Apple Pulls Life Support on Optical Media

Last month, Apple announced a 13″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display, an inevitability to replace the “previous-generation” 13″ MacBook Pro sans high-resolution display. While that old model remains available as a cheaper alternative for the holiday season, our guess is it will be completely removed from Apple’s lineup by the end of next year leaving not a single consumer-level Mac with an optical drive.

What started with the MacBook Air in 2008, and seemed like a crazy concept to an industry reliant on hard media, is now complete, four years later. With software distribution moving entirely to the web and entertainment increasingly being bought and stored in the cloud, the need for an optical drive is diminishing, right?

Take a Trip to 2008

It’s January 2008 and Steve Jobs is on stage at MacWorld. One of the key announcements of the presentation is the MacBook Air, a brand new MacBook line that completely foregoes the optical drive in favour of a much thinner form factor. The need for an optical drive is downplayed, with the alternative of living in iTunes’ world meaning one no longer needs bother himself with silly old disks.

Steve Jobs introduces the MacBook Air as a device without an optical drive.

Skip forward to 2012 and not only has iTunes continued to expand its library of content, it’s also available in more territories around the world. The MacBook Air has seriously evolved, becoming an affordable, flagship product rather than an overpriced, underpowered toy for the rich.

Then, in a year heavily focused on new hardware (compared to 2011′s heavy slant towards software) releases, Apple also launches a lineup of new, “next-generation” MacBook Pros that drop the optical drive, alongside a redesign of the iMac to drop a few pounds. Pounds that include that bulky optical drive. Form over function indeed.

Redmond, Start Your Photocopiers

Joking aside (especially since such a movement has been motivated by Intel, not Microsoft, who instead are focusing on tablet/laptop hybrids), the popularity of the MacBook Air has been met with similar “Ultrabooks”, Windows notebooks that share a number of key characteristics, most prominent being a radically thinner form factor.

Ultrabooks, too, are dropping the optical drive in favour of thinner bodies.

Ultrabooks differ from the MacBook Air in that the latter sits as Apple’s entry-level notebook, whereas Ultrabooks are very much premium machines. However, the movement shows a trend towards devices without optical drives on both sides. Add to that an increasing use of tablets and other mobile devices, and we have a world rapidly opting for digital mediums over physical alternatives.

Are We Ready?

The MacBook Air would have been an understandably controversial product in 2008 but things are different in the modern day. The Mac App Store has launched and, even if you don’t use that particular storefront, it’s uncommon to be picking up a disk to install some sort of software. For games, Steam launched on the Mac in 2010 and EA is set to launch Origin for OS X soon.

Likewise, iTunes continues to expand its content and reach. With the launch of iCloud last year, better tools are also brought for redownloading your content and having it available across platforms. It might not be perfect for those who own an expansive library of optical media, but younger generations born into a diskless world won’t noticed the change. At least, that seems like the big picture.

The iTunes Store provides a viable alternative to optical media for entertainment.

Final Thoughts

Apple’s given a strong four-year warning to critics of a world without optical media. It’s happening. If you’re up for entrusting your content to Apple, iTunes provides a very worthy solution and alternative to optical media. And the iMac and MacBook Pros simply stand as examples of the advantages of dropping such hardware.

With external drives available, the outdated hardware is there to be shared. It’s easy enough for a family or a business to share an external drive in the same way they do a printer, all while enjoying the benefits of it not being built-in.

Yet, the writing’s on the wall. The optical drive is dead and I, for one, am glad to be enjoying the advantages of not having one bulking up my Mac.


  • http://wijou.com Kareem el Buckley

    I stopped using optical media about 2 years ago, I don’t even have an optical drive anymore. With external disks, thumb-drives, and even broadband connections; CDs and DVDs seem rather useless now. There’s of course a Blu-Ray barrier, and whereas Blu-Ray is the most optimal format for the highest possible HD quality, the downloadable HD media stands quite decent in terms of quality-to-size.

    I don’t remember the last time I saw anyone using an optical disk, to be honest.

  • Z

    Great headline.

  • JD

    I can’t say I’m glad to shell out for something that comes as standard on other platforms and then lug it around when travelling just because I’d like to be able to rip a CD right when I buy it. There’s still A LOT of music that isn’t on iTunes (or Amazon). I’m beginning to wonder if I bet on the wrong horse when I switched from PC to Mac, seeing that Apple seems to cater more and more to casual users who are happy to be locked into a walled garden type ecosystem.

    • Bryan

      I’ve experienced this same feeling when I had an iPhone several years ago. (I don’t currently have one because I decided that coverage outweighed the importance of what device I had). I thought jailbreaking was the way to go and “Damn you Steve for making this iPhone so one dimensional!”, etc. But then I noticed something that obviously differs from user to user, but I kept going back to restoring my phone and thinking, “hey, this really does work better and suits my needs.” Not because I was a fanboy by any means, but it just makes sense since Apple seems to invest alot in user experience.

      Go back to a PC at least temporarily and you may have the same experience. Then again, maybe not. It does seem interesting to me that you would lean to a Mac knowing that 1) not all music is on iTunes (or Amazon), and 2) they were in a process of phasing out optical media. Maybe you forgot to look before you leaped?

    • Jenn

      I notice that a lot of anime soundtracks and other movie scores are not on Itunes, so I will see if they are on Amazon, but sometimes they are just to expensive. Also, as an anime fan, I notice that iTunes only has English dubs – they do not have Japanese with english subtitles so for those I will buy the DVD. There are also not a lot of older B movies in Itunes.

      What annoys me about Itunes, is that all of a sudden it just corrupted my authorization files, And I had to re-download my 100GB collection off iTunes. Although for DVD’s you need to worry about scratches, though if you rip onto your computer and watch off there, then there is a less chance of a dvd being scratched. Another downside (In Canada at Least) is that we have poor internet Dataplans. Most Providers are capped at about 40 GB’s so if you stream or download itunes (HD) files, your going to use that pretty fast.

      What I like about itunes, is the airplay option. I can finish something off my iPhone or computer on my Apple Tv. This is not possible with DVD’s.

      I do transfer files via USB keys (or dropbox), but I think in the end it depends on what your using the DVD for.

  • Dave Clements

    I have to be honest, I’m 100% happy with Apple’s new direction of slimmer, lighter units. I have a Macbook Pro Retina 15 inch, and it’s so amazing. The App Store and other downloads give me everything I need (especially via 60mb Virgin Media internet, going up to 120mb in the new year), and my fiancee has a lovely 2012 Macbook Air 13 inch which again, runs everything without optical.

    USB sticks are perfect for data transfer from other systems, and of course Airdrop works beautifully from Mac to Mac. iCloud is my favourite thing in the world , alongside my 100gb Dropbox and Google Drive accounts. Literally the ONLY thing I now still use that has discs now is Logic Studio. That’s going to eventually change as when version 10 comes out, I’ll buy it on the App store.

    I can honestly say I’ve not missed an optical drive, but if I am desperate, like making CD’s for my band demo’s, I can use my external USB drive :)

  • katta

    As long as we only rent music, video and books from Amazone, iTunes store… I prefer to buy it on CD/DVD. I want to make sure that I, not the store, decide when I do not want it any longer. I also want to be able to give or borrow it to a friend – and be able to get things from them as well. No, I’m not talking about piracy – I’m talking about the legal way when you don’t copy the content – just use the original CD/DVD.

  • Hermes

    i havent used any optical drive in years, the only time i used optical drives was to install OSX but since osx its available from the mac app store and you can copy the installer to a thumb drive, so im more than happy to see them go

  • Joram Oudenaarde

    I also haven’t used any sort of DVD or CD at home for the last 4+ years or so. But what I do find a little annoying is that Apple does, in no way whatsoever, make it clear on wether or not a Bootcamp/Windows install via USB will work. I “need” Windows for an occassional PC game that I like to play, but I don’t want to buy a 70+ euro (depending on the brand) external and bóótable Superdrive just to install Windows once in this iMac’s lifetime.

    Also the need for thinner iMacs has also restricted the speed of the GPU’s they put in them. For the first time ever the MacBook Pro’s GPU’s are the exact same type as the ones in the first 2 (21″) model iMacs. I wouldn’t even be surprised if these GT 650M’s in the new iMacs are slightly slower then the HD6xxx counterparts in the 2011 models.

  • Bryan

    For someone that’s seen their fair share of DVD’s and CD’s destroyed by scratches (even small ones) and the fact that the media is so unpredictable in terms of it’s life expectancy (supposed to be good for 50 years, but that’s not guaranteed as I’ve seen a lot of media go bad after a matter of months even stored in optimal conditions).

    Can someone tell me if Macs support booting from a USB drive yet? It seems to me that if you’re going to boot optical media, you should at least allow this…

    • Jenn

      My imac from June. 2009 supports booting from USB. I upgraded my partition to mountain lion, and I am running snow leopard off an external drive. Also, I installed ML from a usb key – it just depends how you format it.

  • Moogie

    I don’t like physical media, but, there are out of print CDs, and even DVDs I may want to buy, rip, and enjoy still.

    So, that’s why I’m keeping an older iMac 24 with its drive as a backup or if I need to burn, rip CDs/DVDs and as a sort of media server.

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