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Not too long ago, we heard about Apple making some pretty bold moves when it came to optical media. Ousting their original MacBook for the MacBook Air and removing an optical drive from the Mac Mini, Apple told the world that it wants to move away from those round discs and use other techniques for storing and moving operating systems, programs, and more. They stuck to that idea when they released Mac OS X 10.7 How To Install OSX Lion On An External Drive To Test It Out [Mac] How To Install OSX Lion On An External Drive To Test It Out [Mac] One of the great things about Macs is that the OS is bootable on any Mac machine, regardless of which computer it was originally installed on. This means that if your desktop breaks, you can... Read More , aka “Lion”, by only releasing it via downloads at first, and via USB sticks later on. While this system seems to be working for Apple, can this happen anytime soon with the rest of the world?

Digital Media

One of the most popular uses of CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Rays is for digital media. There’s no need to really explain this, as all of us have enough of them lying around somewhere. Using optical discs has been a popular choice for quite a while now, and although this isn’t so much the case for music anymore, movies and other forms of digital media still use them extensively.

Going out to the store to get a movie is still a common way people think about getting their entertainment, and such norms are hard to change because it’ll feel very strange to those who aren’t complete computer geeks. Downloading a movie (legally) and getting it to play on the big screen TV in the living room is also hard for those who aren’t very computer savvy, and putting movies onto some other physical media such as USB sticks may complicate things later on, as people will end up trying to play some new, ultra-HD movie on a piece of hardware that isn’t really capable of doing so.

Software & Games

When we get to software and games, the story isn’t too much different. Downloading games and installing them isn’t too hard. For companies, this can also be beneficial as far as anti-piracy efforts go, as the company could control the entire installation process and make sure that every installed copy was genuinely purchased.

However, this would only work in the short-term, and in the long-term there would be some problems. Not only do the developers have to develop a secure environment to run these anti-piracy installations, but doing so will more than likely require server verification that a purchase was indeed placed and that the “key” wasn’t abused (or whatever they’ll use by then). Those efforts will always have a hole though which hackers can go through.


Additionally, companies would need to keep the services for that specific game running on their servers for an indefinite amount of time, as people will want to be able to install and play those games for many years after it has been released, which will be an extreme inconvenience as time goes by. So far, I still see CD-protection mechanisms to be the best way to go, when implemented effectively.

Operating Systems

As far as operating systems go, not using optical discs is much more inconvenient for the user if they don’t use a Mac. As all Macs automatically come with Mac OS X installed, Apple can afford to not use optical discs (or at least USB sticks later on). However, the same doesn’t apply for PCs and those who build them. Windows and Linux distros can go the USB stick route (which most Linux distros already can, easily How To Install Linux With Ease Using UNetbootin How To Install Linux With Ease Using UNetbootin We've already talked about Linux and why you should try it, but probably the hardest part of getting used to Linux is getting it in the first place. For Windows users, the simplest way is... Read More ), but I personally don’t like to use USB sticks for operating systems, especially when they cost some money.

I’m pretty sure that USB sticks go missing far more easily than CDs, which are most often just misplaced but not lost. As USB sticks keep getting smaller and smaller, it’s easier for them to simply fall out of your pocket without you noticing, and there you go. I know that all too well from personal experience. However, when asked what physical media could replace optical discs, 9 out of 10 people will more than likely suggest USB sticks.


I’m pretty sure that eventually optical discs will become obsolete, but there are still quite a few years to go before that happens. Once that time comes, I’ll be interested to see what has replaced them. Who knows, maybe I could be wrong and in the future using USB sticks will actually be the way to go?

What is your opinion on this matter? There are an infinite amount of different answers, and I would like to hear what you have to say. Let us know in the comments!

Image Credits: Shutterstock, Shutterstock

  1. Gizmo
    December 12, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    copy protection kinda sux cuz as i always understood it a person can legally make a backup of what they bought for archival purposes.

    • Scutterman
      December 19, 2011 at 1:47 pm

      As I understand it, this is true. Which is why it's not illegal (I think) to use software like DVDShrink - the legality is tied to the purpose you use it for.

  2. KenS
    October 25, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    Optical disks are already dead.... Seagate announced a 4 terabyte external disk ...
    and blue ray recordable disks are not cheap enough yet...
    I personally have 14 terabytes of disk space, the data is actually 7 terabytes but its mirrored ... so i have a backup of everything. There is only ONE REAL PROBLEM... EM (electromagnetic pulses) from the sun which will fry all electronics .. yes including hard drives... so where will all the data go? Poof to smoke.... the optical disks are NOT affected by EM pulses..... and for those who might say: EM pulses are rare.. they are not and its not about if it will happen, but WHEN it will happen...

    • Danny Stieben
      November 1, 2011 at 3:50 am

      I suppose people will find out the effects of EM pulses at some point in time and make adjustments (after it happens).

  3. Austin Beatty
    October 25, 2011 at 3:46 am

    Until stupid ISP bandwidth caps go away, I don't think this will happen, at least not for HD movies like Blu-Ray quality. How many blu-ray quality movies could I stream with my 100 GB/month cap? Not many, and I already use nearly that much without streaming any movies at all.

    • Danny Stieben
      November 1, 2011 at 3:51 am

      I've always wondered why some ISPs put bandwidth caps on their customers...doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

  4. Pan Droid Or
    October 25, 2011 at 2:22 am

    I might add that the Program Tor has a portable application (name escapes me) that suggests that you write it to a CD because elements of the program cannot be changed that way; only added onto... brilliant when it comes to any privacy/security concerns.  Only drawback is that you have to burn a new CD if you want to update.  Very cool, I thought.

    • Danny Stieben
      November 1, 2011 at 3:49 am

      It is a good idea. It's much like a Linux Live environment where a user can do whatever he or she pleases, and when he/she turns off the system, all tracks simply vanish.

  5. Anonymous
    October 25, 2011 at 1:37 am

    I choose USB over CD every time. Cds are too slow. I can install Ubuntu in a few minutes using the live USB image. It's even faster when I use an external HDD.

    • Danny Stieben
      November 1, 2011 at 3:48 am

      I use the same technique for installing Fedora/other Linux distributions as well. However, I've heard that doing the same with Windows isn't quite as easy.

      • Anonymous
        November 1, 2011 at 7:01 pm

        It's fairly easy on Windows. I think MS has an official app for making USB images. After installing the app you just have to follow the instructions. I did it once and found it really easy.

  6. Miggs
    October 24, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    All the arguments in favor of optical disks, both in the article and comments, are simply not realistic. Don't buy a flash because you might loose it or because it's easier to accidentally erase data? Why do you think it's small? Because most of the people want it small. You could buy it bigger.

    First of all, cd's are not environmentally friendly and non-reusable. Not only we would need 'plastic' around, but we'd need lot of it just because we can't overwrite it. That's the real big issue with the cd's. And.. they're slow, sensitive, large and all over the place.

    USB Sticks are useful. But no, I don't think they'll be the future. The future is the Internet. 

    • Emir Kaymakoglu
      October 24, 2011 at 9:29 pm

      I couldn't agree more. Today's answer is external HDDs and USB sticks, and tomorrow's will be cloud computing.

      • Danny Stieben
        November 1, 2011 at 3:47 am

        A big question that comes to mind is, if cloud computing is the future, will privacy concerns be addressed or will people simply become (or stay, depending on your opinion) ignorant on that matter?

  7. Thomas Kainz
    October 24, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    While the idea of USB sticks or SD cards may sound great at face value, they are too susceptible to accidental erasure, and or, other corruption which is harder to control.  Additionally, they would add an unnecessary expense to the purchase price versus the inexpensive optical media.  Optical Disks are permanent and sans a really deep scratch or downright being broken, will keep their integrity much, much longer.  As long as we continue to have large areas of the country with poor broadband coverage - such as here in the Colorado mountains, downloading Gigabyte size games, movies or even operating systems is out of the question.  I think Optical media - or something similar - will be around for some time.

    • Danny Stieben
      November 1, 2011 at 3:46 am

      You bring up some valid points Thomas. I assume that by the time removable media is more popular than optical media someone will have found a way to make "accidental erasure" an impossibility. If not, then they simply weren't thinking all the way.

    • Mma173
      November 5, 2011 at 4:19 pm

      Agree; the optical discs are far more reliable.

  8. Capkingy
    October 24, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Internet  bandwidth caps will keep physical media  alive for now.  Video files and collectors  will insist on have a disk for the ultimate in video quality.  The only way optical disks will go away is if we ever get a fast enough internet that we could download a 50 gig bluray disk in 5 minutes or less.

    • Scutterman
      October 24, 2011 at 5:16 pm

      If the current trend continues, it may not be long before this is the case. OS' could come with a bootloader-type updater that allows them to install OS updates, or even completely different versions, direct from the internet. I think Linux can do this to an extent, but limited to next-step updates.

      • Danny Stieben
        November 1, 2011 at 3:43 am

        Which brings me to another idea...booting from the Internet. That would make it possible to have your "system" and data in the cloud and just use any physical box you can find to log into it. However, at that point there will be privacy concerns yet again if you can't host it on your own server.

        Just some food for thought.

        • Scutterman
          November 1, 2011 at 2:09 pm

          I may be wrong, but it seems like the open source community is more likely to create something like this, especially when you consider the licensing issues with Microsoft and Apple. This alone points to a self-hosted option being available, which may well allow the paid OS' to be installed.

  9. Abdul Kadeer High-Definition
    October 24, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    OS installations tend to fail more from USB sticks than optical drives(thats my case anyway). 

    • Danny Stieben
      November 1, 2011 at 3:41 am

      I've had a few cases where a bleeding edge Linux distribution (such as Arch Linux) fails to run from USB for a while until writing tools support the new ISOs that are built. However, this is only a problem is one cannot use the 'dd' utility.

  10. Gonzalo Novoa (KiLotr)
    October 24, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    I really wish optical discs were a thing of the past.

  11. Anonymous
    October 24, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    I've sort of already stopped using optical discs.
    Even bootable discs are made into bootable USB just so it is less wasteful.

    The speed and reliability of the USB sticks stops me from using discs.
    Thou i believe SD cards should be the way to go, but sadly readers aren't always implemented as part of the system.

    • garylapointe
      October 31, 2011 at 4:19 pm

      I agree.  I'd say this is why Apple should have put a SD slot in the MacBook Air.  Not that you can't use thumb drives, but I'd rather have a chip stuck in the computer instead of USB dongle ready to get knocked off.

      Plus, ecologically just reusing the same USB optical drive from system to system just makes sense.

      • Danny Stieben
        November 1, 2011 at 3:40 am

        Ah yes, SD cards would be better in that case, simply because they won't accidentally get knocked into and broken into two.

        Personally I'd rather use USB sticks and the like because I hate having to burn new CDs and then throw them away when I don't need them anymore or they get outdated. But for now that won't happen overnight.

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