HDV cameras like the widely-beloved Canon HV20: no longer compatibility with the MacBook. And, ironically, for the difference in price with a Pro that gets you FireWire, you could buy an entire PC laptop. But I guess this camera was, um, totally 2007? Photo (CC) Brad Wood.

Apple’s decision this week to remove FireWire from all non-Pro MacBooks and switch to a single FW800 port on MacBook Pros has partly overshadowed what should have been a pretty popular product launch. Readers on Create Digital Music — Mac users, most of them, not PC users — have been downright irate.

Now, an email has surfaced that is allegedly from Steve Jobs himself, responding to a Mac user that: “Actually, all of the new HD camcorders of the past few years use USB 2.

I’m not sure whether this was really a response from Steve Jobs, though it is as typically terse as he tends to be. But whether Jobs said it or not doesn’t matter. Various other parties have brought up the same argument, and I think it’s time to address it. Bloggers have looked up “camcorder” on Amazon.com and come to the same conclusion, but the problem is, the statement is only half true.

Increasingly-popular consumer AVCHD camcorders use USB, that’s true — and accounts for a lot of the new sales in the sector. Likewise, video cameras that use hard disk or flash memory for storage do indeed now generally connect via USB. (Interestingly, this confused consumers at first, many of whom complained that those AVCHD units lacked FireWire.)

The problem is the exceptions to the rule. There’s the installed base; the lifetime of a camera is obviously longer than two years. There’s the still-popular HDV format, including HDV cameras that can outperform equivalent AVCHD units. And most importantly, there’s the fact that pro and semi-pro cameras almost exclusively use FireWire.

The workaround: get a MacBook Pro with a FW800 to FW400 adapter. But you can’t use the MacBook to save a little money or get a slightly smaller unit, and even on the Pro you’re limited to a single FireWire port. And there’s no way to justify this as being an inferior format or something like that; in this case, Apple dropped the superior technology because it was unpopular. That may what is grating people most, because that’s generally not why people buy Macs.

Incidentally, the reason the audio people are so mad is that the audio and music side is entirely different. FireWire is actually far more popular for external multichannel interfaces than USB2, including the one audio interface Apple themselves helped promote, the Apogee Duet. The single FireWire800 port isn’t a great comfort, either. Because of peculiarities with controllers and the like, it’s possible some audio interfaces won’t work well on the new Macs. The “it just works” quality is the Mac’s main selling point in audio, not marketing or pretty cases as some people (on the PC side, no less) seem to think.

And I think we’re missing a bigger, underlying problem. We already know Apple has an aversion to buttons, one that has been largely benign. But it seems Apple and Jobs also have an aversion to putting holes in the side of their machine. Even the Pro has just two USB ports and one FW800 port. That means that juggling dongles, drives, audio interfaces, and the like can be a major challenge.

At the very least, it’s worth investigating using the ExpressCard slot to add more connectivity, like an eSATA connection. (Anyone tried this? Know what the Mac driver situation is like?)

I am very eager to actually hear hands-on reports and compatibility information as these machines get out in the wild, so don’t think I’m just ranting for the sake of it!

Updated: TUAW has an extended story on this issue. They confirm an even odder response from Jobs after a follow-up: “The new HD camcorders start around $500.” Yes, that’s … true. Except, of course, we’re back to the price difference with the MacBook Pro, we’re assuming if you want to ditch your current camera (which you may like just fine, thank you), it’s very likely to require a software upgrade to edit the AVCHD, Apple’s own Final Cut doesn’t edit AVCHD natively, many of those AVCHD cameras (certainly at that price point) are inferior to some of the better HDV cameras in picture quality and features and …

Well, more to the point, Apple’s answer is “so buy a new camera.”

Christina Warren at TUAW points out, rightfully:

It is also true that AVCHD is still not completely supported for native editing by most popular software packages. In fact, Adobe Premeire Pro didn’t even support the format until CS4, which was released yesterday. iMovie ’08, Final Cut Express 4 and Final Cut Studio can edit AVCHD footage, but it has to be converted to the Apple Intermediate Codec on the fly (or batch converted with the VoltaicHD tool, which adds the bonus of allowing PPC machines to work with the format).

Furthermore, although it has lagged behind AVCHD in popularity, HDV cameras are still sold, and because HDV uses MiniDV tapes, it is a popular choice for consumers who either bought HD cameras early, or still want to be able to play back their MiniDV footage. XDCAM EX and DVCPRO HD have supplanted HDV in the professional market, but many of the better prosumer cameras are HDV, not AVCHD. Even with the USB 2 port found on most DVCPRO HD cams, you still can’t capture footage from tape with it; that’s a job for FireWire.

… and, of course, that’s before you even get to the question of FireWire audio interfaces, which is what has our Create Digital Music brethren grabbing torches. I think there’s no question that, for many, the non-Pro laptop just got a lot less appealing, not more.

  • About the eSATA solution: with the latest OSX works to adapt an eSATA interface using an express card. I work with it during live events and an external hard drive on my macbook pro (5 months old).

    Here is the problem though: you need a free usb port to power that hard drive. So even though it will al work, a USB hub will need to be used to run the entire setup! MORE PORTS APPLE!!!

  • Well, I guess the other alternative for the drive is a power brick, but yes. The issue with eSATA is, unlike FW800, it doesn't carry power.

  • Alex

    Have a look at this for the eSATA solution with expresscard link (updated by Jaymis)

    I use eSATA all the time- rock solid on my 1st gen MacBookPro. I have a friend that is borrowing it at the moment- once again rock solid. I purchased my express card about 2 years ago in Taipei when they first arrived. It was an OEM- so had to download the Silicon Image driver from SiliconImage.

    Other than that- I think we should wait a while for the new macbooks/pros to show their colours, it doesn't even look like the line up is complete yet- as both have legacy models still for sale,.. Most of the time Apple do this it normally suggests that the product line needs to go through one update to stabilize- remember that the 1st gen Macbookpro had NO FW800?! Not the first time that Apple taken something away only to put it back…

    Allot of users are also referring to this in similar terms as the iMac and the floppy drive. I don't think that its the same at all. However- I would probably like to see any sort of WF in the MacBook,.. even a mini FW would be ok,.. 😀



  • Well, that's absolutely right. For all of the attention given to this decision, I would generally *not* buy this machine yet. PCs when they're new at least have pretty detailed specs (like FireWire controller); here, we don't know —

    * reliability
    * specifics of controllers and compatibility, which has been an issue on FireWire

    My attitude toward systems is the same as OSes; I don't think you have to wait forever, necessarily, but a little bit of caution is a good idea. We rely more heavily on computers as artists and performers than the average user, so something like an audio incompatibility or minor reliability issue can become catastrophic.

  • scntfc

    this is slightly tangential to the subject at hand, but is at least slightly relevant. i posted this rant to the apple discussion board:

    the presentation of the new apple laptops earlier this week made special note of being environmentally friendly with less packaging and shipping costs. then later in the week, steve jobs replies via email to a user concerned about the lack of firewire connectivity on macbooks with a reply that amounts to something to the effect of "just buy a new camera".

    so according to apple, "going green" is a reasonable sales pitch, even when part of the upgrade solution is to tell thousands of customers to throw away their still perfectly useful video cameras.

    if apple were truly concerned about their environmental impact, they would:
    a. provide solutions to keep legacy products useful, and
    b. when possible, provide viable upgrade paths for computers and peripherals (and their constituent components) that they've already sold.

    with virtually no upgradeable internal parts in apple products (ram, hard drives, batteries excluded), entire computers – monitors and all – that become increasingly worthless over time based on a single internal component (the cpu), and no clear vision for keeping third party peripherals useful for their actual mechanical lifespan, i can barely stomach seeing apple use environmentalism as a marketing tool. it is shameful and unscrupulous behavior.

  • @scntfc: that's an excellent point and I think directly relevant to the discussion. I certainly wouldn't place that blame at Jobs' feet per se — I think it's still a problem for the whole industry. So it's great that Apple reduced packaging, reduced carbon footprint, reduced toxins — that's fantastic. But we still have this fundamental issue of the industry relying on technology being disposable. Obviously, we've all benefited from that, so I don't want to throw stones from my glass house — but we do need balance. What Apple did this week was an important step, but obsolescence remains an issue.

  • scntfc

    agreed. fwiw, my post was removed by apple. so much for open discourse on the subject in their very own forum.

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  • Pierre A Aebischer


    Well, having been with a ProAudio SW manufacturer for some years, engineers there always seemed to favor Intel chipsets for "serious" audio jobs… leaving these nVidia things and their few connection capabilities to low cost office or game jobs.

    Now USB2: engineers, again, seriously disliked this format for "serious" audio tasks, ie: anything that should not click!.

    Finally, on OSX only, for some reasons that Mac geniuses have never been able to explain to me, USB2 is limited to 9MB/s for file transfer, while FW400 can easily achieve 20 to 40MB/s or more depending on hard drives in use.

    So, currently we are being offered low cost chipsets, 9MB/s file transfer max (try backing up your video with that)… and a mirror instead of a screen, particularly obvious with black background apps 🙂


    So, wait and expect improvements on forthcoming machines is the least we can do, but how long will it take till a proper chipset makes its way back in MBPs ??

  • Graham T

    Oh no I really hope Jobs didn't say that… if he did then he needs to sack his research department and get out more!

  • Kevin Hackett

    Build a Hackintosh. Apple has lost touch with its end users and has become more concerned with hiding the generic hardware you can get yourself for half the price. Honestly, I use a Hackintosh to make my living and I doubt I will ever use an ever priced, over designed apple again. Its not about money, its about what is right and what can be replaced in the field on the fly. Apple would do good to let consumer build their own Macs if they want to, there is a market for it. I think PsyStar is about to force that to happen. http://www.insanelymac.com <—- has showed me the errors in Apple's ways.

  • Irritated

    If fire wire on a MBP is a problem, buy a express card adaptor with more firewire in them. If speed is the issue, use Esata, it is faster than all of them. If you are worried about future compatibility, thank apple for considering the fact that the guys behind firewire have ditched the old firewire 400 port in favor of the the firewire 800 port that is found on the the new MBP. And if you are looking to do pro-work on your computer get a MBP not a Macbook. One is geared toward college kids, the other is geared toward prosumers. I really don't see why people are knit picking this. The Macbook was never a replacement for a Macbook Pro, and it still isn't.
    Now, if you someone wants to talk about the glossy screen…

  • To the Irritated:
    Thanks Apple for ditching firewire 400 so now I can throw away my DV Camera and my Western Digital Hard Drives! Wait, I can use eSATA. I can use it 7 times a day, in and out of my macbook pro as I take it from home to school and then to the office! Thanks apple, now I can skip paying for my textbooks in college so I can upgrade my inferior Firewire 400 gear. Knitpicking is for amateurs like you, and considering the details are what we are doing with a professional tool that will pay our bills.

  • Irritated

    Or instead of throwing out your camera, like a someone who obviously does not know the technology you use, you could easily purchase a firewire 400 to 800 cable, and keep doing what you have always done. But thats just what I would do. I mean I don't know what "professionals" like yourself do. I guess I'll just go back to having fun…

    As for your arguement about esata, I'm not sure I understand your sarcasm considering I do exactly that. And thanks for ignoring the firewire express card option. Grow up.

  • Tim

    I just wanted to add my own grumble, grumble about the macbooks. Why would I want to pay the extra $$ for a "pro" laptop when the "consumer" version does everything I need/want – "pro audio recording or pro video editing" – except it doesn't have the right connectors. The people that say "you should be using a pro machine" don't really make much of an argument for why other than the pro machine has "pro" in the title. I'm typing this on a macbook "pro" as we speak. There are definite advantages to the pro laptop… but none of them really apply to me. Its just frustrating that an otherwise great looking laptop is rendered useless to me by not including a little port.

  • confused

    there is clearly more to the macbook pro than just "pro" in the title which makes it more "professional" of a system than the macbook – just look at the specs. i think they are assuming that a professional cares more about features and specs than having a cute little laptop to lug around wherever they go. video editors and audio engineers are most likely going to actually care about having a 2.8ghz processor with 6mb of l2 cache, the 512mb of vram, and (obviously) the firewire. Perhaps you need to rethink your definition of what a professional is and realize there's more to it than the software that you are using.

    I completely agree that the lack of firewire on the 13" macbook has made it essentially useless. But that's why I won't buy one, and that's why I'll be saving up for the MBP. But I'm not about to start bitching about it to the internet. I mean really, who gives a shit?

    on a side note, I highly doubt that the lack of firewire is because Apple doesn't like adding extra holes to their enclosures. While that is entirely true (haha), I have a feeling it was a technical hurdle that they were not able to overcome with the new design. Watch the keynote video towards the end where they show the little documentary outlining the production process of the new laptops. There is a shot which shows all of the components laid out. Do you see the size of the motherboard?! It's freaking tiny, way smaller than I ever would have expected it to be. I imagine they simply could not fit the 1934 controller onto the board, or something along those lines. And hey, if they didn't make it thinner, than Jobs wouldn't be able to tout that "necessary" feature.

    With all that being said, Jobs' explanation for why its missing (if that is real) just might be the lamest thing I've ever read.

  • tim c

    Speaking as a "pro" user who makes his living as a designer and makes music for fun, I use the MacBook over the MacBook pro because I am cheap, and like keeping my business expenses down. I would never pay all that extra cash for the slightly bigger screen of the mbp because I plug my laptop into a monitor when it's time to do serious work on it.
    Taking something useful away from the next computer I was going to buy has go me seriously pissed with my favorite company, and got me thinking the hackintosh route might be a fun experiment…

  • Absolutely, there are plenty of other reasons to choose the Pro … I don't question that. But the specs on the non-Pro are sufficient for many tasks. Uncertain on the 9400M, but it's possible, as I said elsewhere, it could even enable apps that were previous impossible to run (like Motion).

    So, yes, as you can see it's a sacrifice various folks are finding hard to swallow. Maybe it didn't fit, but there are subnotebook PCs with plenty of ports, let alone 13" machines. It's just the sacrifice you have to make for Apple — and it seems to have split people in terms of how they feel about it. Some are going to the Pro, some are just holding off on a purchase.

  • Tim

    There are definite advantages to jumping up to the pro version, but not really necessary for a lot of people in most cases. The CPU speed is less of an issue for me (to a point) but faster is always better. If I'm doing something that requires some more horsepower than I'll use the desktop. The MBPs are great machines, but I'd rather save the extra cash since the laptop will be "old" in a few years anyway. Performance wise the macbook will do everything I need audio on the audio side and it'll handle the majority video side… albeit more slowly :). For someone on a budget though its a shame that the main reason to go the pro route is because of a single port. And I could try grumbling about it to my wife, but I thought the internet was invented so people could have another avenue to complain and share their uninformed opinions? 🙂

  • It would be totally awesome to see a monster ExpressCard device with additional FW, USB & eSATA ports. That would rock!

  • DV is dead. HDV is a holdover until the current generation of camera took hold – I think this blog post has it – 19 or the Top 20 on Amazon use USB2. Yes it sucks but its called progress. http://theappleblog.com/2008/10/20/camcorders-and

  • Tim

    article via wired about the absence of firewire… http://blog.wired.com/gadgets/2008/10/it-pros-fin

  • Great ideas, is there a place to elaborate on this all?