I can’t even tell you the number of times I’ve run into issues with optical drives. Either they don’t read, they don’t burn, they burn bad discs, etc, etc.
I think what people generally tend to fail to realize is that it’s exactly what the name implies: an optical drive. There’s a lens which directs a laser light onto the disc and that’s how the disc is read. Any disruption in that laser light (by something as small as a speck of dust) can severaly degrade the optical drives performance.
If you stop and think for a moment about all the air that passes through your computer case, you’ll quickly realize that it’s very easy (and doesn’t take long) for dust to accumulate. If you don’t use your drive, or don’t open the tray, it doesn’t mean that dust isn’t accumulating.
CD lens cleaners are inexpensive and easy to use. They are generally a normal CD with a few audio tracks (explaining the discs progress) and a set (or several sets) of brushes precisely glued to the disc. Simply inserting the disc into your drive causes the laser to seek across the disc, and the brushes gently pass over the lens, cleaning it of any dust and debris.
Depending on the retailer and what’s written on the package, lens cleaners can vary greatly in price. It’s mostly markup, as the cleaners themselves are almost all the same (or similar enough to get the job done). But if money is tight, or you can’t run to the store, you can try using a can of compressed air to gently blow across the lens. NEVER blow using your mouth (you could deposit saliva on the lens) and NEVER use your finger (oil deposits) — these are FAR harder to remove than dust. You can try a soft, lint-free cloth and gently wipe the lens. Be careful not to scratch it!
Questions, comments, and feedback about this are welcome and appreciated!