The Apple Note-book: Is the Optical Drive the New Floppy?

May 11th, 2012

As speculation about the possibilities of the next Mac note-book revision heat up, some are wondering whether the MacBook Pro will become just another MacBook Air? Maybe it will be lighter, thinner, and perhaps contain a longer-lasting battery. At the same time, with the arrival of Intel’s Ivy Bridge chips, it’ll run faster too.

It sounds good so far. But I won’t speculate as to when you’ll see them in the stores.

There will also likely be a wider selection of solid state drives, and maybe prices will begin to come down to the point where you don’t go broke having a larger storage capacity. An SSD means much faster start times, quicker app launching, faster file copying and so on and so forth.

But ultra-thin also means that something has to go, and that something would be the optical drive. Certainly anyone who owns a MacBook Air — or one of the Intel-sponsored Ultrabook imitations — is familiar with this drastic change. Sure, an optical drive is a fairly inexpensive option, but how many people buy them?

Indeed do you need an optical drive anymore on a personal computer?

Certainly Microsoft is considering the options, inasmuch as Windows 8 ditches DVD support in Windows Media Player. Suddenly it becomes an extra-cost option if you still want it, and certainly the tens of millions of Windows users who own PCs equipped with optical drives aren’t going to be happy.

Although Apple never added Blu-ray support for OS X, you’ve been able to play DVDs, except for the original 10.0 release where it was missing in action (it was restored in 10.1). There appears to be no evidence Apple plans to kill that DVD playback support anytime soon, or ditch optical drives from all Macs.

But the real question is how often Mac users still rely on optical drives nowadays. I got my most recent desktop Mac, a 27-inch iMac, in late 2009, which means that I might be tempted to consider a 2012 model whenever the next iMac is released. In any case, about the only time I use the optical drive is to rip a CD from my collection. The drive stopped working briefly, although spraying some compressed air into the slot cleared that up. I still have another few dozen CDs to import into iTunes, and once that’s done, the optical drive will be dormant.

I also have a 17-inch MacBook Pro, 2010 vintage, and I do not recall ever using its optical drive other than to test it to make sure it still works. So I do not think I’ll be that disappointed if my next Mac note-book doesn’t have one. Sure, I’ll probably buy an external drive as a crutch.

That harkens back to the days of the first iMac, in 1998. The critics howled at Apple for having the temerity to drop floppies. Other Macs lost them soon thereafter. As you might expect, several companies sold external drives as replacements, and I had one that supported a floppy-based format that went nowhere called SuperDisk. The floppy-like media had a storage capacity of up to 120MB, and a later version doubled that. I used the drive to copy floppies to the hard drives, and sometimes to make CD copies.

A year later, the SuperDisk was idle. It remained attached to my various Power Macs for another year or so, until I concluded it wasn’t worth the bother. Sure, PCs still had built-in floppies, standard or optional, and it took a while for the other platform to catch up, but they did.

With the increase of cloud-based storage, online software repositories, and streaming multimedia content, the need for the optical drive has been sharply reduced. So it would appear that Apple and the makers of those Ultrabooks are betting you won’t need them soon. Whether Apple will eliminate them on all note-books this year is anyone’s guess. I expect there are still people with CDs and DVDs who will chafe at the loss of a built-in optical drive, but I don’t expect the trend to move to desktop computers for a while. Apple, for example, could build a slimmer iMac without sacrificing an optical device.

Certainly I can see the benefits when traveling. A note-book can lose up to a pound in weight, and be much thinner. Consider the airport scenario, where you break out your MacBook Air, and observe with pity other passengers struggling to set up their thick, heavy note-books and, perhaps, find an outlet with which to charge the batteries before the flight leaves.

Indeed, the main factor that keeps me from getting a MacBook Air, other than budgetary considerations, is the small screen size. I’ve grown accustomed to 17 inches, and wouldn’t like to cope with a smaller display. There are even rumors Apple wants to drop that size, because of relatively low sales. But we content creators would object strenuously.

But if there is a 17-inch MacBook Air in Apple’s near future, I would consider it seriously. I wouldn’t worry for a minute if it didn’t have an optical drive. But I still have to get around to ripping those CDs. I’ll have to remember to do that before Apple removes optical drives on desktop computers too — they’ve already started with the Mac mini.

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6 Responses to “The Apple Note-book: Is the Optical Drive the New Floppy?”

  1. Aiyowasai says:

    I personally haven’t used a disc in years. Good riddance I say!

  2. Andrew says:

    I was a MacBook Air early adopter and currently use the latest model 11″. I own the external DVD drive and have used it on occasion. I use the optical drive only for software installation and for when I receive documents burned to CD.

    I also own a 15″ MacBook Pro from 2010 and use the optical drive quite often to watch DVD movies and for computer games that require the DVD in the drive to play. Many games are getting away from this practice, but some still require the DVD and a built-in drive is far better for a machine used for gaming. I watch DVD movies in OS X and game in Windows 7 (installing Windows with Boot Camp or Parallels is also MUCH easier with a built-in optical drive).

    On a machine like the MacBook Pro, I prefer the built-in drive, or at least an option to specify the built-in drive vs a second HDD or SSD. I see little benefit in giving the 15″ and 17″ machines the Air treatment as those are already very slim for their size and of moderate weight for their capabilities.

    For travel, I always take the Air, and one very long trips, such as military schools which can last weeks or even months, I’ll carry the Air and put the Pro in my check-in luggage. Anything less than a month, the Pro usually stays home.

    I will likely not bother with another MacBook Pro regardless of whether or not it has optical drive, and will replace my current Pro with an iMac for gaming and movie watching at home. for work and travel the current 11″ Air is all the computer I could possibly want, and I imagine future 11″ or 13″ Air models will continue to satisfy me.

  3. dfs says:

    Sorry, I but I do still use my optical drive, because a.) I rip the occasional CD and DVD (I’m mostly into classical music, so for my purposes MP3 doesn’t make it), b.) some software is still delivered in that format, c.) some of the important data in my particular profession is still exchanged via CD-ROMs. Admittedly, its tempting to remove the optical drive from my iMac, replace it with a SSD, and pick up an external optical drive. But, although I hear plenty of good things about SSD, I hear at at least one bad thing, having to do with their having a limited service life because the individual erasable segments can only be put through a limited number of erase cycles. Then too, the price per gigabyte is still high. So I can’t help wondering if the SSD is really ready for prime time. Maybe in a couple of years, when the medium is a bit more mature and I can buy a reasonably large-capacity SSD without bankrupting myself , I’ll spring for one, but for the moment I’ll stick with what I have.

  4. javaholic says:

    Because size and weight isn’t so much an issue for me, I’ve always thought the 13” MBP offers better comparative value for money over say, a 13” MBA with its missing bits. Seeing how there’s a bit of a price premium you pay for the lighter form factor, I wonder how a potential MBA 17” would fare replacing the current model? I still use the optical drive on occasion for some of the same reasons others have posted, even though Apple are busy trying to tell me I no longer need to. I’m also still seeing a lot of optical media out there and broadband bottlenecks.

  5. Mario says:

    I’m a Senior IT Technician at my company and I use a 2.8GHz Dual i7 13″ MBP as my main computer. I put 8GB RAM in it (it can take 16GB), and it can do everything I need it to do during the work day. At work I connect it to a 22″ flat panel, but it can handle a much bigger display if I had one available. In fact, I learned that it may be able to run up to three displays using a special DisplayPort-to-DVI splitter.

    I run Server Admin, Workgroup Manager, ARD, CoRD, VMWare (running Windows 7), and MS Office in multiple spaces pretty much all day while I’m at the office. Sometimes I’m asked to do video format conversions for presentations, and the computer can handle it all without spinning up the fan. I also have the Adobe CS5.5 Design Premium Suite installed for those occasions when I need to troubleshoot issues with those programs.

    My boss originally wanted to get me a 15″ MBP, but I’m glad I opted for the little guy.

  6. John Mount says:

    I have to say I think this is nothing more than Apple shoving its agenda down my (and everyone elses’) throat. I own a 2007 17″ MacBook Pro and I love it. I have used nothing but Apples since they finally started using Intel processors.

    I do maintain issues with Apple though. For every great idea they have (iPod, iPhone, iPad, Magnetic Power Connectors, Retina Display); they have one bone headed move (Newton, Pippin, custom connections, telling me I don’t need more than 64 gigs on my iPad, no expandable memory on products, constant need for adapters, their inability to accept the fact that two mouse buttons were better than one, etc). Their inability to give us Blu-Ray drives and now ditching the optical drive is nothing more than a move to save money and promote their itunes agenda.

    I refuse to pay iTunes $20 for a movie in digital format when I can buy it from a retail store and have a physical copy that I own. Not to mention, their so called hi-def movies suck in comparison to the Blu-Ray versions. I constantly use my computer as a video system and I am not ready to give myself completely over to the will of Apple.

    These kinds of moves are similar to the ones that took them to the brink of destruction in the eighties and early nineties. If it hadn’t been for Apple figuring out that people would like funky colored computers and the iPod we would probably count Apple among companies that went under during the early 2000’s.

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