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My machine has no optical drive. What if I need one?

Question: My aunt just a bought a Mac and it seems to have no optical drive. I’ve not been there to see the computer although I had the same reaction to the floppy drive disappearing and have not used them for years. But I switched to CD-Rs and now DVD-Rs for mostly backups. How do you buy software? Not everything can be done on flash and downloads. Is having broadband required for today’s Macs? Windows 8 was optional. Doesn’t anyone still worry about the main hard drive failure anymore? My PC is backed up on to DVDs including six recovery DVDs for Windows 8.

The scenario you described is now very, very common. In fact, none of the three Macs in this household have optical drives, and neither does my Microsoft Surface Pro running Windows 8.

But it’s not really a problem. I’ll explain why and what I do.

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The beginning of the end

It’s probably safe to say that the days of the optical drive are coming to a close. Not this week, not this year, perhaps not even this decade, but I think the writing is on the wall.

Regardless of its future, it’s simply a fact that machines are more commonly coming without a CD, or a DVD, or a Blu-ray drive.

Software companies are absolutely moving towards more and more online delivery. They’re assuming connectivity, which I know can be frustrating for those that have poor, slow, or metered connections, or no connection at all.

For my Mac Pro, I’ve never had any form of optical media for the operating system. It was pre-installed. And the updates, which are often very large, are delivered via download. As I said, the same is now true for my Surface Pro as well.

Insert DiscBackup elsewhere

There are two things that I think people need to consider.

One is to start phasing out the use of optical media for backup – period. Backing up your system to optical discs is already incredibly unwieldy simply because of the number of discs that it takes. And optical discs, especially the writable ones, are actually known to have a limited shelf life. That means your backups may not be there when you need them.

Instead, it’s time to move to things like external hard drives, SSDs, or other larger format devices. All of my backups are to external drives, and to a much lesser extent to the Cloud.

Reading the discs you have

But what about those discs that you have now?

Actually, there’s an easy solution for that as well. Get an external USB optical drive. I happen to have an external CD/DVD burner, which can also read Blu-ray discs. It works great. I don’t use it very often, but it’s quite handy to have around. And as far as recovery media is concerned, if you configure your PC to boot from a USB, it can typically boot from a USB optical drive.

If what you really care about is data, that’s potentially an argument for keeping an older machine around. An older machine with an optical drive that you can read from, connected to your Local Area Network, can make all of your old CDs and DVDs accessible to any machine you have.

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7 comments on “My machine has no optical drive. What if I need one?”

  1. Either buy a USB-connected DVD Drive to hold in reserve for the future;
    Remove a DVD Drive from a PC you may be disposing of; and buy a “jury-rig” USB cable harness with various connectors to fit DVD Drives, HDDs etc, from Radio Shack in the USA, Maplins in the UK etc.

    The latter will give you great flexibility, handling a range of hardware etc.

    I have a stack of old HDDs going back about 15 years (one form of security and archive!), which I resort to occasionally, to recover old files which have somehow become lost.

  2. I have just bought a custom built gaming pc for my son for xmas but he has realised it has no optical drive. Is there something I can buy that can be added so he can play games from discs as I know nothing about computers so it would have to be something that would just plug in.

  3. Hard disks tend to fail suddenly. There can also be problems when trying to start long stored mechanical drives. They are good for storing actively used data but not for archiving.
    On the other hand, degradation of optical media happens over the course of many years and can be tracked by doing quality scans occasionally (on a small sample).
    If you’re doing long term archiving of data, optical discs are a better solution than hard disks. That’s why Facebook and Amazon work with 100GB blu ray discs for their long term archiving, not hard disks. Yes, big corporations archive their data on optical discs. Further development of optical discs is on the way – 300GB, 500GB and 1TB.
    For the consumers the situation is also good. 100GB Blu ray discs are readily available and I can obtain them for 8 USD per disc. The price for these discs has been steadily going down ever since their release and I expect it to go down further. For those who don’t want to pay premium for a 100GB disc, there are pretty cheap but quality media that holds 25GB. That is still good enough for many users.

    As for the longevity, Blu ray is even better than CD or DVD. And I have CDs burned 15 years ago that have perfect scans and also DVDs burned 11 years ago. Very nice scans, without a sign of deterioration. Plus they have organic recording layer while Blu rays have inorganic which is even more stable.

    Backing up to an external hard disk drive is an accident waiting to happen if you don’t have redundancy. And if you do, it means that you’re backup solution is suddenly getting a lot more expensive. Failures of hard disks in most cases cannot be predicted. By looking at price – reliability ratio, optical media is much better for long term archiving.
    So, for a home user who doesn’t want to invest in multiple hard disks for redundancy and also doesn’t want to invest in more drives as the existing keep failing over time (and they fail quite often), optical media is the least expensive and most reliable backup solution.

    • At $8 per 100 GB, that comes to $80 per TB. I can get 2 or 3 GB of hard drive storage for about $80, and they are reusable. Blue Ray might be great for longer term archiving, but for general backup purposes, I’ll go with external HDD. I have several.

      • You’re flat out wrong. Moving away from hard copies of your important data is a serious mistake. I’ve already had several friends burned by this. Firstly, most home users DO NOT go out and buy multiple hard drives for redundant (or even non redundant) backups. With no optical drives they never back their data up. Then the first time they have a computer problem and the morons at whatever fly-by-night tech shop they go to wipe the disk, they’ve lost all their pictures and other data and THEN they get upset. When the drive fails it ALWAYS takes at least some of the data with it, and you cannot possibly guess which data you’re going to lose. That includes hard drives used to “backup” data. Only non-critical data should be backed up in that way. A local hospital lost a full years worth of data needed for proper billing and most of it was unrecoverable. That was lost revenue on top of the expense of bringing in a tech company to try to retrieve the data. Would not have happened if they had backed up to hard optical media. A friend lost a 5 year project he thought was being archived by Amazon data services. The server his data was on crashed – no backups. So much for his tenure as an independent software developer. When you entrust your important data to a third party you are playing Russian Roulette with your data. Only an idiot would pass on some form of data backup to optical media unless and until something better comes along. Another fallible hard drive is not better.

        • I don’t understand why you say I advocate getting rid of hard copies when I said nothing of the sort. I scan all of my hard copies but I don’t get rid of the originals. The scanned documents are a backup of the hard copies and I have a few system image backups of all of my digital data in addition to my cloud backup on OneDrive. If you’re a regular reader of Ask Leo! you’ll see how system image backups can save you from almost any kind of disaster. If someone loses data, it’s because they didn’t properly back up. Hard copies are also vulnerable to data loss through fire, being misplaced, etc.


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