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FEATURE: How Apple killed the MacBook, and crippled the MacBook Pro

By

October 21, 2008

The FireWire 400 connector

The FireWire 400 connector

October 22, 2008 For those of you hoping Apple's October notebook event would see the announcement of a recession-priced, sub-12" MacBook, the new MacBooks might have already been a little disappointing. For others, the lack of a single port has completely killed the MacBook, and crippled the MacBook Pro when compared to previous generations.

The good old days

The 6-pin FireWire 400 port made its way into every Apple laptop released between January 2003 and October 2008, with the exception of the MacBook Air. With a greater sustained throughput than USB 2.0, more power supplied to connected devices, and less reliance on the host CPU, it quickly became the standard for high-performance peripherals - particularly in storage, audio, video and imaging.

For many, the MacBook was the media students perfect laptop - with software support from the entry-level iMovie and Garageband included with iLife, through the mid-range Final Cut Express and Logic Express, to the high-end Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro. And of course, connectivity to a vast majority of consumer, prosumer and professional audio/visual equipment like HD video cameras and audio interfaces using the FireWire port.

A majority of PowerBook and MacBook Pro models also featured a 9-pin FireWire 800 port with twice the speed of its predecessor, allowing transfers of close to 100 megabytes per second. The difference that this kind of connectivity makes to an older machine is obvious - and it's not uncommon to see PowerBooks still in operation with life support from one or more FireWire devices as a result.

Another feature on board FireWire-equipped Macs is Target Disk Mode. Mention those three words to a long-time Mac user and they'll likely tell you it's saved their life on one or more occasions - some might say it's one of the features that makes a Mac a Mac. If your Mac won't boot, just plug it into another Mac with a FireWire cable and hold the T key while booting. The internal hard drive mounts as a drive on the other machine, allowing you to diagnose and repair the issue, reapply a working image of the drive, or rescue your vital data before a reformat.

...and then

Then came the October 2008 models. The MacBook arrived with a mere two USB 2.0 ports - and no ExpressCard or FireWire 400. The MacBook Pro came out better off, but still crippled - losing the FireWire 400 port of its predecessors and left with a single FireWire 800 port.

What this means for the MacBook

No Target Disk Mode

No connectivity to high-performance portable hard drives

No connectivity to DV/HDV video cameras

No connectivity to a vast majority of audio interfaces, including the entry-level Apogee Duet designed specifically for Logic Studio (and by extension, Apple computers)

What this means for the MacBook Pro (aka Daisy-chaining 101)

With the previous models equipped with both FireWire 800 and 400 ports, one could very easily use two FireWire devices of different nature - and bus power both of them (if supported by the device itself). A hard drive and a DV camera, or an audio interface and a DSP card.

With a single FireWire 800 port, users are forced to connect multiple devices together in a daisy-chain. Being part of the FireWire specification, it sounds fine in theory, but there's a number of caveats. For starters, certain hard drives and audio interfaces simply will not function in a daisy-chain. If the device has two FireWire 400 ports there is a decent chance it will, but it comes down to the particular make and model.

According to LaCie (warning: PDF), adding a FireWire 400 device to a chain of FireWire 800 devices will drop the speed of the entire chain to FireWire 400 speeds. Additionally, certain video cameras use the low speed FireWire 100 specification, and may drop the speed of the entire chain to FireWire 100 speeds.

While in my own testing I found that daisy-chaining a powered FireWire 400 hard drive to a bus powered MOTU Traveler audio interface worked fine, this tech note from MOTU warns that daisy-chaining bus powered devices "is not recommended" - which sounded ominous enough to me to decide not to try it again. Your mileage may vary.

Why this isn't progress

Historians will likely bring up the fact that Apple has often pioneered in the omission of legacy devices/ports from their computers. FireWire, however, is nothing like a missing modem, floppy drive, or RS-232 port - all of which could be replaced by inexpensive USB devices or adapters.

The new MacBook has no "FireWire 400 beater" - no FireWire 800, no eSATA and no ExpressCard slot. Without ExpressCard, available as standard in 13.3" PC laptops running as low as US$750, there is no adapter available to connect a FireWire 400 device. There's not even an extra USB port. This is not progress!

What Apple says

We contacted Apple for a response but had not heard back at the time of publishing.

A TUAW reader named David, however, sent an e-mail to sjobs@apple.com explaining that he can't recommend the new MacBook to his friends anymore, as not all camcorders will connect to it.

The reply, while highly unlikely to have originated from Steve Jobs, remains an indication of the official stance. "Actually, all the new HD camcorders of the past few years use USB 2".

David replied, mentioning the cost of a USB 2.0 camera. The second reply reads simply "The new HD camcorders start around $500".

What we say

For starters, buying new USB 2.0 based hardware to replace perfectly functional FireWire hardware is waste. It's not smart, and it's not green. It's not thinking different. It's not something you tell people to do in the middle of an economic meltdown.

Especially odd to us is the fact that many of said $500 USB 2.0 camcorders are using AVCHD, which is a notoriously hard to edit format when compared to DV/HDV - hard on the CPU and hard on the user with the number of caveats come the time to import the footage into Apple's own video software.

Why this is bad news for Apple

The MacBook Air is one thing, but this is an indication that even Apple's "Pro" machines are now subject to a design process that values form over function, and presumably excludes any input from Apple's Pro Apps team or their own hardware partners such as Apogee.

We think "srjmac" from Apple's user discussion forums has hit the nail right on the head: "Your most hardcore, avid supporters, the ones who evangelize the Mac to the unwashed masses, are very upset about this. That can't be good for business."

...and the official response of "Eurasia has always been at war with Eastasia", in preference of any reasonable justification or dialogue regarding the decision, has done little to help.

Before the move to Intel, people had little choice but to follow Apple's lead. Nowadays, there exists easily obtainable copies of OS X that will boot and function 100% on commodity PC hardware with moderate to little fuss. It's EULA-breaking, questionably legal stuff, but to the geek/hobbyist/starving artist, the thought of running OS X and software like Logic/Final Cut on a $400 PC is going to be more appealing each time Apple raise their prices with one hand and remove functionality with the other.

The problem, and the solution

According to the Register, Apple's current share of the US laptop market stands around 35% - even if one were to halve that figure, it's fair to say that just three different models of laptop is grossly inadequate to cater for the mass market and the niches that are using Macs.

Compounding the problem is the fact that somewhere along the way, the brains at Apple have decided that "Pro" means "big". A not-insignificant chunk of their fan base disagrees - laptop musicians, trade show journalists/photographers/videographers and frequent flyers alike flocked to the MacBooks due to their relative grunt and small footprint.

The solution is simple - make ordering a Mac laptop a lot less like ordering at In-N-Out Burger. A 10" MacBook and a 12"/13" MacBook Pro would help considerably. The ability to choose, lets say, between a second GPU and a second FireWire port, would do the rest.

What do you think?

Is the missing FireWire 400 port a glaring oversight from the brains trust at Apple or a visionary move? Has this affected your desire to own a new Mac laptop for the better, or worse? Did we miss anything? Please, let us know in the comments.

Tim Hanlon

About the Author
Tim Hanlon Tim originally came to Gizmag as a developer, much to the dismay of anyone who had to maintain, build on, or rewrite his code. After wearing every other hat that didn't have a head for it, he became CEO in 2010. He's a racing sim tragic, an amateur martial artist, a nacho enthusiast, and a (mostly) reformed electronic musician.   All articles by Tim Hanlon
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21 Comments

I'm sorry Apple did this. I see no rhyme or reason for the Firewire omissions and just wonder what they can be thinking? I agree with the writer, that they value form over functionality. I've been disappointed for a long time with the relative fragility of the macbook pro case--no protection from bumping or scratching makes it much harder to use these laptops in the field. I also didn't appreciate the elimination of the floppy in desktop models, since it is still the most sensible medium for transporting less than a mb or so of info from one computer to another. I can understand eliminating it from a laptop, but a desktop should have more functionality. Dells have floppy drives and CD/DVD reader/burners--no problem. I still have a spare 12" macbook pro I use downstairs. Looks like it's going to be very useful for years to come!

Enobie
22nd October, 2008 @ 11:36 am PDT

A macbook pro without the FW400 port? Very bad for my hardware, and for all the DV camera owners out there. Maybe Apple think that we change cameras and bckup drives as often as we change computers?

zix
22nd October, 2008 @ 12:43 pm PDT

Well,

Even the firewire 800 only is a limitation for me, for AV, when I play live ALL my ports are in use, with all my outboard gear powered by the Mac. Traveller, Keyboard, Monome, HDs, Killamix.

So, for this type of job an old 17" machine not yet updated seems better suited. It offers, along FW400 & 800, a "better" Intel motherboard (not that shitty nVidia toy thing), similar performances and "traditional" screen.

I am all but a "it was better before" type, but this time it must be said that for once it is true, until, hopefully, Apple comes back with a real Pro machine with a solid Intel Mobo and a proper southbridge that can manage multiple I/Os, in an eventual forthcoming update.

Cheers, Ulhuru

Ulhuru
22nd October, 2008 @ 01:59 pm PDT

I Guess the question is, how many people use the Firewire ports? And if over 5% do, then why not make it an "option". And the people who do use the firewires, are they going to defect to another company if these options are unavailable?

Granted, having "options" like this would complicate manufacturing. But they could so it like the car companies and instead of getting each individual option, you have to buy a "bundle" of options. This way there are two or three versions of the computer, not a hundred.

They could have the Macbook Pro "Media", which would come with multiple firewire and max RAM for pushing the video.....

PrometheusGoneWild.com
22nd October, 2008 @ 04:20 pm PDT

There is a cable made buy Belkin - Belkin 6' FireWire 800/400 9pin to 6pin Cable

that will allow you to connect your firewire 400 device to your firewire 800 port

on the new Macbook Pro. Unfortunately the new Macbook doesn't have an 800 port.

Here is the link where you can buy the cable.

http://store.apple.com/us/product/TP320LL/A#overview

Proteous Maximus
22nd October, 2008 @ 06:37 pm PDT

It's not the first time apple has done this sort of thing. Does anyone else remember when they removed the ADB ports from their machines in exchange for USB ports in one fell swoop? I had to get rid of my favorite mouse (trackball) because the drivers wouldn't work with adapters. Thanks Apple, you've done it again. Design first, consumers second.

Jamie
23rd October, 2008 @ 06:13 am PDT

I would have liked a new Pro. But despite the lovely new screen and trackpad I'll have to keep my old one and look on eBay for another to keep as a spare. It's a pity -

I also have an Air and don't mind the missing stuff on that - it's designed for a specific job and does it very well.

For professional media work the Macbook Pro is indispensable, but not in its cut-down form. So, one new sale lost there I'm afraid.

Xorix
14th November, 2008 @ 11:48 pm PST

This article really spells it out correctly. This little port is essentially a deal breaker for thousands of people just like me. People who can't really afford an apple but do so anyways because it has so vastly helped change the way they can work without it.

Nice to know I can get a cheap pc to function on OSX. I think I'll have to look into that. Essentially PC's have the processing but I guess know they have the brain and ports that I need to work.

muckinyoface
30th November, 2008 @ 06:00 am PST

This is unbelievable. I just converted over from a Lenovo Thinkpad. I don;t do heavy video or anything but I do have 2 kids and a DV Camcorder with firewire 4 pin. So this Camcorder is now essentially a paperweight? If I had known this I probably just would've bought the Pro rather than have to wait for a cabling solution like USB 2.0 to Firewire or buy a new camcorder. Worse yet I can;t return the macbook and purchase a Pro. This seems really strang given that the macbook whites and the pros both have at least some firewire.

Miles Cortez III
13th December, 2008 @ 09:00 am PST

Meh, you can buy yourself a USB to firewire adapter. USB2 is really fast, it ain't USB1's inferior 12Mbps, It's quite a bit faster than firewire 400. So it can supplant it simply and easily.

Running 400 speed devices on the 800 chain is fine. If you use a hub, you don't get rinsed speed. If you really use firewire to the max, you'll be using a PC card, or even a PCI chassis.

Why would you edit video on a macbook?

Why would you worry about a slower chain during video capture, what else should you do simultaneously? Is this a practical consideration? Power use indeed.

Sure, a macbook has a budget graphics card, no expansion card, small screen, blah blah. It's a budget laptop for doing simple things on. It's not a power use computer, it's an internet computer. Stop whinging. Get the quad core macbook pro 17 when it comes out.

OH NO and you have to buy an adapter to plug in a second monitor! Good lord.

bishopdante
16th December, 2008 @ 11:39 pm PST

@bishopdante:

- A USB to FireWire adapter will definitely not do the trick for audio interfaces and I have seen no reports of one working for importing video - have you?

- If you'd ever walked around a trade show all day with a MacBook Pro, you'd agree that there needs to be a smaller pro machine and wouldn't be asking why someone would edit video on a MacBook. And outside the pro field, you have seen those TV ads running for the last few years telling everyone how easy it is to switch, right?

- A netbook is a budget laptop for doing simple things on, not a MacBook.

Tim Hanlon
17th December, 2008 @ 04:21 pm PST

I am ready upgrade from my 5 year old Powerbook G4, and was looking at the new macbook pro, they have just lost a sale. I can not be bothered with extra cables and adaptors. I have a firewire 400 audio recording set up, and I am not about to buy new hardware just 'cause apple will not cater to pros. Very disapointing, makes their claim to have 'greener' computers a complete joke. Functionality must come first, I live in the third world, not everyone has money to throw around on new gear just 'cause apple think they are hip.

I use a mac because it was the best gear I could get at the time, and it has served me well for 5 years without major issues. Come on Mac, step up your game.

Kieran
23rd December, 2008 @ 03:04 pm PST

I love my machine, but think they need to rethink their USB/Firewire and cardbus strategies.

I was lucky to get the 13 inch Macbook pro with cardbus and firewire. I bought it specifically for music - for ProTools and Logic. The cardbus allows me to put a recording drive and a sample drive (dual Esata) and the firewire allows the music gear. They took off the cardbus from the 13 inch model. There is no way I would have come up with the money for a 17" model.

For three thousand dollars I could have a Windows HDMI machine with dual internal 500gb 7200rpm drives and could have money left over to upgrade my Pro Tools hardware.

Two USB ports is a real downside too. I might need a USB dongle or two for software and am running USB keyboards which use USB power and do not share well.

The idea of having a bunch of USB docks that also need power is messy.

Maybe USB 3.0 will fix everything - but somehow I think external powered devices may still be a problem.

Kenneth Brewer
31st July, 2009 @ 09:30 am PDT

OMG!!!!1 The sky is falling!!

Seriously, who cares? Anyone needing FireWire should, and will, buy a MacBook Pro. The article specifically states that daisy-chaining (in the uncommon instance where one might need multiple devices attached simultaneously) works fine, although the nervous-nelly author (with no actual justification) says he finds it "ominous" to do so. Sensationalism, anyone?

This evolution is FAR from "killing" the MacBook, and if you consider a MacBook Pro "crippled", just buy a Dell, shut up, and leave us sensible people alone.

P.S. Kenneth, you are confusing "cardbus" [sic] with "ExpressCard". The last CardBus-capable Mac shipped over three years ago.

Deathward Egg
6th October, 2009 @ 02:17 am PDT

I love my old MacBookPro, and I ***NEED*** Firewire-400!... Hey, Apple... you ORIGINALLY swayed me to FW400, now I'm convinced, have my cameras etc that way, and I'm hanging on for dear life to this old baby. Come on, give me an option so I can move Up (not DOWN!!).... PLEASE!!!...

Fred Johnston
20th January, 2010 @ 07:31 pm PST

I last owned a $700 Toshiba laptop. A pc with firewire. Any mac without firewire, is a pathetic shortcoming. I shouldn't have to buy a MacBook Pro to have firewire connectivity. Yet, there seem to be those who will always play devil's advocate out of insecurity.

Adrian Rivera
11th February, 2010 @ 04:06 pm PST

Screw it.....buy an AlienWare Laptop and Load OSX on it....begone loser hardware....

Raymond Johnson
3rd September, 2011 @ 10:01 pm PDT

i think its terrible that they have done this... its like what they did with MobileMe.. for something that is so great for things like video editing they made the worse mistake possible.. killing the firewire almost killed the macbook

Konstyantyn Garkusha
5th September, 2011 @ 04:56 pm PDT

Apple has done this several times before. The Quadra 700 was the same size as the IIci, updated to an 040 CPU and added onboard Ethernet - but only had two NuBus slots VS three in the IIci. The Quadra 900 and 950 had five NuBus slots VS six in the IIfx they were meant as an upgrade from. The PowerMac 9500 and 9600 had six PCI slots but the new G3 boxes only had three.

There's other cases where Apple removed features from a newer Mac, which led to many users holding onto their old Mac simply because Apple had made it impossible to move all their stuff to the new model.

For example if you had a IIci with three cards, none of them Ethernet, the Quadra 700 would not be usable as an upgrade. Likewise the sound studio using a fully packed IIfx couldn't transfer all the cards to a Quadra 900 or 950 and even worse for moving from a 9500 or 9600 to a G3.

9x00 owners waited and waited and waited for Apple to produce another Mac designed for users that needed a computer capable of holding a ton of hardware but it's never happened. Had Apple put the Power Express into production I bet nearly every 9x00 would have been given the heave-ho for one, but Apple decided to just go with the radically cut down Beige G3 line.

Apple needs to produce a new Mac that's designed for professional use, with no less than six slots, all of them always usable at full speed, unlike the bizarre arrangement they have on the PCIe slots where if you install two x16 cards the x8 slots are hobbled to x4. It's a slight improvement over the first PCIe model where installing two x16 cards forced them down to x8.

Gregg Eshelman
1st November, 2011 @ 02:28 am PDT

What about Thunderbolt ?

No one mentioned it.

It's from Intel and You can hook USB 2.0 & Firewire 800 to it and it's FASTER than Everything !

I've been with Macs since they came out in 1984 and in IT for almost 20 Years.

Macs are still better than any PC and definitely better "just a bad copy of a Mac" Windows.

I always focus on a Solution so let's find one and leave the problems behind us for a change.

HAPPY NEW YEAR !

Jonathan Lucius JL Blount
1st January, 2012 @ 02:22 am PST

If you didnt plan on upgrades the computers aren't for you, let alone a Mac!!!

Look I have a new apple laptop 15 inch and I must say yes it could use more ports but it also dosent need them cause for a extra 60 bucks I have every cord and adapter I need to operate at full potential plus I have a thunderbolt port with might I add is way faster then any thing out there so if I have to sacrifice a old port or two in order to get one that is still faster then both old ports combined then so be it and all it take is an adapter to accommodate any old device that I have which there are quite a few so I know where your coming from but they make something for everything you are lacking.

Alphonso Foster Jr
17th January, 2012 @ 10:10 am PST
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