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Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Future of Optical Drives?

So, today's thought (which actually inspired the idea for the whole blog) is: What is the Future of Optical Drives for Consumer Electronics Writ Large?

This is an interesting question. We have seen the evolution of optical media: CD-ROM, CD-R / CD-RW, DVD-ROM, DVD-R / DVD-RW, BD, and now BD-R / BD-RE. We can actually think about the evolution in terms of how much information we can fit on a disc. CD-R optical lasers began with a wavelength of 780 nano-meters (nm) (inferred range), DVD-R lasers were reduced to 650 nm, and BD-R lasers are around 405 nm. CD-R can generally fit about 700 MB of data, DVD-R can generally fit about 4.7 GB (single layer), and a BD-R can generally fit about 25 GB (single layer); the amount of data depends on whether the disc is single or double layered, as double layered discs are able to fit twice the information. Notice the trend - it's pretty obvious that storage is getting larger and this is a direct result of what  is placed on the disc. We have went from recording music to 480p movies to 1080p movies. 

Some of the really, really nerdy people out there might remember the BD vs. HD-DVD format war that occurred in the mid 2000s. HD-DVD could store about 15GB on a single layer disc and was mainly produced by Toshiba and  used for 720p movies on Paramount and Warner Bros. labels. In 2008 (Toshiba's) HD-DVD was defeated by (Sony's) Blu-Ray as the last of the movie production companies switched to BD discs.

Nevertheless, as the era of High Definition (HD) solidified we needed a media capable of giving us the content we wanted. Now it looks as though broadband streaming of online HD content could potentially kill the optical drive - not to mention the fact that we can download most software for our computers. Also, reasonably priced SD (and other types) memory cards (and thumb / flash drives) can hold 32 GB of data and that is getting larger all the time! Moreover, solid state drives are becoming more popular and demonstrate the ability to store large amounts of information on small frames (i.e. the MacBook Air). Many of you may have probably heard the rumor that new MacBook Pro laptops may be dropping the optical drive in order to make them slimmer and lighter. Consumers can buy plenty of Windows based laptops without Optical Drives already. The only time I ever use my optical burner in my computer is to burn CDs for my car - and that is rare because I have an iPhone connector in my sweet Pioneer Premier deck. In fact, when I sell Blu-Ray Players, customers are more interested in whether they have a built-in internet receiver so they can stream Netflix than the quality of the optical player itself! Let's not forget about the "Cloud" (generally defined here as any off-site data storage which can be accessed via the internet). Will services like Netflix, websites like, and the "Cloud" kill the optical drive?

Not likely in the near future. Whether you know it or not, when you stream content from Netflix and other services (including cable and satellite set-top box (on-demand) services) your video is compressed and compression reduces the quality of your video content - in fact compression artifacts are pretty common on Netflix, although this has gotten much better. Even so, there is a difference. Try streaming Iron Man 2 in HD on Netflix and playing Iron Man 2 on Blu-Ray, side-by-side on identical 1080p TVs. You WILL see a difference - I am picky so I say the difference is major!

However, this is NOT the reason I say optical technology will survive for at least another decade. 1920x1080 (1080p) displays are not the be-all-end-all of HD TV. "Ultra HD TV" (also known as Super Hi-Resolution)  is coming and it has a resolution of 4096x2060 pixels - but NHK in Japan has confirmed a 7680x4320 pixels display. For a 2 hour movie, this resolution would require about 100GB of data! Try streaming that resolution with any kind of buffer. This technology is about a decade away; but researchers at the University of California have demonstrated a laser wavelength of  385 nm. We will need a wavelength of 200 nm for the new high resolution technology, so it's not here yet. You can find a more thorough discussion of this technology and more on the future of optical drives here, from this Forbes article. Unless consumer broadband streaming streaming technology keeps up with HD content (as of now a T1 line has a potential bandwidth of around 1.5 mps and a T3 has a bandwidth around 45 mps - your local cable or DSL connection is capped at around 3 mps at the high-end), optical disc media will still have a use - hell, YouTube content still has trouble keeping a decent buffer at times.

Plus, at least some of us have the desire to own the case and non-digital media that come with albums and movies. Yes, I like looking at the CD booklet and I always hope the artist includes the lyrics. In the end, optical drives may be removed from PCs and Laptops, but they are going nowhere when it comes to HD movie content.

In all reality tech moves so fast that all of this could change in a split second... but I think we can bank on at least a decade of consumer electronic optical technology with at least 1 new evolution.

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