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Drive Quality and Reliability Issues
The quality of CD-ROM drives in general is important, but is only as important as the quality level of other peripherals in the system. It is not the "big deal" that hard disk quality is, simply because the stakes aren't nearly as high. When your hard disk fails, you have to contend with the double-whammy of a system that is dead in the water, and possible loss of your critical data files. When your CD-ROM drive fails, you just can't use CD-based titles until you get it repaired or replaced.
It is perhaps because of this lack of criticality that there are so many el-cheapo CD-ROM drives on the market, far more than is the case with hard disks--people just won't buy unreliable hard disks. Unfortunately, many CD-ROM drives are so cheap and so cheaply-made that they are practically disposable; they are purchased for less than $100 and fail after a short period of time, but repairing them is rarely cost-effective so the user simply buys a new unit.
Here, as in most other places, remember that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch (TANSTAAFL). Some people are surprised to find CD-ROM drives from top vendors selling for $300 when inexpensive no-name brands are available for as little as one-third the price that are "just as fast". Just remember that in a market economy there are usually reasons why things cost more, or the companies trying to sell them would go under. If the performance is similar (usually they actually aren't when you examine the performance characteristics in detail anyway) then the difference is going to be in quality, service, support, documentation, or somewhere else.
One of the biggest problems with quality when it comes to the newer CD-ROM drives is that they are spinning the disk faster and faster, but they aren't engineering the drives properly to do this in an efficient, reliable way. Some of the newer, cheap 12X and higher drives have terrible problems with vibration and noise. Many of them can be extremely loud and can become louder when used over several months' time. The vibration can eventually cause failure of the drive.
Another problem with these faster drives is "ramp up / ramp down" noise as the drives change speeds. A 12X CLV drive has to change its spindle speed from 2,520 RPM to 6,468 RPM very quickly when moving from the inside to the outside of the disk and then back again when reversing direction. This increase and decrease in spindle speed is very noticeable on some drives and can get quite annoying to some users. It also causes wear and tear on the drive. In fact, CAV drives were developed in part to combat this problem.
In general, drives that use caddies tend to have fewer problems than those that use trays. The tray uses a cheap gear-driven mechanism that is prone to failure, especially if it gets jammed when opening or closing the tray. Caddy-based units also seem to be less susceptible to dirt problems that can plague the cheaper units. See this section for more on the two different loading mechanisms.
In many of the faster drives, due to the high spin rate and the stress that this places on the spindle motor, the drive will automatically spin down and stop after a period of inactivity. This can be as short as a few seconds. The problem is that the next time you need to access the drive, you will have to wait while the spindle drive spins the disk back up to speed. For many applications this delay is unacceptable and can cause real problems. If this is the case, you need to make sure to either get a drive that doesn't do this, or one where the spin-down feature can be controlled or disabled.