Computerworld’s Seth Weintraub thinks optical drives are going the way of the Dodo bird. He predicts the MacBook Air and white MacBook will get Secure Digital (SD) slots with their next updates (will the WhiteBook get another update?), and that SD may replace built-in DVD drives […]

Optical Drive

Computerworld’s Seth Weintraub thinks optical drives are going the way of the Dodo bird. He predicts the MacBook Air and white MacBook will get Secure Digital (SD) slots with their next updates (will the WhiteBook get another update?), and that SD may replace built-in DVD drives entirely on the next generation of MacBooks.

Why Otherwise Explain SD Bootability?

Why otherwise, Weintraub reasons, would Apple bother going to the trouble of explaining how to configure a bootable SD card, which it recently did in a Knowledge Base article. He deduces that the SD card is now a key element in Apple’s MacBook strategy, destined to replace optical drives on most Apple laptops going forward, which would logically mean system install/software restore data along with application software eventually being shipped on SD rather than optical media.

Those who really need DVD access would still be able to buy external USB Superdrives, like the one available for the optical drive-less MacBook Air.

This concept makes good sense to me, a nascent SD card fan. I mean, as Weintraub challenges, which would you rather have on your laptop — an easily rewritable, silent, 32GB SD card the size of a postage stamp that can hold about the same amount of data as eight DVDs, or a big, heavy, noisy, vibrating, power-sucking spinning disk with media that scratches easily, and which gobbles up about one-quarter of your computer’s internal volume?

“Optical is Over”

“It is a no-brainer,” declaims Weintraub, “optical is over.” I think he may be onto something here. Indeed, I’ve always thought CD and DVD ROM optical storage were second- or third-rate technology. They’re agonizingly slow. I absolutely revile having to boot from a DVD or CD and go to great pains to avoid it. Optical storage isn’t stably archival either, and the ability to rewrite is clumsy and lame at best. Floppies probably stayed beyond their best-before date even on the Mac, but at least they were easily erasable and rewritable, and I really missed that with the transition to optical, whose main advantages were cheapness combined with decent storage capacity. Then there are the manifold other shortcomings inventoried in the preceding paragraph. SD technology, which is already pretty impressive and has plenty of potential for further development, promises to be a much more satisfactory and versatile solution than optical drives.

SD data storage is somewhat more expensive than DVD at roughly $2 per gigabyte, but that’s not really a deal-killer issue. A full-length movie can fit on a 1GB SD card, and SD is a vastly superior medium for data backups. You can even use Time Machine with SD, which you can’t with DVDs. With 32GB SD media in the works (8GB is currently tops), the capacity headroom issue should be resolved.

Not Everyone Agrees

However, not everyone agrees. Prolific Irish blogger Thomas Fitzgerald thinks the optical drive isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, suggesting that Apple’s equipping the 13″ and 15″ MacBook Pros with SD card slot is simply a matter of making life easier for users with digital cameras and for compatibility with the majority of PC laptops that come with card readers, rather than spearheading any gradualist agenda to displace the optical drive.

Fitzgerald points out that when Apple unveiled a floppy drive-less iMac in 1998, most software was already being shipped on CD-ROM, but to his knowledge (and mine), no major commercial software has ever shipped on SD media. Good point, but that could quickly change.

The Cost Factor

More compellingly, Fitzgerald notes that the OEM cost of 8GB SD cards currently runs in the neighborhood of $14, even for bulk purchases. Economies of scale with increased manufacturing volumes would help lower that somewhat, but unlikely ever to as cheap as DVD, which is indeed a significant stumbling-block to displacement of optical by SD media.

The Blu-ray Factor

Less convincingly, Fitzgerald also cites “the Blu-ray factor,” noting that the format continues to gain momentum, and contending Apple won’t be able to ignore it forever. I’m skeptical. Most Mac users are getting along quite happily without Blu-ray, and it’s really a peripheral issue, both figuratively and literally, since you can buy a Blu-ray drive if you really want one. As Fitzgerald concedes, DVD still accounts for over 75 percent of video content sold (although he says Blu-ray sales have increased over 230 percent year over year). However, the media cost factor is far less significant for movies than for software packaging, and one can easily envision SD supplanting or supplementing Blu-ray and DVD both.

What do you think? Are built-in optical drives lame ducks, or does the optical category — DVD or Blu-ray still have a future in Apple laptops? External DVD drives are already a fait accompli on the MacBook Air. Will it spread to the larger MacBooks?

Photo courtesy of Marco Wessel.

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  1. i think this is somthing REVOLUTIONARY from the MAC birgade…iam really proud of them…keep it upp..

    iam ur supporter in PAKISTAN!!!!!!!

  2. Sure, I’d much rather get my next copy of Logic Studio on a 32G SD card rather than have to feed my Mac 8 DVDs. I’m sure this time next year, 32G SD cards will be $20 bucks.

  3. “Indeed, I’ve always thought CD and DVD ROM optical storage were second- or third-rate technology.”

    How long is ‘always’? Since the ’80s when CD storage came into its own or post-1999 when the SD card was first marketed?

    When will content owners allow movies to be distributed on SD card? AFAIK optical disk and download are the only legitimate ways to get contemporary movies. What ‘full length movies’ are you fitting on a 1GB SD card? Where did you get them from?

    Sorry, while the merits of SD card may be better than optical storage I don’t think optical drives are going anywhere in the near term. Of course, optical drives will eventually go the way of the dodo just as all tech does.

  4. well, here’s my take on it.

    I do agree totally that sd cards are the way to go (but apple not making the drives sdxc compliant is a huge mistake going forward.). optical drives do add alot of heft and are a battery drain.

    Blu-ray will never replace dvd’s or cds as storage medium, because the read and write times are ridiculously slow. the fact that blu-ray’s holds 50GB doesn’t change the course of things. how long would it take to burn 50GB worth of date at 16x or even 24x (which no commercially available Blu ray burner does). it takes my iMac about 5 minutes to burn 8GB worth of data to a dvd at top speed. It only takes about 2 minutes to move data off or on of my 8GB sd card.

    Don’t get me wrong Blu-ray will over take dvd’s as a movie carrying device, but I don’t think it will catch on as a everyday “let me store my data” device.

  5. Sounds right to me – Along with Logic, I’d much rather get OS X installs on SD.

  6. James Dempsey Tuesday, July 14, 2009

    Personally, I would rather have the big, heavy, noisy, vibrating, power-sucking media drive… because that’s what the other hundreds of millions of computers have. The SD card idea is nice in theory, but until every single computer on the planet has an SD card reader, it’s completely useless.

    The CD is virtually useless as a storage device anymore (due to the 700MB limit), but we still use them because there are tons of computers out there that don’t have a DVD drive.

    Sure, we can always buy an external drive, but who wants to carry that around in a bag with a laptop. I have to burn CD/DVDs all the time when I’m on the go – and I don’t know of a single friend, family member or client that even knows what an SD card is, let alone if they have a drive or how to use it. But they all have media drives, and they know how to use them.

    And I sure don’t want to spend $8 for a 4GB SD card when I can put the same data on a 50-cent DVD and not care if I get it back. I like the idea of the smaller, easier to carry SD cards, but….

    I’m sure SD (or something similar) is the future, but I’m not sure it’s the immediate, or even near future.

    1. SD cards are re-usable/eraseable in a matter of seconds. That card can easily be used over and over and over again for the one time $8 cost.

  7. First of all, yes, I think Apple will do this just because they like to choose THE next mediums, good or not (ie: DisplayPort).

    However, I like the way that’s going: Apple is at least choosing a good media format this time around, and when has cost been an issue for Apple?

    That beside the fact that when a new optical drive format comes out, you need new drives, new lasers, etc. With SD, you can expand your media capacity without ANY need for new hardware (unless you want faster transfer speeds).

    I like this. I like this a lot.

  8. I think this is something that could be an amazing advancement in technology, but not yet. When technologies allow a cheaper, more consumer friendly SD card that can do everything a blue ray and DVD can do (and maybe even more) we may start to see a SD revolution! but for now I agree, Apple only put in a SD slot because the people (mainly photographers) wanted it, I know it sealed the deal for me to not have to carry around my card reader when they came out with the new Macbook Pro’s.
    I find this very interesting, and hope that it may be something that we can see happen in the near future.

  9. I’d rather get my next movie rental on SD card instead of DVD or BlueRay. Optical must die. Imagine how easy it would be to carry around a couple of movies on a high speed SD card that can be popped into the side of your Mac or a slot on your iPod?

  10. Personally, I think it would be a mistake for Apple to discontinue optical drives all together at this point in time. Unlike floppy disks (which were, despite what some people said at the time, on the verge of becoming obsolete in the late nineties), CD’s and DVD’s still serve a few specific purposes which Apple has exploited in their software and for which SD has not taken over in a meaningful way.

    Floppy Disks died out because their capacity was incredibly limited. And while SD drives have good capacity, CD’s and DVD’s are good for information we wish to save and NOT overwrite or modify. I am thinking mainly about music, movies and software programs.

    Ripping music to your hard drive is a big part of what the iPod has always been about and getting rid of an internal drive makes a big assumption that everyone wants to only download their music now. Even Apple recommends backing up your music, and lots of people use CD’s…especially if they want to listen to the music in an environment where they won’t have or don’t want to use the iPod, like a car.

    DVD’s are big business, blank DVD’s are still useful and if anything, Apple should support Blue-Ray. They are behind the curve on this. Apple users might not be hanging themselves from the rafters because their laptops don’t have Blue-Ray, but it would be a welcome addition that users would enjoy. And being able to burn Blue-Ray would be good for people who work in media and want to burn HD disks on a laptop from time to time. External drives are a MAJOR pain in the ass and effectively erase the benefit of having a laptop. As high definition replaces everything else, it’s going to be a pain not to have a DVD drive. Does Apple assume that the entire DVD industry will retool because they don’t have an optical drive anymore? As a consumer, I expect to be able to use standard technology of the day which is not obsolete with my Mac…and I’m sorry but DVD’s are not obsolete yet.

    CD-ROM’s are also great for software. There are a lot of vendors who allow you to download software, but it’s not practical to download large software suites and quite frankly when I am spending $2,500 or more on a piece of software, I want to have a copy of it, and I don’t want to have to create that copy myself. For myself, this is the Adobe Creative Suite, which I use every day. But there is also MS Office, Final Cut Pro and its’ associated programs, etc. It’s good to have critical software on hand in the event that you need to restore something, and don’t have an internet connection available.

    I am not really into gaming, but as far as I know, all computer gaming still relies on CD-ROM’s. I know that’s considered more of a PC thing.

    Sure, this could all change tomorrow, but there are many industries that would have to retool how they provide their electronic data. Optical drives should not be tossed out until there are real replacements.

    Apple clearly thinks of itself as a trendsetter and feels a responsibility to push technology forward by refusing to support that which is no longer useful. But before you do that, you need to make sure the technology you want to drop is not useful and that you’re not discontinuing it just so you can be perceived as cutting edge. That would not be a service to your customers.

    1. I can’t back up my music library to a single CD or DVD. It takes several. I have over 70GB of digital photos. No way I’m doing that to DVD!!! I use BackBlaze to back those up to the cloud. If my disk dies I can download from BackBlaze or I can order my files on a DVD ($99) or USB drive ($189).


    2. I’m not sure if this is a plug for BackBlaze…but no one burns their entire music collection to a single CD and no one will burn it to a single SD drive. But if they download an album from iTunes, they might to back it up in a way that allows them to listen to it on a stereo.

      For the amount of data you’re talking about you really need BackBlaze…er…uh…(shameless plug)…I mean a back up hard drive. Backing data up to a cloud is not secure and you lose control over the information. If you really care about the data, especially in professional circumstances, you back up twice and place one in an off site location.

    3. @Pete,
      I am concerned about data loss (not theft). I have an external drive where my photos and other media is stored. I use BackBlaze ( I do not work for or have any financial interest in BackBlaze ) to back that up. Should my HD fail or my house go up in flames, my documents can be recovered from the Cloud.

      Please elaborate on how “Backing data up to a cloud is not secure and you lose control over the information”? Give facts. Not opinion.

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