Who Needs an Optical Drive Anymore? (Not Me)

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

Back when the MacBook Air first arrived on the scene, there was much speculation about how Air users would manage without a built-in optical drive (I wrote an article on the subject at the time). It turns out that they manage quite well. If they have another Mac, such as an iMac, the Air can access the other Mac’s optical drive via “DVD or CD Sharing” (enabled in System Preferences). For those rare times when the Sharing option is either insufficient or not available, they can purchase a MacBook Air SuperDrive (or use almost any third-party optical drive). But, for most of the time, they simply don’t need any optical drive.

The absence of optical drives is a hot topic again — this time due to the imminent release of the iPad. There is speculation as to if and when the iPad can ultimately replace traditional laptops for general users. If so, a common question once again is: How will such users get by without a built-in optical drive?

I, for one, expect to have no problem with no drive. As I wait for my iPad to be delivered Saturday, I’ve considered my current use of optical drives in my Mac Pro and MacBook Pro. After some reflection, I realized that I am barely using these drives at all. My usage is not quite zero, but it is getting darn close. This is because in almost every case where I previously required a CD or DVD, I now use better (or at least acceptable) alternatives.

• Installing new software

There was a time when most of the third-party software I purchased came on discs. No more. Now I download all of my new software from the Internet. The only exceptions are rare occasions where I receive a disc directly from a vendor (such as at Macworld Expo or CES) or for especially large application packages (such as Microsoft Office).

• Playing movie and music discs

At one time, when I wanted to watch a movie on my computer, I’d insert a rented or purchased disc into the DVD drive. While I still rent DVDs (and very occasionally purchase them), I typically now watch these discs only on my home theater system. If I do expect to watch a video on my Mac, I instead acquire the video online, usually from the iTunes Store. From iTunes, I can even decide to watch it on my home theater system via Apple TV.

I can think of only two recent exceptions to these practices: When I purchased the Blu-ray version of Inglourious Basterds, I transferred to the digital copy of the movie from the DVD to my Mac. Second, I played a demo DVD from CES on my Mac.

As for music, I can’t recall the last time I purchased a CD. Whenever it was, the disc was inserted into my Mac’s optical drive only one time: to transfer its contents to iTunes.

• Burning music CDs

Years ago, if I wanted to play music in my car, I would burn a CD from a playlist in my iTunes Library. No more. Now, I copy the music to my iPhone and listen to my music by connecting the iPhone to the car radio. Similarly, if I want to play iTunes music on my home audio system, I use Apple TV.

• Burning data CDs/DVDs for backup

For at least the past 15 years, I have regularly backed up my entire hard drive to an external drive. For a critical subset of my data, such as my iPhoto library and important documents, I have also backed up the data to archival CDs or DVDs. Not anymore. Instead, I now back up such data to a portable hard drive, a USB flash drive, an SD card and/or to the cloud (I currently use Backblaze for automatic online backups). I can imagine that some people may still prefer to have offsite disc storage, but I no longer do it.

• Burning CDs/DVDs for friends

If I wanted to share data with a friend, there was a time when my preferred option was to copy the data to a disc. The only time I now even consider using discs in this way is if I have a very large amount of data (in the several GB range). Otherwise, I use email or DropBox or iDisk or simply post the data to a sharable Web site.

• Using startup DVDs

There remain occasions when I want to startup from a Mac OS X Install DVD (such as to run Disk First Aid to repair my startup drive). I still typically use the DVD for this task. However, it is not essential. I have a bootable copy of the Install DVD’s contents on a flash drive; I can and do use the flash drive at times. 

Bottom Line

I estimate that I now use optical drives an average of once a month. Even in these instances, my use is primarily for one-time transfers of data from the disc to my Mac. I expect this average to continue to decline in the months ahead. For me, I am certain that the transition to an optical drive-less computing device will be smooth and painless. For the iPad, the transition will be especially easy: there is no disc-based method to acquire software and there is no OS Install DVD to worry about. There are other reasons that an iPad won’t yet cut it as a total replacement for my MacBook Pro. But the lack of an optical drive is not one of them.

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You’ve just about got me sold. MCE offers the Optibay, which replaces the optical drive with a second hard drive. I’m giving serious thought to doing that, since I use my DVD drive less than you do! I even use our iMac to rip DVDs, because it can happily spin after we head to bed, and in the morning my legally backed-up movie is ready. I can replace my DVD with a 640 gig hard drive, and replace my existing HD with a 640 gig hard drive, AND get an external enclosure for my optical drive, for less than $500.


You obviously don’t own Adobe Creative Suite.


I hadn’t thought about it but you make a good case. I have had my MacBook for a year and a half and in that time I’ve used the optical drive about twice I think. One of those was for the Snow Leopard upgrade. All my software is downloaded (games OpenOffice, etc.). In the few cases I would need an optical drive (such as OS updates for the moment) I can always use an external USB drive.

Something to think about.


SD slot.


Yes, OS upgrades are the only use I can think of. But I think USB flash drives have been important in liberating me from the dvd drive. Mostly they are a way to carry powerpoint presentations when I’m going to give a lecture.


Yeah, I?m with you. I knew I didn?t need one well before I bought my Air (the best computer I have ever owned - hands down). I do sometimes purchase CDs to rip them lossless. That?s the only time I miss the optidrive.

I wish Apple would sell lossless tracks.

Lee Dronick

You obviously don?t own Adobe Creative Suite.

Yeah, four DVDs


I agree. My MacBook is two and a half years old and the optical drive hasn?t worked properly for as far back as I can remember- rough taking disks in, cranky to eject, scratches disks horridly. For the few times the need arises, I use my faster external drive.

With warranty time running out I took my MB in for its biannual fan problem (oops, fixed by latest 10.6.3 update) and to get the drive replaced. It has to be ordered which suggests to me that optical drive issues are not a major concern all round. An internal optical drive is about as urgent an option as a fog horn in the desert.


You obviously don?t own Adobe Creative Suite.

We rip the CS disks to disk images and keep them on a portable hard drive. To do an install, plug in the drive, mount all the CS images, run the installer and walk away. No disk swapping and much faster than DVD install.


You obviously don?t own Adobe Creative Suite.

The whole suite is downloadable off the Adobe website. Just enter in your purchased serial number after firing up one of the applications.


I actually had to sit here and try to think of the last time I bought a spindle of CD’s or DVD’s. It’s been a long time - and from a cost perspective, it just makes a lot more sense to buy another hard drive.

But - the flip side is—

1) That layer of security with having media on disc. There are too many variables regarding reliable internet connection to depend totally on downloadable’s

2) Old habits die hard - ie. I subscribe to Netflix for my DVD rentals, and

3) Frankly, in my guesstimation the majority of people likely consider it easier to reach for a DVD on a shelf when they need it, rather than create a disc image/ back it up/ learn how to install from an image, etc, etc.


That layer of security with having media on disc.

I’m not sure about the reliability of optical media. I haven’t kept statistics, but I feel I’ve had more trouble with writing/reading optical media over the years than all other storage media.

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