FireWire's MacBook Absence a Fatal Flaw?

As our first look at Apple's new laptops suggests, there's plenty to talk about with the new laptops introduced this week. But it's what's not there in the revamped MacBook product line that has people talking--yelling in some cases. And that's Apple's as-of-yet unexplained decision to drop FireWire connectivity from its consumer-focused laptops. Some users are saying point-blank that they're not going to order the new hardware without FireWire.

The absence of FireWire ports is certainly an inconvenience for some users. But it shouldn't be considered a deal-breaker for most of us, anyway.

FireWire--IEEE 1394, as it's known in techie circles--is the peripheral interface that Apple has made a part of almost each and every Mac since the Blue & White Power Mac G3 debuted in 1999. It was originally developed to give computers a way to talk quickly and reliably to storage devices--FireWire has long been the preferred interface for some Mac users who want to hook up an external hard disk drive. It also caught on with camcorder makers, and that's really why most people are upset. A lot of standard-definition (SD) video cameras have relied on FireWire for the past few years.

From a practical standpoint, FireWire also comes in handy if you're transferring large amounts of data between machines. Let's say, for example, you're transferring information from a desktop machine to your laptop. A special operating mode called Target Disk Mode (TDM) lets you reboot your laptop (or other FireWire-equipped Mac) to appear to the host machine as a storage device. Then you can just drag-and-drop what you need to and from to and from each machine, back and forth. It's certainly faster than trying to transfer files over a Wi-Fi network. It can be faster than Ethernet, too, if one of the machines lacks a Gigabit Ethernet port, or you don't have an Ethernet cable handy.

Setting up a new computer? FireWire TDM is good for that, too. Apple's Migration Assistant makes it a lead pipe cinch to transfer your user account information, data and applications to a computer connected using TDM.

But Migration Assistant also works computer-to-computer if you have an Ethernet cable, which is more readily available and cheaper than a FireWire cable. And new MacBooks--as well as most Macs that have been shipping for the past several years--have Gigabit Ethernet ports on them.

Even if you're like me and haven't upgraded your Ethernet hub (presuming you're even using a hub) from 100baseT, you can connect each machine directly using a Cat 5 Ethernet cable and expect Gigabit Ethernet transfer speeds that will best a FireWire connection.

As far as storage devices that use FireWire, most of them also have USB 2.0. Increasingly, many external drives that feature FireWire also have external Serial ATA (eSATA), an even faster peripheral interface than FireWire which isn't currently supported on any Mac shipping from the factory--you have to add a peripheral card to get that to work, either using a Power Mac or Mac Pro, or in the case of a MacBook Pro, an ExpressCard/34 host adapter. But neither of those options are available to MacBook users, either now or before this week, so USB 2.0 will be the way to go for external hard disks on the MacBook from here on out.

Connecting a camcorder is, admittedly, a bit trickier. And this is certainly a sticking point for the many Mac users who want to edit their own video or send clips of kids' birthday parties and other events to far-off relatives or post them on Web pages.

But if you're considering a new MacBook, be aware that the iMovie software pre-installed on that system as part of the iLife '08 suite is perfectly capable of communicating with the many USB-based camcorders now on the market, so it may be an opportunity for you to upgrade your camcorder.

In fact, most of the High Definition (HD) camcorders now on the market feature USB connectivity. While some older Standard Definition (SD) camcorders still cling to FireWire--it's used not only by Apple but also Sony, which calls it "i.Link," just to complicate the branding--most of the HD models I've seen lately work using USB 2.0 instead. And the new MacBook has USB 2.0 ports, for sure.

The absence of FireWire on the MacBook is also being felt keenly by some professionals who would prefer to opt for the MacBook's small size over the bulkier but more capable and considerably more expensive MacBook Pro, at least as a portable system for light work in the field. Some pro video and audio hardware depends on FireWire, for example, and digital photographers, who often deal with huge photo libraries, have shown a preference for FireWire-based storage.

That's a harder problem to solve; for now, the obvious solution is to either stick with the polycarbonate-clad MacBook, which remains available alongside its new aluminum brother, or to spend the extra money to get the MacBook Pro.

In short, the new MacBook has a lot to offer buyers--faster graphics and video than before, an even stronger and more durable chassis, a backlit keyboard for high-end users, and many other enhancements. FireWire's absence is certainly disappointing and will surely be felt for a while by Mac users who had invested in peripherals that use the interface, but I suspect most people will make the transition, and will ultimately find that they're not missing much by making the switch.

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