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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.