Death of the Computer Optical Drive

Why most modern PCs don't feature CD, DVD, or Blu-ray drives

In the early days of personal computing, amounts of data were described in kilobytes (KB) and most systems relied on portable floppy disks for storage. Later, with the adoption of hard drives, users could store more data but the tower computer cabinets the drives were stored in weren't very portable.

Laptop with DVD drive
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As computers started to be manufactured with CD and DVD drives, users could conveniently enjoy digital audio and video, easily install applications, and take advantage of portable high-capacity storage that made it easy to share large amounts of data. CD and DVD discs featured storage capacity well beyond what even hard drives could accommodate.

Now, however, due to the factors listed below, it's becoming more difficult to find a PC that includes any sort of optical drive.

Less Space

At nearly five inches in diameter, CD and DVD discs are big when compared to the size of modern laptops and tablets. Even though the size of optical drives has greatly decreased, many laptop manufacturers have opted not to include them in order to conserve space. With more people using tablets for computing, there's even less space available to accommodate these drives.

Limited Capacity

When CD drives first hit the market, they offered ample storage capacity that rivaled magnetic media. The typical 650 megabytes (MB) of available storage was well beyond what most hard drives featured at the time. DVD expanded this capacity even further with 4.7 gigabytes (GB) of storage on recordable formats. Blu-ray, with its narrower optical beam, could accommodate almost 200 GB, though most consumer applications only required 25 GB. Since then, the storage capacity of hard drives has increased exponentially.

While optical storage is still stuck in GB, the capacity of many hard drives is now being measured in terabytes (TB). In fact, many people have more storage in their computers today than they are likely to use over the lifetime of the system.

Using CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs for storing data just isn't worth it anymore, especially given the increased portability of newer computers. The price is right as well. Terabyte drives generally cost under $100 and offer faster access to your data.

Solid state drive (SSD) technology has also improved over the years. The flash memory used in these drives and in USB flash drives is what made floppy technology obsolete. A 16 GB USB flash drive retails for less than $10 yet stores more data than a dual-layer DVD. SSDs are still fairly expensive for their capacities but they're getting more practical every year and will likely replace hard drives in many computers based on their durability and low power consumption.

Non-Physical Media

With the growing popularity of smartphones and other devices as digital music players, the demand for physical media has declined. With this shift, CD drives are needed only for listeners to rip music tracks to MP3 format so they can listen to them on new media players. The ability to purchase tracks through online sources has also contributed to making optical media increasingly irrelevant.

A similar phenomenon has taken place with video DVDs. Over the years, DVD sales have declined greatly, partly because of the increased popularity of streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. Additionally, as with music, more movies can be purchased in a digital format from online sources. Even sales of high definition Blu-ray media have failed to catch up with past sales of DVDs.

Software applications, which used to be distributed via discs, became available through digital distribution channels, starting with shareware and bulletin board systems. Later, services such as Steam made it easy for consumers to purchase and download programs. The success of this model and services like iTunes has led many companies to offer digital software distribution.

Tablet users can get access to programs they want to use even more conveniently with the app stores built into operating systems.

The same principle applies to installation software. Most modern PCs no longer ship with physical installation media. Instead, they include a separate recovery partition and consumers can also create backups post-purchase.

Format Wars

The last nail in the coffin for optical media has been the battle between HD-DVD and Blu-ray that made adoption of the new format problematic as consumers waited for the format wars to be worked out. Blu-ray was the eventual winner but it hasn't been popular with consumers, partly due to issues and difficulties with digital rights management (DRM).

The Blu-ray format has gone through several revisions since it was first released, many of them based on piracy concerns. To prevent digital copies from eating into sales, manufacturers introduced changes to make the format more resistant to illicit duplication. As a result, some newer discs can't be played in older players. So, these discs are more adaptable but users must upgrade player software to ensure functionality.

Apple doesn't support the Blu-ray format within the Mac OS X software, making the technology all but irrelevant for the platform.