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

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.