Is the End in Sight for Built-in Optical Drives?

Ask what is the first thing in a computer to fail – especially in Macs – and the most likely answer you will hear is the optical drive.

I have had countless internal optical drives fail or become so unreliable that they are practically useless, and this seems even more common in laptops (or machines that take laptop drives like the Mac mini and G5/Intel iMac). After a short period of time, they become more fussy over which discs they will read, often spitting them back out a few times before actually mounting the discs – until they fail to accept any discs at all.

This does seem a more common problem with Apple machines – and particularly slot-loading drives. I have had 15-year-old IBM ThinkPads recently (like the 380ED), some of the earliest models with CD-ROM drives, and their drives still work well enough to install Windows from them.

Netbooks such as the Asus EeePC launched in late 2007 without optical drives – purely as there wasn’t enough space for one. Apple launched the MacBook Air in early 2008 without a built-in optical drive, its answer to the netbook phase. Apple has always pushed forward with change, like dropping the floppy drive from the iMac G3 (which also caused a shock), and soon others followed.

It wasn’t until mid 2011 that Apple dropped the optical drive from another Mac, the Mac mini, setting what seemed like a slowly evolving trend in the Apple world.

Around the same time, Apple released Mac OS X 10.7 Lion without ever selling it on a physical optical disc; instead it is available via download from the Mac App Store, which requires OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, or it is possible to purchase it on a USB flash drive from Apple, marking the first time a version of the Mac OS has not shipped on some sort of disk. You can burn your own copy of your downloaded OS to a DVD (as long as you have an optical drive) and boot and install from it, so the optical drive is not totally dead yet, but you can also copy it to a USB stick and boot from it too.

Has Apple ditched the optical drive? Will it ever release another OS on physical media? Will we see future desktop Macs like an iMac or Mac Pro without an optical drive?

The built-in optical drive was introduced to Macs with the CD-ROM drive in the Mac IIvx, IIvi, and Performa 600 in late 1992, which made it possible for Apple to ship the Mac OS on CD and for Mac users to listen to music on CD (and later rip MP3s from them). Later came the Beige Power Mac G3 with DVD-ROM, allowing Mac users to watch their DVDs, and today we have Blu-ray, although Apple does not yet officially support the format.

With downloading music and video from the Internet becoming more popular, which is then stored on your computer and transferred to your iPod or other portable music player, and with music and movies streaming over the Net, the constant day-to-day use of optical drives has dropped, especially in computers.

In the last four weeks, I have used the optical drive in my MacBook twice: Once to install Snow Leopard and the other time to backup my sisters files from her hard drive (pulled and connected to my Mac) to DVD.

I don’t listen to music on a home stereo any more, because my music is stored on my iPhone, and if I wanted to do so, I would hook up my iPhone to my stereo, as is it quicker and easier than finding the relevant CD.

I very rarely watch films on my home DVD player; I tend to watch satellite TV or rent a movie through my TV.

The optical drive still has it’s uses, but it is not as prevalent as it once was, and in this download and streaming age it will become even less useful.

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