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

FEATURE: How Apple killed the MacBook, and crippled the MacBook Pro
The FireWire 400 connector
The FireWire 400 connector
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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 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

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!
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?

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
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.....
Proteous Maximus
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.
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.
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.

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.

Miles Cortez III
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.
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.
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