Along with the apparent Mini PCI-E SSD, Apple introduced another storage feature with the late-2010 MacBook Air: The Software Reinstall Drive. Although not mentioned in the product introduction, the read-only USB drive is a clever solution for a device with no optical drive. Here’s what I’ve discovered about it so far.
Not a Flash Drive
Although Apple did not include USB 3.0 hardware on the new MacBook Air, they did add a second USB port, which users will certainly appreciate. The USB-connected SuperDrive appears to have disappeared along the way to the 2010 Air, replaced by the read-only Software Reinstall Drive. But as Apple’s FAQ reveals, this is not a simple USB flash drive.
First, it is important to realize that the drive is read-only. It cannot be reformatted and reused. Apple does not appear to be getting into the portable flash drive market, which is a good thing considering that it’s a highly-competitive low-margin business.
Second, the drive is apparently keyed to the particular MacBook Air it came with. This is probably a simple software check using the system serial number rather than some special hardware restriction. But it means that the (key-less) copies of iWork won’t work on other Macs you may own. Apple says nothing about the Snow Leopard and iLife software included, however, so those may be installable on other Macs. Or perhaps the FAQ is incorrect in mentioning iWork and only includes OS X and iLife.
Like the install DVD, the Reinstall Drive can be used to boot a Mac for system recovery or reinstallation. It can also be used to enable hardware test mode on the MacBook Air. The drive does not contain Boot Camp drivers or Apple’s DVD/CD Sharing software, however.
This is not a major industry shift; it’s a clever solution to the MacBook Air’s lack of a DVD drive. I’m intrigued by the Software Reinstall Drive mainly because it points to a continuing shift in the storage industry from towards flash storage. HP did the same thing with their Blackbird 002, and others have also apparently done this in the past.
So why is this noteworthy? Apple was first to eliminate the floppy disc, and they have been moving away from optical disks for some time. Now we have a laptop with no hard disk either, and the software reinstall is via USB drive. I call that a trend.