Are Optical Drives Going the Way of the Floppy?

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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