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.