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In defence of the SuperDrive


Echoing our own Michael Grothaus last year, MG Siegler hopes Apple drops the DVD drive from future Macs: "Just like the floppy disk before it, the optical disc will fade into irrelevance. And now you see why Apple has never included a Blu-ray drive in any of their machines." Erica Sadun wrote a post last week asking if you agree that the disc is dead, and over 65 percent of respondents said they did.

I agree the days of the optical drive are numbered, but I also think there's more life left in it than Siegler does.

I only own a single Mac -- a mid-2009 15" MacBook Pro. It doesn't have an optical drive because I replaced it with an MCE Optibay housing an SSD, whilst keeping a 500 GB HDD in the normal hard drive bay. This means that whenever I want to use the optical drive, I have to get it out of my desk drawer and plug two USB cables in, so I know I've used it several times in recent weeks. Notably, I still rely on that optical drive for quite a few things.

  1. Ripping CDs. iTunes offers 256 kbit/sec lossy compressed AAC files. Under the right circumstances, I can hear the differences between that and CD-quality PCM, and CDs are frequently cheaper to boot. I am uncomfortable with spending more money on a format that offers lower quality, however tiny the drop in quality may be; so I still (mostly) buy CDs and rip them as Apple Lossless files. (Incidentally, the rumoured switch to 24-bit audio in iTunes wouldn't fix this for me.)
  2. Ripping DVDs. When travelling light, I like to have a selection of movies on my iPad (who doesn't?), but I refuse point-blank to buy content from iTunes that I've already bought on DVD. I'd much rather format shift it with HandBrake.
  3. Watching DVDs. I don't have a TV in my bedroom, and I have occasionally used my girlfriend's MacBook to watch a DVD in bed. Similarly, when I am travelling heavy (i.e., with my laptop), I usually have a couple of DVDs in my bag for entertainment.
  4. Installing Windows 7. I'm very much a cross-platform guy (my day job is working as a Java programmer, and I use Windows on my workstation there), so I still need regular access to various Windows bits and pieces. Booting my enormous desktop PC is tricky if I'm not in my office, so I use Parallels instead. Microsoft doesn't ship retail versions of Windows as ISOs, so both VM-based and Apple's own Boot Camp require an optical drive.

Most of the other reasons optical drives were typically necessary in the past -- OS recovery and installation, file backup and transferring large amounts of data between computers -- can be neatly supplanted by USB drives, as Siegler points out. However, I'm less keen than him on hidden recovery partitions on the computer's hard drive. They're great for software problems, but no help at all if your hard drive fails completely or if you upgrade it. I'd rather not trek to an inconvenient Genius Bar appointment for routine hard drive swaps that I am perfectly capable of doing myself.

There's also a contagious meme floating around that if Apple removed the optical drives from MacBook Pros, they'd suddenly be reduced to the svelte dimensions of the MacBook Air in one fell swoop. This is clearly poppycock. If you take a look at the iFixit teardowns of the MacBook Air 11" and the MacBook Pro 15", the MBP's extra bulk consists of a lot more things than just the optical drive, including:

  1. Greater cooling to cope with the much more powerful CPU and GPU
  2. Larger battery to power those components 1. extra I/O ports on the side panel and associated motherboard circuitry
  3. A normal HDD bay, rather than the MBA's blade-style mSATA slot that can only take small and expensive SSDs
  4. Larger and louder speakers

Many of these things, such as the option of large hard drive capacity and the powerful CPU and GPU, are what makes the MacBook Pro, well, "pro." I'm not suggesting that dropping optical drives from the MBP wouldn't make it smaller -- clearly, it would -- merely that it wouldn't change it by as much as people seem to think it will. And you don't want to lose the rest of that stuff either.

You could argue that most of what I've described above isn't terribly relevant to typical home users who don't care about Windows and get their content exclusively from iTunes. And you'd be right -- I'm probably in a minority. Of course, those people are probably supposed to be buying MacBook Airs now, as they are the joint-cheapest Apple laptop. Putting that aside, what could Apple do in the next MacBook Pro revision to keep everyone happy(-ish)? The most likely answer is to remove the optical drive from the laptops themselves and sell an (expensive!) external add-on for people who refuse to do without.

External USB optical drives are a pain because of power requirements. The models that Apple use today typically draw around 6-7 W, which is far more than a single USB port can supply -- even the 4.5 W ports most Mac products have. My external drive won't work unless I plug one of its two cables directly into my MBP because even two ports from my powered USB hub isn't enough juice. The answer, of course, is Thunderbolt. Whilst it isn't exclusive to Apple, Apple does have a head start on using the technology, and the 10 W that Thunderbolt supplies can provide enough power to run a SuperDrive with the clutter of a second connection or a wall-wart.

Indeed, I'd go one stage further; I'd like to see an optical drive with a few USB ports, an Ethernet port, speaker output, and a daisy-chained DisplayPort on the back. Plug one cable from that to your MacBook Pro when it's at your desk, and you've got everything you need, giving you (almost) a perfect docking bay for your Apple laptop. I suspect Apple will shy away from that, however, and prefer to build any sort of docking solution into a future Apple Display instead.

But that's the future. For now, I think optical drives will still be around for quite some time yet. What do you think, readers -- could you really live without a SuperDrive?

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