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Mac Musings

We Need More than 2 USB Ports in MacBooks

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- 2008.01.14 - Tip Jar

Sometimes Apple's "pro" products don't have quite enough features.

Demise of an eMac

It's been quite a while since I last used a notebook computer with an external keyboard. The last time was probably three years ago, when I bought a couple of refurbished 1.25 GHz eMacs so I could work on the same machine at both locations. After four years of heavy use, my 400 MHz G4 PowerBook became a field computer.

I haven't had the best of luck with those eMacs. Just out of warranty, the Combo drive on one died. It was cheaper to buy three third-party 16x dual-layer SuperDrives at $60 each than pay for a replacement Apple Combo drive. One started acting flaky about a year ago, and I eventually gave up on making it work. It was a backup machine, and the other eMac was working just fine. Well, until November, when the display on the other eMac went black. I detailed my solution in 1 Working eMac from 2 Broken Ones.

Last week, the cobbled together eMac began doing exactly what the other one had a year earlier. It would just hang for no apparent reason, often (almost always, but not quite always) when quitting the screen saver, magnifying an icon in the dock, or zooming a dialog box in a window. I'd see onscreen artifacts most of the time, then it would freeze.

I ran Apple Hardware Diagnostics. I ran Rember to test the memory. I reinstalled Tiger. I booted 10.3 and 10.4 from an external FireWire drive. I zapped the PRAM (Cmd-Opt-P-R) and reset the CUDA. I took out first one RAM module and then the other. None of these things made a difference.

I booted in Safe Mode (hold down Shift during startup), and the eMac ran pretty reliably, but with no Internet access (no AirPort support in Safe Mode). And I installed John Bafford's Unlockupd, as suggested by John Musbach on our iMac List, which didn't eliminate lockups completely but let the eMac run longer before completely locking up. And still I had video artifacts. I'm going to have to bring that to the local Apple Store and try to get it fixed under the eMac Repair Extension Program for Video and Power Issues.

Switching to a MacBook Pro

That left my wife, the lovely Waverly, without a desktop computer. She's been using the Core 2 Duo 15" MacBook Pro for a week now, and she's enjoyed it. She keeps most of her work on a USB flash drive and used Yahoo for her email, so none of that was a problem.

Over the weekend I concluded that the eMac wasn't going to be fixed here; it's going to have to go in for repair. Fortunately it ran well enough in Safe Mode that I was able to use Carbon Copy Cloner to clone the internal hard drive to an external FireWire drive, which I then brought over to the MacBook Pro. After connecting it, I ran the Migration Assistant (in Applications > Utilities), deleted a lot of my own files (I don't need my iPhoto and iTunes libraries on it), and moved all of her files, software, and preferences to the MBP. It was like being back on her eMac, but portable and with a bigger screen. (Yes, I could have used FireWire Target Disk Mode on the eMac, but that would have meant making room for the MBP and AC adapter. Besides, this way I have a full backup of her hard drive just in case Apple does a computer swap instead of replacing the logic board.)

All of this meant that Waverly could go back to her desk and the full Logitech Cordless Elite Duo mouse and keyboard that we're both used to (much better than any USB keyboard and mouse Apple has ever made - and long discontinued). And that's where we ran into a problem. We could plug in the flash drive. We could plug in the wireless receiver for the mouse and keyboard.

But we couldn't plug in either printer, as we'd just used both USB ports.

The eMac has three USB ports, so it was possible to have the flash drive, keyboard/mouse receiver, and one of the two printers plugged in at the same time. To do that with the MacBook Pro - well, you can't without buying a hub or an ExpressCard/34 adapter with USB ports.

A Modest Request

The clamshell iBooks had a single USB port, but all the other iBooks, PowerBooks, and MacBooks have had at least two USB ports. But to date the only 'Books with three USB ports have been the different 17" MacBook Pro models. Apple also provides two FireWire ports on the MacBook Pro models, so they realize connectivity is important.

Sorry, Apple, but having three USB ports isn't something only high-end pros need. Dell realizes it, and their cheapest notebook computer has four USB 2.0 ports. HP realizes it and puts three USB ports on its cheapest laptop. Acer probably does as well, as the few notebooks I looked at on their website have three USB ports, but there's no way to determine what's their cheapest.

So, Apple, here's my modest suggestion: Put at least three USB 2.0 ports in your consumer notebook and consider four for your Pro models. Mobile users shouldn't have to invest in a USB hub if they want to connect to a flash drive, mouse, and printer at the same time.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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