Tangerine Fusion

Fruit-Flavored Slot of Death?

- 2000.05.31

Apple's use of easy-to-use (and downright cool) slot-loading CD- and DVD-ROM drives in their iMac line shows that Apple has come a long way since using those awful CD caddies on their early CD drives. Those frustrating and easy to lose caddies actually helped Apple sell the smart but lethargic PowerCD, which was a single-speed DiscMac look-alike designed for PowerBooks (it's now a hot collector's item).

Steve Jobs seemed obsessed with the new slot-type design when he demonstrated it at Apple Event 1999, where the new iMacs were introduced. It replaces the standard tray with a grabbing mechanism, that inhales the disc when it is inserted. I've had a blast showing it off to my friends on my iMac DV. Well, annoying them might be a better way to put it. I've found but one problem with the current design, one that doesn't really affect the iMac, but rather possible the future iBook and PowerBook models.

The iBook was designed to be rugged, to be flung across the room while in operation and still work. (An episode of NBC's hospital drama "ER" proves this.) It was also made so that there would be no flimsy parts and no way that foreign objects - like stray staples and potato chip crumbs in a student's backpack--could get inside the case. And that's the flaw with slot-loading drives.

Even with the iMac's current protective felt-like flap, such paraphernalia could still easily get lodged inside the drive in a backpack-type environment, and that could be a serious problem. The fragile laser lens and positioning mechanism is a prime target for that type of crud, which is nearly impossible to get out, and the damage resulting from it could net a hefty repair bill. While this is great for the repair shops, it's a big headache for users, who expects their Macs to be flawlessly designed.

There are several solutions to this. One is to not use slot-loading drives, but to continue with the laser-on-tray type on the current models and earlier iMacs. This design is harder to damage, but lacks the coolness factor that a slot has. Another is to utilize a protective cover flap. Not only is this no niftier than using a tray, it would be easily broken, just like the port covers Apple began to abandon with the iBook.

One last variation is an internal, automatic flap. This is how it would work:

When the computer is booted up or awakened from sleep and there is no disc inside, the flap opens. When a disc is inserted, the flap closes to protect it. As you probably guessed, the flap reopens to eject the disc. When the computer is put to sleep or shut down, the flap once again slides shut, protecting the mechanism. The flap itself would be made of color-coordinated plastic, that would be strong, yet very laterally flexible so it could curve around the drive as it opens, keeping it from taking up extra space. The paper clip hole in the drive could also open the flap manually when necessary.

The only problem would be making the design as reliable as possible, which should be easy. Since there are no exposed moving parts, as the flap is recessed in the slot, the chance of anything breaking off is very slim, not much greater than the current iMac's drive.

Apple may not want to sell an ultra-ruggedized notebook computer. The iBook's ports and ventilation holes allow grit to get in, although the damage would be much less significant. Also, the nominal cost of the flap mechanism may be too much for volume sales. Still, I think it would be even cooler than the current drive, and for a manufacturer who sets the standards for durability and innovation. Frankly, we could all say with confidence that Apple's got its slot-loading optical drives, well, covered!

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