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5 Reasons the Optical Drive is Going Extinct

Although most of us may not fully realize the implications, the optical drive in all its forms is going extinct on the Mac platform. In another year or two at the most, the optical drive will be no more and these are five reasons why.

1) Broadband is Getting Faster

If you are a lucky resident of London, you might be able to try out Virgin Media’s 1.5Gbps/150Mbps cable internet service. If you are on this side of the pond, you might be looking at Verizon’s FiOS, AT&T’s U-Verse, or possibly even great fiber or ADSL2+ service from an independent ISP like Sonic.net. In years past, many of us were thrilled to have access to 1.5Mbps DSL. These days, 6Mbps is the low end of what allows you to optimally experience online media and we are moving toward a new 10Mbps baseline.

2) The Mac App Store is a Sign of Things to Come

Apple’s amazing success with the iOS App Store is now followed up by the Mac App Store. Software distribution has been changed forever. Although Windows is still behind this curve, the Mac is now quickly moving toward all digital software distribution. The runaway success of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion is a strong indicator of how well this model works. Recent releases of Final Cut Pro X and Motion are also good examples.

3) Blu-ray on the Mac is Never Coming

In June 2010, Steve Jobs made it clear that Blu-ray is still not coming to the Mac anytime soon. Even though Blu-ray has been out for some time now, it has never been offered in any Mac and never will be. It is possible to use a Blu-ray drive with a Mac but this is likely only to be of interest to the technologically-inclined. The success of Netflix Instant Streaming and iTunes HD rentals along with others such Amazon Instant Video and Hulu make it clear that streaming media is here to stay. Instant gratification is winning which is no surprise to anyone.

If you compare a 720p iTunes HD movie to a 1080p Blu-ray release, you might notice a slight difference in quality on some movies if you look very closely. For the vast majority of users, 720p looks great and 1080p does not give you much more in terms of movie-enjoying experience, especially if you view it from a reasonable viewing distance. Apple has been rumored to be offering an HD+ option in iTunes which would provide 1080p rentals and purchases and would make this argument moot for at least some titles. Once again, fast broadband of at least 10Mbps would be needed to allow streaming of 1080p content.

4) The Optical Drive is Impractical for Storage

The next time you use 228 DVD-R discs to backup your 1TB media collection, please take pictures and send us a link. Although Blu-ray might be a good option for backups, the cost of discs compared to the costs of hard drive storage make it impractical for the majority of users. In addition, adding a Blu-ray is not seamless like it was for DVDs. Although much better than the number of discs for DVD backups, twenty 50GB Blu-ray discs for 1TB of backup storage is still excessive and impractical.

When a 1.5TB hard drive costs $50, a 2TB hard drive costs $70, and a 3TB hard drive costs $120, it just makes sense to buy a few extra hard drives for backup purposes. With the ever-increasing storage demands of multimedia content, this trend will not change. Last year, before the big clean, my iTunes Library grew to nearly 3TB. This is surprisingly easy to reach when you download anything in HD from the iTunes Store since you end up with both HD and SD copies of everything.

5) The Optical Drive is Leaving the Mac for Good

The trends in Mac models clearly indicate that the optical drive is leaving the Mac for good. With the release of the new MacBook Air models came the discontinuation of the white MacBook except for educational institutions. The low-end MacBook Air model now takes the low-end slot in Apple’s laptop lineup and of course lacks an optical drive.

In addition, the new Mac mini models also completely lack any built-in optical drives. This is a sign of things to come. This leaves only the MacBook Pro models, which are rumored to be getting thinner without an optical drive, iMacs, and Mac Pros as the final models with built-in optical drives. New Mac Pro models may be around the corner but it could be into next year before we see a new model. The iMac has recently been updated but, like the Mac Pro, has been in the same case design for many model revisions. Both of these models are likely to sport new case designs soons and they may very well drop the optical drive entirely.

What Next?

It is time to get ready for the optical drive to go away. Now might be a great time to make disk images of your DVDs and use a utility such as Handbrake to convert them to a digital format. If you are still using CDs or DVDs for backup, look at moving to a collectin of hard drives (large storage requirements) or even USB flash drives (small storage requirements) for backup purposes.

Also, expect that only software that has incredibly large media associated with it will come on physical media. Even then, it is likely that such software will come on USB flash drive rather than optical media. With the advent of faster broadband this will also turn into digital distribution.

The next few years will likely see an increase in the availability of fast broadband to users that now only have access to basic DSL. Use of online streaming media at home and on-the-road will increase dramatically. In a few more years, optical media will likely go the way of the cassette tape and VHS.


Purchase Recommendations

As mentioned in the article, there are some fantastic deals on hard drives if you are willing to go with the reduced performance “Green” models. Most often this means a decreased rotational speed (5400RPM instead of 7200RPM) which affects access time a little bit. For bulk storage, it will not be noticable. If you are looking at high performance main storage, it is probably worth it to look at faster storage. Take a look at the 3TB Hard Drive Buyer’s Guide for more on performance drives.

We have three specific recommendations that are a fantastic value. First is the Samsung Spinpoint F4EG 1.5TB hard drive. It is a 5400RPM drive and is respectable performance-wise but is absolutely amazing in its price of only $50. At about $0.033/GB, this is an excellent value.

The second drive is the Hitachi Deskstar 5K3000 CoolSpin 2TB hard drive. This drive is once again 5400RPM and also a great value at $70. At about $0.035/GB, this is still a very good value, but not quite as good as the Samsung 1.5TB drive although it is very close.

The final recommendation for bulk storage is the Hitachi Deskstar 5K3000 CoolSpin 3TB hard drive. This drive runs about $120 but has dropped to as low as $106. At its current $120 price it is about $0.04/GB. This is a good value but does not match the incredible value of the Samsung 1.5TB drive or the still excellent value of the Hitachi 2TB drive.

The bottom line is that cost per GB is only one indicator when you buy a drive. If you need less than a 1TB of backup space, the 1.5TB drive is the best option. If you want a little headroom then moving up to a 2TB or 3TB drive makes a lot of sense.

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