Mac Musings

The Unibody MacBook FireWire Fiasco Didn't Have to Happen

Daniel Knight - 2008.10.30 -

There's been a firestorm over the lack of FireWire on the Unibody MacBook. Longtime Mac users who have FireWire hard drives, camcorders, or peripherals complain the Apple has abandoned them. Support staff bemoans the loss of FireWire Target Disk Mode, a great tool for diagnostics.

As a longtime Mac user with several FireWire-only drives, I hear their pain. I'm as disappointed as anyone that Apple has abandoned the faster FireWire port, making USB 2.0 the only option for connecting peripherals.

Rainer Brockerhoff, an electrical engineer, has studied teardown photos of the aluminum MacBook carefully and determined that the size constraints imposed by the enclosure, hard drive, SuperDrive, and battery simply didn't leave enough room for power, ethernet, two USB ports, video out, microphone and headphone jacks, a security lock, and a FireWire port with all the ports on one side of the MacBook.

With the SuperDrive on the opposite side, something had to go, and eliminating FireWire removed a potential 7W power drain. According to his analysis, it made more sense to provide two USB 2.0 ports and eliminate FireWire.

I'm not convinced.

Yes, there is limited space for ports on the new Unibody MacBook. Yes, all of the ports are on a small motherboard. Yes, there is no more room on the left side for more ports.

There were other choices Apple could have made. I won't advocate for removing one of the USB ports, as two isn't really enough anyhow. Maybe the audio in and out ports or the Kensington lock slot could have been moved to the left side, which could have left enough room for FireWire. Or maybe not.

ports on the Unibody MacBook

All things considered, I think Apple should have looked at the MacBook Air, which does just fine without built-in ethernet. (And, for that matter, just one USB port.) Apple already makes an ethernet dongle that plugs into a USB port, so the most logical port to remove in the age of wireless networking is ethernet, not FireWire.

We've survived the loss of built-in modems. We'll survive the loss of built-in ethernet. Besides, Apple already makes USB modems and USB ethernet adapters.

What's causing the uproar is several things:

  1. Apple invented FireWire, pioneered its use in 1999, and uses it on every Mac except for the MacBook Air (where there isn't even room for a second USB port) and the Unibody MacBook.
  2. Many of us have acquired bus-powered FireWire hard drives over the years - portable hard drives to use with our PowerBooks, iBooks, and MacBooks. These portable hard drives won't work with the aluminum MacBook.
  3. Until about two years go, camcorders used FireWire almost exclusively. Eliminating FireWire makes these camcorders unusable with the new MacBook without the expense of a special, not inexpensive 1394-to-USB conversion cable (way more expensive than a USB-to-ethernet adapter).
  4. FireWire Target Disk Mode is a great way to transfer files between computers, migrate a user from one Mac to another, and for running diagnostics. Gigabit ethernet works for the first two, but not the third.

Apple has done a great job redesigning the MacBook - with the exception of eliminating FireWire, a technology many of us depend on. Apple should consider removing ethernet and bringing back FireWire when it updates the MacBook.

Until then, there's always the older MacBook design - and it's cheaper than ever! If you need FireWire in an affordable portable Mac, it's the way to go.

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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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