Along with the release of the Macbook Air on Wednesday, Apple did two things. They dropped the price of the external SuperDrive from $99 to $79, and then made it completely unnecessary. The Macbook Air was originally criticized for its lack of an optical media drive, limiting its ability to install new software. To mitigate this problem, Apple allowed the Air to wirelessly share the optical drive of another computer over Wi-Fi or you could purchase the external SuperDrive if need be. A lot of complaints died down however once people realized that they really didn’t use optical media much anymore. Think about it, when was the last time you used your CD drive? For me, almost never. I watch movies through streaming services, load music from iTunes, and can install most software through the internet. However still, there are still a few instances where I still need my media drive. Namely: to install high profile, commercial software like iLife and Microsoft Office, or to repair my computer with the restore software bundled with the hardware in the event of a meltdown.
On Wednesday, Apple removed those needs for the CD drive through the Mac App Store and a tiny USB drive that comes with the System Restore software on the new Macbook Air. From now on, I may never need a CD drive again. Think about it: I can now download upgrades to iLife and iWork instead of purchasing the CDs. Hell, I can pick and choose which specific programs in the suite I want to upgrade and just by those. The USB drive is smaller and probably faster and more reliable than using a DVD for system restore anyway. We can definitely expect for Apple to start shipping these USB drives in future notebooks. Jobs has explicitly said that the Macbook Air is the future of the Macbook, so this is only one small way that the Macbook Air will push its enhancements upon the rest of the line.
The fact is that Apple has made the CD drive all but irrelevant, and I like that. Since buying my Macbook Pro, I have used the CD drive 4 times. I can count all the times too: installing iWork 09, putting The Last Waltz Boxset on my iTunes (huge The Band fan), ripping one movie through Handbrake (mostly to test the power of my system), and to put some Matisyahu CDs on iTunes that I got from a friend. With the exception of DVD ripping, Apple and others now provide offer alternative ways to get all that content. This is good. The optical drive may finally be going the way of the dinosaurs and I’m glad.
This is because the optical drive is a massive waste of precious space. Without it, you have a very large area of added logic board space. For Apple, removing the optical drive could finally solve their problems in the 13-inch MacBooks. Intel’s Core i-series mobile chips don’t support the 320M northbridge/southbridge/GPU combo chip, and Apple would have to adopt a discrete GPU to maintain their graphics performance with current mobile chips, increasing the logic board’s chip count from 2 to 3 – the Westmere chip, the HM55 southbridge, and a discrete GPU – which increases power consumption, heat output, and cuts into the capacity of the battery. Apple has chosen to keep their high battery life and use Core 2 Duos in those smaller units. Sandy Bridge’s IGP may equal the 320M in graphics performance, but it still lacks many modern features. Removing the optical drive (or providing an option to do so) may mitigate this problem. This gives Apple a large area of logic board back which they can use for more chip space and more battery capacity. The Macbook Air’s modular battery system – split into 6 Li-Poly cells placed together so that all available space is maximized – can be used in other notebooks to use every last bit of space.
And this removal of the optical drive will not be a loss for the vast majority of consumers. I am almost reluctant that I had to buy my Macbook Pro. Not because I don’t love it to death, but because I had to buy a lot of extra stuff to get the processor and GPU that I wanted. I am a power user, but that power pretty rarely necessitates me using a CD drive. Mostly it’s for encoding ripped DVDs through handbrake (a service that even I don’t think Apple has a responsibility to support) I would much rather be able to buy my computer – Core i5 and all – without the optical drive, and then if I discover I need it, I can buy a cheaper external super drive. Apple lowering the price on the Superdrive is an indication that this is their intent. If Apple can pass on the savings to consumers by removing the drive, and then letting you optionally buy one, computers could get actually cheaper! The coming advent of USB 3.0, which would allow a connected Superdrive to have extremely fast data transfer rates, would make this even more of a reality.
However, delivering content through the internet should not be the only way to get applications. Wi-Fi is still only so reliable and if you’re like me, your ISP crashes all the time. Apple’s USB key is again offering an alternative to the internet and CDs. This key, sold with the Macbook Air, has the system restore software and iLife ’11. But it could be used for more. Apple could sell their software, in store, on USB keys. They are smaller and probably use less plastic to make than a CD (these are very tiny drives), and they can be used multiple times. Hypothetical Situation: Apple could release a USB key with all new Macs. You could bring it into an Apple store at any time and load it with an application that you want to install on your computer. All you have to do is tell the representative what you want, and they’ll bring you over to a computer with a direct line to an application repository server. You pay the store for the license, they load in on your drive, and boom! You’ve got software to install. I’m clearly extrapolating a whole lot of what-ifs, but what if?
Apple is in an excellent position now to pave the way for the future of high-end notebooks. Over the past few years they have been shifting their focus from making luxury machines to making advanced, commodity mobile devices. The Macbook Air is a sign that they are now moving the Mac platform in that direction. Does that make them more like the commoditized PC market? Perhaps. But in many ways that is what we have wanted Apple to do for a while. If they can do that with the same style and gusto as they have with their mobile devices, I’ll be plenty happy. The combination of CD-less notebooks with integrated flash memory is going to make Apple’s new generation of laptops a very interesting player in the PC market.