MacBook Air, ultrabook spell doom for optical drive

The MacBook Air and the ultrabook come without a piece of hardware that's been a mainstay in laptops for a long time--the optical drive. Maybe because they really aren't that necessary anymore.

Brooke Crothers
Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
2 min read
HP's new 13-inch Folio Ultrabook.  As with the MacBook Air, a built-in optical drive is not an option.
HP's new 13-inch Folio Ultrabook. As with the MacBook Air, a built-in optical drive is not an option. Hewlett-Packard

With Apple likely forgoing optical drives across all or most of its MacBooks, and ultrabooks doing the same, it's no surprise that the venerable whirring drive will spin away, albeit gradually, into obscurity.

Next to go driveless at Apple is the 15-inch MacBook Air. 9to5Mac says Apple almost brought out a 15-inch Air in late 2010 (but didn't because of a problem with the hinges). Apple now has plans to make this happen next year when Intel's graphics-centric Ivy Bridge processor ships.

Ultrabooks will do their part to hurry the otherwise slow demise of the optical drive. As many as 50 ultrabooks are expected to debut at CES this year, and all of them will come without the drives, since by definition the design cannot accommodate the bulk of an optical drive.

Optical drives would have faded even more quickly if it wasn't for the dreaded focus group. PC makers like Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Toshiba almost always test their design concepts with focus groups, who almost always say something to the effect of: "yeah, why not throw in an optical drive just in case." So PC makers have inevitably done that in the past.

Apple is different. The Apple of Steve Jobs held focus groups in contempt. In essence, Jobs believed consumers don't know what they want until you give it to them. So, present them with a MacBook Air--as Apple did in January 2008--and consumers will eventually come around.

Which they did. But this time it's not just consumers but the whole PC industry. And Intel--the real force behind ultrabooks--has adopted Jobsian thinking to drive the market to these skinny laptops. "We are not waiting for this to happen. We're going to create the future, and that's fundamentally what this transition is all about," Erik Reid, a manager at Intel in charge of the ultrabook platform, said this week.

But for readers who are feeling the hackles rising on the back of their neck as they read this, no need to worry. Consumers will always be able to waltz into a Best Buy and find an inexpensive laptop with an optical drive. And PC makers will continue to sell plenty of models with DVD/RW and Blu-ray players. It's just that more and more people will be buying laptops (and/or tablets) sans optical drive, blissfully unaware or unconcerned that it's missing.