In Defense of Non-Firewire MacBooks

Everyone is in agreement that the new MacBooks look great. But almost everyone is also in agreement that the biggest problem with the new MacBooks is the removal of a Firewire port. The MacBook Pros have one, but not the new MacBooks.
The primary use of this Firewire port was to import digital video from a camcorder. They can also be used to connect external hard drives and some other devices. But hard drives are usually USB2 nowadays, which are comparable in transfer speed to Firewire. So the main problem with not having Firewire on the new MacBooks is in connecting camcorders.
But Steve Jobs defended this move, saying that many new camcorders use USB2 anyway. This is surprisingly true. I haven’t bought a new camcorder in about 2 years, and then Firewire was the standard. But looking around now, I see that USB2 has indeed moved into this area. There are still Firewire connectors on some camcorders, but USB2 does seem to have taken over.
In addition, the home video camcorder market has changed. Nowadays, any decent digital camera has a video mode that captures at least 640×480 video at 30 frames per second. The quality isn’t pro-level, or even Web video level in many cases, but it is definitely family reunion video level. And these videos are transferred to your computer via USB2, or using a card reader. Also, with the popularity of small, cheap video cameras like the Flip, many people are forgetting about consumer-level camcorders all together in favor of this cool little devices.
So the only problem I see is the situation where someone who has a Firewire-only camcorder buys a new MacBook to replace an old one. Now they find they can no longer connect the two. Their upgrade has turned into a downgrade. And with no expansion slot on a MacBook, and no way to adapt USB2 to Firewire, they really are stuck. There is just no way to use Firewire on their new MacBook.
So existing MacBook users that use their MacBooks with a Firewire camcorder need to either get a new camcorder or upgrade to a MacBook Pro, not a MacBook.
Looking at it from Apple’s point of view, I do see this taking care of one problem: how to differentiate the MacBooks from the MacBook Pros. In the past, the case has been different, as well as the video chips. Now that they are the same, we’ve got Firewire, expansion slot, and larger screen, to name the major differences.
So the good news is it will be easier to choose between MacBooks and MacBook Pros. The bad news is that if you really want Firewire, you’re going to have to pay a lot more for it. But with a difference in price of $700, you can afford to replace that old camcorder with a new one anyway.

Comments: 9 Responses to “In Defense of Non-Firewire MacBooks”

    10/25/08 @ 8:02 am

    Well, I have an old white macbook, and it seems that nobody (neither Apple nor the critics) is caring about the use of Firewire for non-video applications.

    All the talk is about camcorders, ports and whether the user is a “pro” or not. But, what about other devices which use the firewire port?

    I produce podcasts with a firewire external audio device which connects to a mixer. I chose FW over USB not because speed or whatever, but because the macbook only has two USB ports, which are usually in use with external hard drives (for Time Machine backups, for example) and casual usb-sticks, scanners or printers use. So buying a firewire device leaves an USB port free for other uses.

    Now, when I upgrade, I will have to choose between trashing my external audio card or buying the MBP, which is way too expensive for my needs.

    I’m not trying to whine here, and I know that Apple has the right to do whatever they want with their products, but dropping an external port leaves most laptops with only two USB drives, which is kind of scarce for many people.

    Why didn’t Apple replace the FW with another USB port? Nobody knows, but that would have been the right thing to do. Abandoning firewire isn’t nice, but simply removing a port from the laptop is lazy, for my point of view.

    Apple could have been brave and announce beforehand that they would discontinue FW ports, so that vendors and users start moving to USB. They did the same with the PowerPC to Intel transition, and it worked.

    That being said, it is true that FW isn’t as popular as USB, and evolution clearly points to new versions of the USB standard, but many firewire users are now pissed off because we have to choose between buying a new device or buying a more expensive laptop. For me, besides that, the MBP isn’t really an option because I travel a lot and need a 13″ machine.

    Well, we have a nice debate here. I hope that my audio card breaks before my laptop does.

    10/28/08 @ 8:01 pm

    I was quite surprised by your lack of support for Firewire. USB is fine for mice and keyboards and other low performance devices but, USB doesn’t keep up when you need sustained performance. Try switching to Firewire devices for a month and then go back to USB versions, you’ll see why everyone is upset.

    Firewire is more than just about consumer video cameras. Professional video and audio equipment, and scientific test and monitoring equipment are probably the largest consumers.

    There are also those folks who service and repair Macintosh computers. Have you ever tried to boot from a USB hard drive or thumb drive? Have you ever tried to use your Macintosh as a drive (not sharing as a physical drive) over USB? Have you ever tried networking two Macintosh computers using TCP/IP over USB? Give it a try then try doing it using Firewire.

    What I’m trying to say is the Firewire Experience is far and away superior to the USB Experience. We want an experience that matches the Macintosh experience.

    Thanks for your time.

    11/22/08 @ 4:02 pm

    The issue here is the difference between Firewire 800 and 400. I am writing this on a new MacBook Pro and I do have a Firewire 800 port which works very well, the issue is when I try to use peripherals with Firewire 400 connection.

    It’d be great if one could use the 800 connection to run 400 devices. Is there any information on connecting 400-compatible devices to an 800 port?

    11/22/08 @ 4:44 pm

    RKYOH: You definitely can run Firewire 400 devices off that Firewire 800 port. You will probably need a cable that goes from one to the other, but many are available and pretty cheap.

    2/6/09 @ 10:57 am

    I am sitting (enduring) a transfer via ethernet on a new MacBook from a previous generation MacBook as I respond to this. The new MacBooks are fast, gorgeous and sexy, but I am very upset about the loss of FireWire on this unit. Previously you did not require updating the new computer prior to moving your data, the internet has multiple reports of the new Migration Assistant having serious problems if you do not perform the latest Software Updates prior to transferring. To do this you need to go through the new computer registration procedure, set up a temporary account (something other than an existing account that will be transferred) and then download almost a gig of system updates. There are so many steps involved prior to using the new computer it feels more like a Wintel Mac instead of an Intel Mac.
    I use Target Disk Mode constantly, it’s one of the easiest methods of transferring the large video files that my FireWire/USB camcorder produce when I’m travelling. Speaking of said camera, connecting to the computer via FireWire has always been my preference because I can use the USB chain for other items (thumb drives, printers, mice) without carrying a USB hub with me. It also has never been easy to transfer video via USB, I gave up on it a long time ago because of the erratic operation.
    The latency in a saturated USB chain is horrible, try printing a high-res photo while you have a large data transfer in progress between two USB drives. In my experience it takes nearly twice as long for the transfer and printing to finish. Three out of the four hard drives I own have FireWire/USB connection but my external RAID does not, I will have to leave it connected to my desktop system and suffer through the data transfer over ethernet (which requires setting up file sharing, etc, etc).
    All in all the new MacBook is a beautiful computer, it just seems it isn’t ready for prime time yet.

    4/28/09 @ 4:11 am

    The problem with Jobs’ argument is that the Pro has FW. If excluding FW was to keep up with current technology then the Pro shouldn’t have had FW either.

    8/2/09 @ 11:26 pm

    Appears Job concedes his arguments in the form of action – the New 13″ MacBook (now also called a MacBook Pro) has a conspicuous FW (800) port. Glad that it’s back, sorry I bought two 13″ MacBooks when I did.

    prashant sreedharan
    10/24/10 @ 10:02 pm

    Even im stuck….
    I have a Sony HD cam and stuck !!!!
    my apple mac book pro upgrade was a dissaster
    i sold my old one to get a new one, to find it has no FW !!!!!!
    dumb !

      10/25/10 @ 6:46 am

      So you got one of those 2009 MacBooks with no Firewire? That’s a problem. I don’t know of any good solution — get a camera that doesn’t use firewire, or upgrade to a newer MacBook, or get a cheaper Mac (Mac mini?) to use for importing firewire. None of these are great solutions, I realize.

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