Download vs Disk: Which Is Best?

In 2008, Apple kicked off the transition away from physical media. The lack of an optical drive in the MacBook Air eventually influenced the removal of it in the Mac Mini and, more recently, the next-generation MacBook Pro.

With all these Macs ditching their optical drive in order to achieve a thinner form factor, it’s time to take a look at which is better: disk or download?


There can be some pretty significant disparities between the time taken for software on a disk to get up and running on your Mac and the time taken for downloaded apps to install. For, say, an average productivity app, there isn’t really that big of a difference since even a mediocre internet connection can handle a download in a reasonable amount of time.

Where the differences become really evident are in games, where downloads are measured in the gigabytes and the strength of your internet connection is really important. There’s a good chance you’ve got a strong internet connection as the whole world moves towards universally better broadband – the UK government is promising a 2Mbits/sec minimum – but, even then, your package can come with limits. Here in the UK, you might still have to settle with a 10GB/month download limit or face throttling and/or additional costs. Therefore, not every internet connection is yet perfect for downloading games.

Though, of course, if you have to order the physical game online, you’ll have to wait even longer than that!

While continually improving, internet speeds still vary significantly.


When you buy a physical copy of game, you’re probably doing it through a reseller like GAME or Gamestop (i.e. not direct from the publisher). This allows the reseller to choose their own price, put games on sale and continually update prices to compete with rival resellers. Just as a supermarket can set and adjust the price of a box of cereal, a game store can do what they want to push out stock.

On the other hand are digital distribution mediums. There is much fewer of these available and due to the lack of competition, and, in a lot of cases, proprietary nature, prices don’t really change because there’s not really much reason for them to do so. While a physical reseller will want to clear out their inventory and will adjust prices to match both supply and demand, there’s no physical product in digital distribution so there’s very little reason for developers to reduce prices there.

Steam’s various sales, such as the recent Summer Sale, are exceptions. In fact, you can get insanely cheap games during these times but they amount to only a few weeks in a 52-week. Spore, for example, has been available in stores local to me for under £10 for a good couple of years, it remains at £19.99 on Origin and £29.99 on Steam (note that neither of those services offer a Mac version, though).

Some games remain priced online at multiple times of the physical price.

Availability and Convenience

Digital distribution isn’t really looking that good, is it? Well, one aspect where it really does shine is in making sure games are available. Theoretically, games are infinitely available digitally while brick-and-motar retail stores will only have a limited stock. This is especially important for older games that don’t warrant shelf space in stores but that can easily be sold many times digitally. Conversely, however, not every Mac game is available for download even if they’re still available in stores (The Sims 3, for example, is only available for Mac through optical media).

Similarly, digital distribution offers the convenience of having access to games at any time, day or night, 365 days of the year. You also don’t have to head out to a store to buy either, you just have to click a button. As long as you have access to a strong internet connection, you have access to a massive catalogue of games.

Half-Life 2 for Mac isn’t available in any game stores near me (at least, on my last check), yet it can be downloaded at any time through Steam.

For all types of media, especially movies and TV shows, digital distribution means you never have to try and find disks in order to play a video or a game, it’s just a matter of looking it up in Steam or iTunes.

Available Anywhere

iTunes in the Cloud powers a fantastic advantage for digital downloads over physical media. Just by picking up my Apple TV and plugging it into any television in proximity to an internet connection and I can have access to all the TV shows and movies I’ve bought through iTunes. I don’t need to bring DVDs with me, nor ever be dissatisfied because I’ve forgotten one.


I’m a little apprehensive about declaring either of these mediums the superior. In a utopian world where we all had access to high-speed internet all of the time, digital distribution presents a perfect scenario with constant availability and convenience. However, it’s not yet time to completely dismiss optical media because not everyone’s setup meets the requirements to live a solely digital life.

Editor’s Note: While I’m not a gamer, I do use applications that can take quite some time to download, including Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite 6, and yet I purchase everything as digital download. I haven’t use a disk to install programs in over a year. For me, the convenience of downloads outweigh the disadvantages of my sometimes-pokey internet connection.