Death of the Computer Optical Drive

Why most modern PCs do not feature CD, DVD or Blu-ray drives

Laptop with DVD drive

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In the early days of computers, storage was calculated in kilobytes and most systems relied on floppy drives. With the widespread adoption of hard drives, people could store more data but it was not very portable. CDs brought digital audio but also the means to provide high-capacity portable storage that made it easy to share a large amount of data and to install applications. DVDs expanded on that by bringing movies and TV shows and capacities well beyond what hard drives could even store. Now through a number of factors, finding a PC that includes any sort of optical drive is becoming difficult.

The Rise of Smaller Mobile Computers

Optical discs are still quite large. At nearly five inches in diameter, the discs are big when compared to the size of modern laptops and now tablets. Even though the optical drives have been greatly reduced in size, more and more laptops have dropped the technology to conserve space. Even though a large number of ultraportable computers have in the past dropped the drive in order to allow for thinner and lighter systems, the original MacBook Air showed just how thin a modern laptop could be without the drive. Now with the spread of tablets for computing, there is even less space to work with.

Capacity Has Not Matched Other Technologies

When CD drives first hit the market, they offered a huge storage capacity that rivaled magnetic media of the day. After all, 650 megabytes of storage was well beyond what most hard drives featured at the time. DVD expanded this capacity even further with 4.7 gigabytes of storage on the recordable formats. Blu-ray with its narrower optical beam can almost achieve 200 gigabytes but more practical consumer applications are generally much lower at 25 gigabytes.

While the growth rate of these capacities is good, it is nowhere near the exponential growth that hard drives achieved. Optical storage is still stuck in the gigabytes while most hard drives are pushing even more terabytes. Using the CD, DVD and Blu-ray for storing data is just not worth it anymore. Terabyte drives are generally found for under a hundred dollars and offer faster access to your data. In fact, many people have more storage in their computers today than they are likely to use over the lifetime of the system.

Solid state drives have also seen tremendous gains over the years. The flash memory used in these drives is the same that was found in the USB flash drives that made floppy technology obsolete. A 16GB 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 are getting more and more practical every year such that they will likely replace hard drives in many computers thanks to their durability and low power consumption.

Non-Physical Media

With the ubiquity of smartphones and their use as digital music players, the demand for physical-media distribution has slowly declined. As more and more people started listening to their music on these players and then their smartphones, they did not generally need a CD player other than to take their existing music collection and rip it into the MP3 format to listen on the new media players. Eventually, the ability to purchase the tracks through the iTunes store, Amazon MP3 store and other media outlets, physical media have increasingly become irrelevant to the industry.

Now that same problem that happened to CDs is also happening to the video industry. DVD sales made up a huge portion of the movie industry's revenues. Over the years, sales of the discs have declined greatly. Some of this change follows from streaming services such as Netflix or Hulu. In addition, more and more movies can be purchased in a digital format from stores like iTunes and Amazon just like they can with music. Even the high definition Blu-ray media has failed to catch on compared to previous DVD sales.

Even software, which always used to be purchased on disc, has moved into the digital-distribution channels. Digital distribution for software is not a new idea, as it was done years before the internet through shareware and bulletin board systems. Eventually, services such as Steam for PC games made it easy for consumers to purchase and download programs to use on their computers. The success of this model and that of iTunes lead many companies to start offering digital software distribution for computers. Tablets have taken this even further with their app stores built into the operating systems. Most modern PCs do not ship with physical installation media anymore. Instead, they rely on a separate recovery partition and backups that are made by the consumer after the purchase of the system.

HD Formats, DRM and Compatibility

The last nail in the coffin for optical media results from format wars and piracy concerns that have plagued the high-definition formats. Originally, it was 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 of the two formats but it has not caught on hugely with consumers and much of this has to do with the DRM schema present and the difficulties of working with it.

The Blu-ray specification has gone through several revisions since it was first released. Many of the changes to the format source from piracy concerns by the studios. To prevent perfect digital copies from eating into sales, changes keep being introduced to make it more secure against illicit duplication. This change has resulted in some newer discs from not being able to be played in older players.

Computers decoding Blu-ray by software rather than hardware. This makes them more adaptable but it requires constant upgrading of the player software to ensure functionality with upcoming discs.

Apple refuses to support the technology within the Mac OS X software. This makes the Blu-ray format all but irrelevant for the platform.