Did Apple Jump the Gun About Ditching Optical Drives?

June 7th, 2013

As an expectant audience of journalists, developers and fans of Apple Inc. await the announcements from the WWDC on June 10, some of the chatter revolves around new Macs. What kind of Macs? Well, with reports of diminishing stocks of the MacBook Air, that would surely a candidate. Other reports mentions a MacBook Pro with Retina display refresh, though it may be postponed for a while, and what about the aging Mac Pro, long in need of serious upgrades?

But one thing is certain about most of the expected Mac upgrades, and that is the loss of the optical drive. Yes, you can still get an optical drive on some legacy MacBook Pros, 13-inch and 15-inch, but one industry analyst suggested that they are on the way out. Indeed, Apple might not install the latest Intel Haswell chips on them, but keep them in the lineup until sales have diminished enough to drop them.

The iMac lost the optical drive last year, but the only purpose it appeared to serve was to allow Apple to make the edges very thin. Since there was no room for an optical drive, it was removed, except that the design change doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. You only notice the iMac is thinner when you stare at the edges, which is not the normal way of doing business. I haven’t looked at the edges of my 2009 iMac since I moved to a new home last year. Besides, the 2012 iMac is more difficult to service, and an easy way to upgrade RAM was dropped from the 21.5-inch version. Where’s the value in any of those decisions?

What’s more, Apple lost out on hundreds of thousands of possible Mac sales last year because the new iMac was afflicted with early production delays. Was it really worth the effort?

So now there’s the Mac Pro, with one report suggesting the next version will ship without any room for internal expansion beyond RAM, and it won’t have an optical drive. You’ll have to depend on Thunderbolt and USB 3.0. Does Apple have any customer research to indicate that users of the Mac Pro have no need for optical drives? There’s even a second bay if you want to install two on the current model. Is that destined to become history?

Of course, Apple avoided Blu-ray altogether, although you can still get one as an external drive. Steve Jobs once called the licensing “a bag of hurt,” and maybe he was right. But does that mean customers should be inconvenienced anyway?

Yes, I realize that more and more Mac users don’t need optical drives, and so perhaps the long-term trends indicate that physical media is passé. But not today. Some software is still available on physical media, and its a sure thing older versions are in a number of cases. What if you need to reinstall everything from scratch? And don’t content creators sometimes generate DVDs of their files?

Apple’s argument is that, if you still need an optical drive, buy an external SuperDrive. It’s $79, and appears to be identical to the ones that used to be installed on a Mac note-book or iMac. So, other than the extra expenditure, the inconvenience may be minor, though it forces you to carry an extra appendage in your carrying bag if you have a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro with Retina Display — or a Mac mini for that matter.

I suppose it can also be argued that, for the majority who don’t need an optical drive, the money you spend on a new Mac gets you more value in other ways, such as better performance, slimmer designs, and all that sort of thing. Why pay for something you probably don’t need?

In the scheme of things, Apple is just thinking ahead. They decreed that you didn’t need a floppy drive in 1998 when the original iMac appeared. However, the early iMacs didn’t even include a CD burner, so the lack of a floppy didn’t make a whole lot of sense — at least not then. It took a few years before the external floppy drives that many purchased sat unused.

So will that happen in the next two or three years with optical drives? What about just using the drive so you can watch a rented movie on your Mac? Oh, that’s right, there’s no Blu-ray drive either. Just stick with iTunes, Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Instant Video. All right, maybe you have to pay extra for a beefier data plan when you’re on the road, but you won’t have to fret with all those discs. Not near an Internet connection? That’s just too bad.

Now my son’s very troubled 2008 black MacBook is on its last legs. He has loads of CDs and DVDs, and wouldn’t want to lose the internal optical drive. There’s still an entry-level 13-inch MacBook that would fill his requirements should he decide to buy one. Perhaps he should hurry. That model may be on the endangered note-books list.

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9 Responses to “Did Apple Jump the Gun About Ditching Optical Drives?”

  1. T. McCune says:

    Hi Gene
    Another good piece.

    “Not near an Internet connection? That’s just too bad.”
    Up here in the Great White North, this situation is more common than you might think. The loss of that optical drive really hurts.
    I also like burning CD’s and DVD’s as a means of storage, and passing along photos and videos to friends and family.

    Storage problems? Put your data in the cloud.
    Want lots of tunes anytime? Get satellite radio and/or a “subscription” music plan. Bah!

    There seems to be a conspiracy to extract a monthly fee for everything.
    Call me old-fashioned, but I like owning things outright and like being in control of my music playlists.

    For the price of a year’s “subscription” to satellite radio, you can buy an iPod and start building a music library of your choosing. One of those doodads to play the iPod over a car’s sound system isn’t a whole lot more money, and you’re set to go. Music, your way, wherever you go.

    Keep up the good work

  2. Yacko says:

    External burners go for $30-50. How much good does an internal burner do if the MacPro is under a desk or is similarly inaccessible? Thunderbolt -> hub with USB 3 port -> 5 foot cable -> drive sitting on workdesk.

  3. DaveD says:

    Perhaps. I would definitely consider Apple a leader in the tech business. The paths they’ve taken were more the correct ones. When Apple blazed a new trail, being a foot-dragger I am never the first one on it. I can recall that back in late 2008 Apple ditched FireWire port with the first unibody aluminum 13-inch MacBook. FireWire made its reappearance after that initial aluminum MacBook was upgraded into a “pro” model.

    My early Macs had a lot of ports. I probably only used a few such as ADB, telephone modem, and serial. Many ports are gone today unlike the PCs which are still carrying VGA and PS/2 (Why?).

    There were a lot of discussions when Apple ditched the optical drive with the first MacBook Air way back in 2008. Thin was in and the Air was a trailblazer. I haven’t done any CD burning choosing to have digital files or bought any CDs/DVDs after switching to iTunes downloads in years. I do rip my old CDs that I come across from time to time. The optical drive was used late last month. I needed to do a system restore from Time Machine on a Snow Leopard MacBook via the OS X install CD.

  4. Kaleberg says:

    Apple is just following its customers. Fewer and fewer of them need optical drives. That’s all there is to it. Most people buy music online – from Amazon, from Apple, from the band itself. It’s the same for movies and TV shows. Sure some people have legacy collections of physical disks, but most people get their video online. They are upgrading their digital connections, but dropping cable or satellite subscriptions. In fact, they are upgrading their cell phone plans while dropping land line connections completely.

    Sure, you still have some fossil collectors, like me, who have a laser disk player and three speed record turntable, but that’s a legacy issue. I also have a more modern optical drive or two sitting around somewhere that I use for ripping my old DVDs.

    Keeping up with the customer base is a challenge, but Apple seems to be willing to meet it, even if it ticks off some old customers. Apple knows that desktop computers like the iMac are turning into specialty boxes aimed at a limited market. Real computer users have phones, tablets or maybe laptops if they need the power and storage. They have been trying to buy time for the iMac by making it lighter, thinner and less of a space eater. It really should just be a screen, ideally immaterial, that you can set up wherever you want to work. Slap down a keyboard and pointing device and use it. If you want an optical drive, slap that down on the table next to your keyboard or use the networked one in the garage.

    • @Kaleberg, Point of order; Maybe tracking use of optical drives reveals they aren’t used very much. That wasn’t true about floppy drives in 1998, when the first iMac came out. So I hope Apple’s customer surveying is a whole lot more sophisticated now.


  5. John says:

    It is not as if Apple were dropping support for optical drives from OS X. I’m looking forward to updating my laptop to the next rMBP. It won’t ave an optical drive and I won’t miss it. I can’t even remember the last time I used the optical drive on the current MBP. We used to burn lots of discs. No longer. Discs are too small for backup ( I use a Drobo with 2GB capacity ) and friends don’t want discs either. We post pictures and movies on Dropbox to share.

  6. Jim Gramze says:

    The answer to CDs and DVDs is to rip them. iTunes will rip the music, a program called Handbrake is freeware that will rip the movies. So you have the external optical at home and you can bring the content you want on your hard drive. Simple, I’ve been doing it for years and years.

    • @Jim Gramze, Yes, there are alternatives. But as hard drives become smaller and smaller because of the wholesale switch to SSD on the part of Apple, you might have a problem.

      It may be a while before SSD storage becomes generous at affordable prices.


  7. Jim Gramze says:

    Think of carrying all those CDs and all those DVDs around with you along with your built-in optical drive. That is absolutely ridiculous. With all the files ripped and stored on internal hard drives which you can access through an external “toaster” you can quickly load up what you want to carry on your laptop and even delete videos after you watch them from the laptop which is temporary storage. I used to have a wall of CDs just for my comic book collection of about 40,000 comics.

    I have ten multi-terabyte hard drives containing all my data, and they are duplicates of each other such that only five of the drives are actually unique. So much better to have a quarter of one short shelf containing all my movies, tv series, music, and comic books which I have catalogued in order logically so any individual file is very easy to find. Easy to find instead of looking through a thousand or so disks. And quick to load up.

    You really need to rip all those disks before optical goes the way of the dinosaur. Or are you still using those 5-1/4″ floppies too?

    The “toaster” I speak of takes a regular internal hard drive and works much like a piece of toast popping drives in and out:


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