The Case of the Missing ExpressCard Slot

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As Apple giveth, Apple taketh away. Apple refreshed the MacBook Pro line with a new 13-inch model and a revamped 15-inch model, adding, peculiarly, an SD Slot to each of them, ostensibly to make it easier for digital camera users to transfer data over. But in the case of the 15-inch, this move came with a price--the elimination of the ExpressCard/34 expansion slot that had been a fixture of the 15-inch MacBook Pro since its inception. The omission has led to howls of derision for certain classes of MacBook Pro users who depended on that interface.

The ExpressCard/34 expansion slot remains a fixture on Apple's most powerful MacBook Pro--the 17-inch model. But that's it. No other MacBook model has the card interface.

Admittedly, many people have never used their ExpressCard slot in their lives. Like the PC Card interface that preceded it, the ExpressCard/34 expansion interface is mainly there for users who need some hardware capability that the MacBook Pro lacks, and the MacBook Pro is certainly better-equipped than many lesser PC-compatible laptops out there.

But for practiced road warriors, the absence of the ExpressCard interface is a real problem. Increasingly, many traveling pros have turned to ExpressCard-based 3G cards available through Verizon and other cellular service providers as a way of staying in touch without depending on Wi-Fi hotspots. A USB cell modem is a possibility, albeit a cumbersome one.

And if the WWDC keynote address on Monday was any indication, AT&T seems to be dragging its heels on enabling "tethering" on the iPhone--the wireless carrier's name was noticeably absent from a slide of service providers supporting tethering, displayed by Apple vice president of iPhone software Scott Forstall during his time on the keynote stage.

Tethering will enable new MacBook Pro users to share their iPhone's Internet connection using Bluetooth, which would negate the need for a separate 3G card. But at least for millions of U.S. customers, that dream is still off in the future.

Cell data network-hopping isn't the only use for an ExpressCard slot. Some IT personnel use ExpressCard-based Gigabit Ethernet cards to supplement or separate their network capabilities. Magma manufactures PCI expansion systems that have been found in vertical market like pro audio and video, and they work with ExpressCard interfaces. Some companies make smartcard security readers that are ExpressCard-based, and ExpressCard has also been used as a connection to flash media cards--like the SD card whose slot now replaces the ExpressCard on the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

And while the 15-inch MacBook Pro model comes equipped with a FireWire 800 interface, that's just not fast enough for some mobile video and audio pros, and IT personnel looking for the quickest data access possible. Right now that capability goes to external Serial ATA, or eSATA, an interface that you won't find built in to any currently-shipping Mac.

And for MacBook Pro owners, the best solution up to now has been to plug in an eSATA ExpressCard. Again, not an option for new 15-inch MacBook Pro users, and for this, there isn't a simple workaround. They'll either have to settle for using older gear or upgrade to the 17-inch MacBook Pro, which isn't as easy to lug around or work in tight quarters as its little sibling.

So while the 15-inch MacBook Pro model may have gained some ease of use for those users who own a video camera or still camera that stores files on SD card media--and I admit I'm among that group--there's another bunch of people that are steaming mad at this change and looking for a better solution than the bigger, bulkier, and considerably more expensive 17-inch MacBook Pro.

This story, "The Case of the Missing ExpressCard Slot" was originally published by Macworld.

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