Who Needs an Optical Drive Anymore? (Not Me)

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.