting, found success by changing the default system behavior for when a disc is inserted in the CDs & DVDs pane of System Preferences.
  • Several users said that opening Disk Utility prior to inserting a disc solved their problem, though again, success with this solution wasn't widespread.
  • Most - but not all - users who had their SuperDrives replaced - either under warranty from Apple, by paying out-of-warranty fees to Apple, or by doing it themselves - found their problems went away. Some reported needing multiple replacements or even a logic board replacement before the problem disappeared.
  • For users whose machines are out of warranty, buying an external optical drive is a cheaper option than replacing the internal drive. Though, as mentioned above, at least some users found that they were unable to read discs even when using an external drive.


Summary -- While the symptoms and solutions for these issues vary widely, they all revolve around the SuperDrive. If you are experiencing issues similar to the ones described above, consider adding your experiences to the ongoing forum thread linked at the start of this article or contacting Apple (either online, or by working with an Apple Genius at a retail store) to voice your concerns. We'll continue to monitor this issue, and we hope that Apple will take steps to correct it.

 

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Comments about Exploring Widespread SuperDrive Problems
(Comments are closed.)

takhus  2009-09-14 10:47
Another thread on SuperDrive problems that Apple has marked "Answered", but it hasn't been answered at all:

http://discussions.apple.com/thread.jspa?threadID=1422026&start=0&tstart=0

I can't believe Apple's quality has gone down so much that thousands of users have faulty superdrives, and Apple won't even address the problem. I'll now have to save money to buy a cheap Dell as a backup computer. I really expected better.
Thanks for your great summary of that apple thread. I've been watching it for a long time and this article really demonstrates the author spent some time to review the situation before writing the article. I hope your post gets some attention!
I sent a MacBook in for similar symptoms, and Apple replaced the logic board, a cable, and a heatpipe, but not the drive itself. Upon return it was fine. Wild unsubstantiated speculation: perhaps the problem isn't always the drives, but subtle thermal damage to the board?
Glen Moyer  2009-09-14 11:30
This article is an excellent summation of an ongoing and growing problem. Growing equally rapidly is the dissatisfaction with Apple by those of us so afflicted. It's a slap in the face of each of us as consumers that Apple continues to turn a blind eye to this problem. And I suspect most us are not just one-time Apple consumers. I personally own 3 iPods, an iPhone, a MacBookPro (with faulty Superdrive), an iBook and a iMac. I've been using Macs exlusively since the 80s. That the company seems to care so little about us as a consumer is disheartening at best.

Truth is we won't know if this is a single problem with a single solution until such time as Apple first admits the problem exists and then begins some effort to correct it!
Pete Sucy  2009-09-14 11:47
This has been a problem not only with Superdrives. I have had to replace internal CD or DVD drives in nearly every tower Mac I have owned usually after about 2 years. I've had a PM 8500, a B&W G3, Mirror Door G4 and I just replaced the Superdrive on my Quad G5 which hadn't been reading discs for about a year or more.

I believe the problem may be caused by the airflow in these machines which sucks air (and dust) through the internal CD/DVD drive. I've had little luck with cleaning discs as a solution though.
delhiboy  2009-09-14 11:56
I am affected by this problem too. My Superdrive (Macbook Pro 2006) will ONLY write to DVDs - any attempt to burn a CD-R/RW results in failure.

Very weird.
Craig Morgan  2009-09-14 12:14
My MBP (daily use) and a black MB were suffering similar issues for the last year (10.5 and 10.6), degrading noticably in susceptibility to certain brands of media. After suffering a remote install of 10.6 I decided to deal with the issue, I removed the SuperDrive from the MBP, released the upper cover and swabbed the optical head clean, blowing out the open drive mech with compressed air.

No problems either reading or writing, DVDs and CDs since. So looking for a simpler, quicker solution for the MB, I wrapped a credit card in a alcohol screen wipe and inserted it into the left front of the slot-load aperture, rubbing it over the parked lens. Now, its not a 'good' solution, but its handy when you are short of time ... the MB drive is back to full health and when I get some downtime I'll take it apart and more vociferously clean it, but its got me working again.

Looms like the slot-loading mechs are prone to dust/dirt ingress (no surprise!) on the parked optical head!

HTH

Craig
Craig Morgan  2009-09-14 13:08
Nice write-up here with pictures of much of what I've just described ... http://muzso.hu/2008/08/17/how-to-clean-the-lens-of-a-slot-loading-optical-drive-a-macbook-pros-superdrive?page=1
This has happened to me with four or five MacBook Pros (a few 15", one 17"), all of them with SuperDrives. I used some SuperDrives often, and some only for System Updates, but they all fail after roughly 18 months. They start by randomly ejecting disks when I insert them, and eventually, they stop mounting disks at all.

I suspect these small SuperDrives built into 1" thick MacBooks Pros are quite simply of poor quality.
I had this problem with a brand-new iMac last summer. It would mount DVDs every time, but CDs only once in a while. The first drive was replaced, but the problem persisted. Currently I don't need to use CDs much, but it's annoying that the problem has never really been diagnosed.
I feel like I have never seen the BUG problems snow leopard is pushing out, it's like apple is either putting out scrub fires or not saying anything, this has to be a PR nightmare for them... Check out this Apple thread... http://discussions.apple.com/thread.jspa?messageID=10214480 Macbook Pro owners and how all the DVD burning has gone... I have lost both Superdrive and external lacie DL burning. Working all fantastic in 10.5 friday, install SL OS on saturday and all of a sudden burning options has gone... no dust here, just apple bugs... come on steve
David S.  2009-09-15 18:37
I had a problem with my late-2006 15" MBP about a year ago now where it failed to recognise most blank CD-Rs, but was fine with formatted/used CDs (CD-R and CD-RWs)and both blank and formatted/used DVDs. It would eject blank CD-Rs with no message or explanation after whirring for a while.

The use of a DVD cleaning disc fixed it, and fixed it again a few months later when it once again started rejecting blank CD-Rs.

In fact I just tried it again now (first time since I upgraded it to SL, I don't use the MBP much for burning anything anymore now I have an iMac as my main machine). Sure enough a blank CD-R was rejected, a blank DVD-R was fine however and when I ran the DVD cleaning disc it then recognised the same CD-R disc no problems.

It's weird the way it's always blank CD-Rs it has problems with, never used CD-Rs, audio CDs or DVDs; but run the cleaner disc and it's fine again, for a few months at least... It's a MATSHITA DVD-R UJ-857D drive btw.
I have a 17" MBP, 2007 model, and it will no longer burn DVDs. I took it to an Apple store and they acted as if they'd never heard of the problem before, said it would cost $300+ for a replacement so I haven't bothered yet. It is a widespread problem, and nothing to do with Snow Leopard since I haven't gone there yet.
I think Apple is being stupid on purpose. No way to treat us fanboys.
Same problem as (seemingly) countless others. My SuperDrive (UJ-857-C) on my MacBookPro slowly failed until 1 month after the warranty expired, it refused to recognized any optical media. I took it into an Apple store and they offered to fix it for "cost" which was $300! I passed on their offer, bought a new drive off eBay and installed it myself at a significantly lower cost.

I specifically asked the Genius if this was a common problem and was told "absolutely not". Unbelievable...
Jim Gagne  2009-09-21 19:29
Months ago the Superdrive in my 24" white Intel iMac (late 2006) died. It didn't just stop reading CDs/DVDs: it ate them. Roach motel, put them in, wouldn't come out.

An external DVD burner restored DVD function, but this ate away at me. I'm pretty handy and had already replaced the iMac's internal hard drive without any trouble. Last week I bought a replacement internal Superdrive from macsales.com for only $89. Only after I broke its connector to the motherboard did I realize the Superdrive sits in a snap-in plastic carrier and would have been easy to replace if I'd known that. As it was, I've cracked the iMac case six times now. Some of the other connectors are getting weird. I've decided the iMac doesn't like being opened. I gave up.

Also annoying was that the replacement drive didn't fit quite right, because the snap-in carrier replaces the bezel at the mouth of the drive. You need an EXACT replacement. The macsales guy mislead me, saying the Panasonic drive was more reliable.
I have a 2005 17" Powerbook running 10..4.11 and fitted with a UJ-845-C (AppleMac Panasonic Superdrive) manufactured Indonesia May2005.
SDrv has had only infrequent use over its life (PB bought in australia in late july 2005)
The SuperDrive has always had problems reading DVD's but only recently faulted on burning function.
It has been used for less than 20 burns of CD and DVD media and had limited use for read.
The read/mount problems present as either spitting disks straight out or retaining them requiring extensive eject and restart/eject attempts.
Earlier versions of Toast would often assist to eject a disc when other prompts failed. Later Toast v.11 not so.
A few months back It ceased to play CD/DVD's.
Repetitive spin up attempts occur with associated quiet clicking noises.
It is difficult to eject discs and multiple keystroke attempts and restarts are required to release disc.
It has been problematic since new.
PB has had many other problems requiring extensive module replacement
Jane Carter  2009-09-29 04:46
We have 3 iMacs and the 17 inch one will sometimes read a CD or a DVD only about 20% of the time. We havent bothered to try to fix it, because we have the other 2 computers. And the TV for movies.
But its frustrating, and I am glad that I have found this forum and other info on this, as we thought the problem was only our iMac.
chandhiran  2009-09-29 09:37
I solved this problem on my IMac by
insert dvd---> immediately tilt the screen to face up angle. problem solved. pls try it out and let me know
Derek Bill  2009-10-06 10:56
tried this, didn't work, felt like an idiot
Ruthette Mills  2009-10-04 05:59
This summary was very helpful. I live in a rural area, far away from Apple repair service. I bought my Macbook because I was impressed with its workmanship and dependability. When the optical drive quit, three months after the one-year warranty was up, I called Apple Support and was told that I needed to replace the drive. The closest authorized repair shop is two hours away. Estimated cost of repair - $239.

After discussing the problem with my daughter, who attends a college where the art school supplies Macbooks for their students, her comment to me was eye-opening. She said, "Mom, I've had to have three drives replaced! Everyone here knows that it is a problem."

I am so very disappointed in my Macbook.
Kent Green  2009-10-05 12:50
Further to Scott's comment

Even if this disk problem has not been identified and cured, to know what hurdles I am facing, and that I am not alone is worth a lot.

If only Apple or any manufacturer would offer the honest level of practical detail and candor that your article provides. Typical of the idea of TidBits, your article is "the missing link" in owning a Mac. Excellent research and GREAT WORK Doug McLean!
Thank you!
It is unfortunate to say but for as much as I love my mac I am going to have to buy a PC next time. The Costs and ease of repair out way the few niceities that the Mac provides. This was my first Mac and I am very disappointed in the quality, For the price of one out of warenty repair I have almost bought a new pc. Look at the forums at how many peoples Superdrive's fail and at the difficulty in replacing. it amazes me. When a drive failed me on my PC , i bought a new one pulled old one out and slapped the new one it was a very simple and relatively cheap process compared to getting My iMac fixed. Lesson learned.
Thank you so much for this aggregation. My problem has been hit or miss. I have had my MacBook pro late '09 and have attempted to burn CDs/DVDs a total of 10 times maybe success 50%. One solution that a Mac representative gave me was to make sure the laptop (sorry notebook) was on a flat hard surface - this actually seemed to solve my burning DVD dilemma (or it could just have been the 'hit' time instead of the miss) anyways just experienced the problem again but on a CD this time. Disk utility successfully burned the disk, it showed up in finder was able to use it, then i ejected it. When I put it back in it comes up as blank although it works fine on my 2001 Power PC G4 tower.