One of the biggest changes in laptop PCs over the past few years has been the shift to slimmer designs. First popularized by the MacBook Air, then ultrabooks, these days even mid-price, mid-tier laptops are pretty thin.
Along with that came the culling of features some would call outdated, for reasons of price, relevance, and simple space on thinner chassis. These include VGA video outputs, Ethernet jacks, and most notably, optical drives. You're simply much less likely to find a DVD or Blu-ray drive in a 13-inch or 14-inch laptop today than a couple of years ago.
But along with that shift comes some awkward in-between moments, including a phenomena I've seen several times in the past year, and most recently in two laptops that arrived at the CNET Labs around the same time.
I'm talking about the faux optical drive panel on the side of a laptop body. It's the space where a tray-loading DVD drive would have gone, but instead there's just a plastic panel. Some look a good deal like optical drive doors, others try and camouflage themselves into the rest of the chassis, but they still look like drive trays from a few feet away. I call it the Potemkin village optical drive bay.
Years ago, if you saw something like that, it was usually in a higher-end desktop replacement laptop, where the optical drive was sacrificed to make room for a second (or third) hard drive, or some other swappable accessory. In these two cases, it's because the older chassis design was built for an optical drive, but the specific configurations we reviewed omitted them. Rather than come up with a new physical design for the laptop, you instead get a black plastic panel where in previous generations you'd have the drive.
The laptops pictured here are the two most recent examples we've seen. One is an Acer Aspire E1, a generally good budget laptop with basic discrete graphics. The other is a Maingear Pulse 14, a high-end gaming laptop with Nvidia's new 800-series GPU, built into an off-the-shelf body from MSI, clearly originally intended for a system with an optical drive.
I suspect we'll see this less often going forward, as PC makers who design and build laptop bodies from scratch replace older designs with newer ones never meant to house optical drives; smaller PC builders who customize off-the-shelf Clevo and MSI laptop bodies will have to wait until those workhorse units filter out of the marketplace.