As I write this, I am also in the process of ripping all my DVDs to hard drive. They are pretty much the only form of digital media I have remaining in my possession (with the exception of console games) that doesn’t already reside on hard disk space. Most people have already embraced this philosophy with music – indeed even if you don’t exclusively buy digital copies of songs, chances are you’d be ripping your CDs in order to listen to them on an MP3 player and/or computer.

But as technology moves forward, it seems increasingly likely that all optical media will die soon enough. Up until the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD format wars of a few years ago, the focus seemed to be on creating better and higher capacity variants of discs. The tide seems to be shifting away from this, however.

The Computer

As traditional trendsetters, Apple shocked many by introducing the MacBook Air at the beginning of 2008. This was a new, ultra-thin laptop that somewhat controversially omitted an optical drive in order to reduce thickness (and probably also heat). At the time of release, I don’t believe the state of technology was quite ready to allow for the ousting of optical media completely, but the product was clearly designed to take the company and the industry into the future.

Fast-forward to today: Intel have recently made a huge push with their ‘Ultrabook’ platform in order to set a standard for notebook vendors to release products under a very specific blueprint that calls for low power, extremely thin computers with solid-state storage and no optical drive. Apple are rumoured to release updated MacBook Pros next week, and even if they don’t ditch the optical drive this time around, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before they will ditch them from all of their laptops in the same way they ditched floppy drives. The rest of the industry will no doubt follow suit, albeit later.

Tech

From a technical standpoint, we all want more storage and we want it to work faster. Read and write speeds for DVDs and Blu-Ray discs are somewhat pathetic in comparison to hard drives and solid-state memory. Optical drives contain moving parts and so are inevitably more complex and prone to failure than a solid piece of flash memory that resides on a chip (though the discs themselves are more durable than flash drives). As well as taking up much less physical space, robustness is an increasingly important requirement as our technology becomes more portable. Although discs are a pretty solid and durable storage medium in themselves, reading them is still a fairly mechanical process that doesn’t take kindly to vigorous movement and generates a lot of heat and noise.

But you might still be sceptical, and think that I’m being a bit premature in my proposition. That’s okay. In what follows, I’ll attempt to set the scene and go through each potential use for optical media to explain why I don’t think it stacks up to the alternatives any more.

Programs

Although I have no data to back this up as such, my reckoning is that most people only ever go to a shop to buy software on a disc when they are buying:

  • Windows (OS X has moved almost exclusively to digital distribution and Linux has always been freely downloadable)
  • Microsoft Office

Windows usually comes with computers preinstalled anyway, unless you build one yourself. Office is probably the only piece of software that people may want to buy off the shelf, and even this is easily available for purchase online. In all honesty, I can’t remember the last time I went to a shop to buy software on a disc and I don’t think I can remember anyone that I am in direct contact doing the same.

Professionals and users of specialist software might be among the few that still buy discs, but usually this is for practical reasons i.e. the software is too large in size for their internet connection to be able to download in a reasonable amount of time, or they would use up some cap or bandwidth limit enforced by their ISP.

Music

As I mentioned above, the music industry has pretty much already made this transition, by virtue of the fact that an audio file uses the least amount of physical memory of the three main forms of media. Indeed, if you try to open a DVD on your computer to look at its file structure, you will definitely see a VIDEO_TS folder. You may also see an AUDIO_TS folder, which is almost always empty. Why? Because there were plans for ‘DVD audio’ to replace CDs (maybe with 7.1 surround sound or similar advancements in quality) but this never really took off after the iPod completely changed the face of the music industry.

If there is any concern as to the digitisation of music in terms of its practical aspects, it probably falls under one of two categories. The first, DRM, is slowly dying as the industry realises that people want to be able to do what they like with the audio files they bought, and restricting people this right will only lead them to acquire DRM-free music from other sources. iTunes made the switch in 2009 and most others have followed suit.

The second concern is audio quality. In the early days of digital music, where 56K dial-up was commonplace and hard drive capacities were small, 128 kbps MP3 files became a sort of unwritten standard because of their quality to file size ratio. Even though this was labelled as ‘CD Quality’, I remember being able to notice the difference between an actual audio CD and a 128 kbps MP3 file quite easily. I wasn’t impressed, but the reaction from genuine audiophiles was one of stronger disgust.

Although the legacy of poorly encoded MP3s remains, there should be no reason going forward that audio quality needs to be compromised. As storage is plentiful and given that audio players can easily support lossless formats, it shouldn’t be long before all music is sold in a lossless and uncompressed state, equivalent to (or better than) CD quality. Admittedly, some progress still needs to be made from online music distributors to make all their music available in this format, but I don’t see why this cannot happen in the near future.

Video

Digital distribution of video represents a natural progression from the digitisation of audio. As infrastructure has improved, digitising video no longer suffers from the technical constraints it once did. Not only are major services starting to allow you to download films and TV shows, there is also the provision of streaming and on-demand video via subscription services such as Netflix, as well as from TV broadcasters themselves. Of course, Spotify has also done this with audio, but I would argue that streaming a movie is a slightly more attractive proposition because of size, and because video seems to be a more ‘disposable’ form of media than music.

Although the quality in many cases may not be up to the standards of a Blu-Ray disc at this point in time, it will only take a few further advancements in infrastructure for it to be completely feasible to stream 1080p content (or greater) with relative ease. It will also hopefully alleviate the need for rather silly HDCP which (as with other forms of DRM) seems to play havoc with certain devices and seriously limits what you can do with the content you’ve purchased.

Display panels are becoming more and more pixel dense, as the next big technological push seems to be to try to create resolutions that are high enough to hide the jaggedness caused by pixels that are large enough for the eye to make out. Inevitably, this means content resolution will need to increase to make the screen resolution worthwhile, just as it has done from so called ‘standard definition’ 480/576i to ‘high definition’ 720p and 1080p.

But a higher resolution means more data, which means storage requirements will increase. Blu-Ray has only been around for 5 or 6 years. If resolutions increase and we still rely on optical media, engineers will have to start improving on Blu-Ray capacity or creating another entirely new optical storage format. You can see that this is a race that just doesn’t make sense, especially with hard drives being dirt cheap in comparison (I’ll look at this in more detail later).

Games

There are 3 different camps when it comes to games. The first, mobile gaming, is the easiest to tackle as they have all pretty much switched to either online distribution or some form of physical memory card on which to sell/store games. Because of the relatively smaller size of these games, it has been far easier to propagate this change, and consumers lapped it up because nobody wants to have to carry loads of discs with them on the go.

PC gaming has always been ahead of the technological curve in comparison to other gaming platforms. With Steam opening the way for other digital distribution platforms and sites, the PC has been evolving beyond optical media for a long time. In fact, as PC gamers have come to discover, there are a variety of benefits to this type of content distribution service beyond the obvious advantages over optical media. Games can be re-downloaded on different computers, they are automatically updated to the newest versions and bugs can be quickly remedied, game saves and other content can be backed up remotely and so on.

The slow read speeds of optical drives have always proved to be something of a bottleneck in terms of gaming performance. Gamers have known for years that installing the entire game to disk (legitimately or not) yields a huge performance advantage over loading elements from disk. As storage memory gets faster with Solid State drives and with faster connection speeds from SATA, Thunderbolt etc., serious gamers will scoff at optical media (although they probably already do so!).

The slowest market to make the transition will inevitably be console gaming. The console industry is really about bringing good technology available today to the average consumer at a relatively low cost. Console manufacturers tend to make losses on hardware (initially, at least) in order to build up a large user base. From there, they can make profits on games sold.

Although the practical and performance advantages are as applicable to consoles as they are for PC games, in order to reach as many people as possible today, console manufacturers will likely wait until the entire tech industry has adopted alternatives to optical media before ditching it themselves. Internet speeds aren’t great everywhere, and selling flash drives with games on them, whilst possible in future, isn’t cost effective at the moment. To this effect, all of the next generation of consoles will contain some form of optical drive, although Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft all have their own online stores running alongside their physical media.

Data

At their core, discs are just a method of storing digital data. As such, the final use for optical media in daily life is to back up and store data, whether it is photos, documents or anything else. As a storage medium, then, there are a few key criteria that determine what people use. I shall look at these individually in more detail.

Physical Properties

As I’ve mentioned a few times already, discs take up rather more space per unit of storage they provide in relation to hard drives and solid-state memory. As the world’s population increases, so the amount of space we can save in storing things becomes increasingly important.

Reading discs takes specialist hardware in the form of a proprietary drive of some sort. Reading flash memory or a hard drive usually just requires a USB port. This means that compatibility is increased – far more devices can easily incorporate a USB port than an entire optical drive. For portable computing, precious battery power can be saved if we move away from optical media, as mechanical parts require more energy to operate than something that is purely comprised of electrical signals.

The one thing that optical media has going for it is durability. Discs themselves have a long lifespan if looked after. But solid-state storage is progressing quickly, and because of rapid transfer speeds and potentially low cost in future, replacing a drive will be relatively quick and painless. Imagine trying to get all your data from 100 DVDs onto a computer and then re-burning 100 new ones. Although it shouldn’t be necessary in the medium-term, it’s a potential headache that we don’t really need.

Speed

Following on from the point above, let’s have a look at some actual (very approximate) current read/write speeds for various forms of storage:

Storage Type

Max Read Speed

Max Write Speed

CD

11.06 MB/s (72x)

8.6 MB/s (56x)

DVD-R

33.24 MB/s (24x)

33.24 MB/s (24x)

Blu-Ray

54 MB/s (12x)

54 MB/s (12x)

Hard Drive (5400rpm 2.5”)

140 MB/s

140 MB/s

USB 2.0 Flash Memory*

23.62 MB/s

10.48 MB/s

SDXC Card

95 MB/s

90 MB/s

Solid-State Drive (Sata III)

486 MB/s

266 MB/s

 

* average of 1358 32GB drives.

USB flash drives are pretty slow, true, but other than this, even the fastest optical media speeds pale in comparison to hard drive and solid-state storage. And these are getting quicker all the time, as well as cheaper. Remember that although writing is fairly quick on optical media, if you have a re-writable disc and want to erase and write multiple times, speeds will get a whole lot slower.

Cost

Since storing data usually requires deleting and rewriting files fairly often, I’m only going to look at prices of RW optical media. A quick trip to Amazon yields the following:

Storage Type

Price per GB

CD-RW

£0.82

DVD-RW

£0.11

Blu-Ray

£0.10

External Hard Drive (SATA III)

£0.05

USB 2.0 Flash Memory

£0.41

SD Card

£0.46

Solid-State Drive

£0.64

 

As expected, hard drives win the cost battle, proving to be about half the price of Blu-Ray and DVD and a hell of a lot faster in reading and writing data. SSDs are pricey at the moment, but are getting cheaper and cheaper over time, and once they hit 10p per GB, then we’re seriously in the realm of giving up on all other forms of storage.

So overall then, it’s pretty obvious that hard drives are the way to go for data now, and SSDs will be the way to go in future.

Hurdles and Solutions

Of course, with media, digital distribution seems to be the main way forward. This will surely be the way going forward, with better infrastructure leading to faster download speeds. But what about today? There is a legitimate argument that the death of optical drives today will alienate those with poor internet connections (or no internet connection).

One option is to start selling programs and media on memory cards, but as we have seen, memory costs about 4 times as much as that on optical media. Consumers are definitely not going to absorb the added cost when there are cheaper alternatives.

However, flash storage is crucially reusable. Therefore, I can see games and entertainment shops stocking multiple interactive machines, pre-loaded with an entire library of games, books, videos and music. The selection will be far more than a store can hold with physical media. They could then sell you storage if you are willing to pay for it. However, the key here is that you could also bring your own memory card or flash storage drive to transfer the media onto.

The only thing that I can see really blocking this idea are copyright owners having a hissy fit about direct media transfer. But inserting some digital signature would definitely be possible and some open-mindedness is called for in this department, in my opinion.

In any case, traditional optical media is destined to die, whether it’s sooner or later. I think it’s a good idea to get ahead of the curve and embrace change in terms of the way we consume media and data.