The Optical Drive: Appendix of the Modern PC

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I'm just going to come right out and say it: I want the optical drive to die. I don't just mean on laptops, either. Even on desktops, I think the optical drive is a vestigial organ that's holding back our PCs. It requires design compromises and incurs costs that drive up the price of a PC without providing commensurate value. It's the appendix of the modern computer - only you can't choose to be born without an appendix.

Many of us bought our laptop or desktop PCs two or three years ago. Back in those ancient days, a reasonable argument could be made for the inclusion of an optical drive. When you bought new software, it would quite often come on a shiny DVD-ROM in wasteful packaging, trucked all over the country to sit on retail shelves. A quality movie experience meant DVDs or Blu-ray discs, because streaming video on the web was of relatively poor quality and selection. Frankly, you could only afford to have a laptop without an optical drive if it was a secondary machine, a companion device to some other PC that could read those spinning discs.

I'm not sure any of that is really true today. I can't think of a piece of software I can't legitimately buy through some sort of online digital distribution. I can almost always download it faster than I could go to the store to buy it, return home, and install from the disc. Half the time, you have to download and install a patch after installing from the disc, anyways. Going to the store to buy software on a disc, or even having a disc shipped to you, is like going out to the well to get water when you have indoor plumbing...the ones and zeros are already piped into my house. (I actually live in a small apartment, but you get the idea.)

There's always the movie argument, but I can't think of the last time I watched a movie from a disc on my laptop or desktop PC. I still love the quality and extra features of Blu-ray movies, and watching them in my living room on the big screen with the surround sound speakers is a great experience. On a, not so much. Downloadable and streaming video services offer enough content of high enough quality that I can just go with those. I tell myself I might want to watch a movie on a plane or something, but I honestly never do. At best, I'll watch a couple of TiVo'd, transferred, transcoded TV shows.

I don't think I'm alone, here. Even among casual users, the optical drive goes almost entirely unused. A friend of mine used it to install some of their existing software on a new laptop - and then promptly had to go download the newer version anyway, making the entire disc-loading exercise a pointless waste of time.

There was a time when a DVD-R was a great way to back up your data, but that was before you could buy a 500 GB external USB hard drive for $60. That's hardly more than 500 GB worth of DVD-R media alone would cost, and it's faster, easier, and more convenient. Today, backing up to DVD is just a big headache. Should you leave a disc in the drive - perish the thought - you're treated to the noise and vibration of your PC spinning it up all the time.

"But Jason," you may say, "why not just have that extra capability there, in case you need it?" I'll tell you what's wrong - the optical drive impacts many aspects of computer design. Ever notice how standard desktop PCs are all around 7 or 8 inches wide? It's because the stupid optical drive needs to be over 5 inches, plus room for the guide rails and mounting brackets and such. Nothing else really it your system imposes those sort of size constraints. In all-in-one PCs they use slim laptop drives, but it still takes up a fair amount of room that could be used for any number of things (like bigger-but-quieter cooling). Laptops have the biggest physical compromise in cramming in an optical drive. It adds a good quarter-inch to the minimum thickness. Your laptop could be thinner and lighter without it, or it could be the same size and have all the space used for additional lithium-polymer battery to let you run for several more hours on a single charge.

On all PCs, optical drives add cost. A basic optical drive for a desktop is cheap enough, maybe $20 in bulk, but you know that cost (and then some) gets passed along to the consumer. When they don't work, it incurs tech support costs - again passed on to you. The faster and slimmer the drive, the more it costs and the more expensive your machine. Do you really get that much added value out of it, or does it spend 99.9% of the time sitting there, doing nothing, taking up space.

So my plea to the users is this: think long and hard about whether or not you really need an optical drive, and vote with your wallet. Buy a machine without one if at all possible. PC manufacturers, dare to ditch the DVD drive. Pass the savings on to us and while you're at it, give us fantastic new designs uninhibited by the need to whirl around a 4.7-inch disc around at 4600 RPM.

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