By now, you likely already know that Apple came out with new laptops today. I could talk about the new features at the existing price points or about how the new machines are very pretty, but you can easily find that elsewhere. Instead, I want to address some unfortunate details on the new laptops in terms of ports. After all, small details can make a big difference for audio users.

For connecting drives, audio interfaces, MIDI devices, and the like, you get:

  • MacBook Pro: Two USB 2.0 port, one FireWire800 port, one ExpressCard/34 slot
  • MacBook: Two USB 2.0 ports
  • MacBook Air: One USB 2.0 port

Those are Pro specs for laptop ports, really?

So FireWire is gone from non-Pro models. FW400 is gone from the Pros, though that turns out not to be entirely a deal-breaker (you can use FW800). And eSATA is still missing, which I personally think is too bad given the increasing availability of great external drives. (eSATA is an external SATA connector. In the real world, it blows away USB2. In theory, it also blows away FW800, but in practice, they’re typically neck and neck and both pretty great. Problem is, having just one FW800 limits flexibility.)

Note: A holdout from the previous generation, the white polycarbonate MacBook and 17″ MacBook Pro live on — at least for now. The US$999 white MacBook is a good buy if you don’t need the NVIDIA 3D graphics, with a FireWire 400 port and (now) a SuperDrive. The US$2799, 17″ MacBook Pro has a third USB port and a FireWire 400 port the “improved” models lack. I would guess both models will be phased out soon, however.

With Apple leaving their price points more or less in place, that means now could be a great time to snap up some deals on used or refurb models if you’re thinking of upgrading and want to save some cash versus a new model. And it means the MacBook, for at least some users, just got less appealing, not more.

FireWire 800 vs. 400

First off, FireWire 400 is gone entirely. On the MacBook Pro, this doesn’t wind up being as bad as it sounds. The FireWire800 jack is still available, and using an adapter, that means fairly easy backwards-compatibility with FireWire 400 audio devices. Here’s what MOTU has said in the past about using their popular FireWire-400 audio interface with FW800:

Also, you can use a FireWire 800-to-400 adapter to plug a MOTU FireWire interface into a computer with a FireWire 800 port. As our FireWire interfaces are FW 400 devices, there will be no performance increase by connecting them to a FW 800 bus, but there will also be no detriment to MOTU FW performance either. Using a FW 800-to-400 adapter simply provides you with more connectivity options.

In fact, I believe you will still get the benefit of bus power via the FireWire 800 jack. That actually makes this less annoying than using FireWire on PC laptops, as most (though not all) PC laptops use a 4-pin jack that doesn’t use power. (The upside of the 4-pin jack is, because it doesn’t carry power, it’s also not likely to fry gear when hot-plugged. I have heard isolated incidents of that happening, at least with video cameras.)

I’m also really disappointed that Apple hasn’t added eSATA. This is widely available on PC laptops, and allows superb drive performance – ideal for recording – and doesn’t involve squeezing anything else on our overburdened USB ports. Sure, you could use FW800, but many drives include eSATA in place of FW800, and you’ve just taken up your FW800 port with your audio interface. See the problem?

The break for the MacBook Pro is that you can make use of the ExpressCard slot and add functionality you don’t get, though that is an extra investment and you only get one slot.

MacBook Deal Breaker?

But let me be clear: there’s really, really bad news for the MacBook. FireWire 400 is gone. There’s no way to add it back, because the non-Pro models lack ExpressCard. You can’t edit video from a DV camera, you can’t plug in audio interfaces from the likes of MOTU and RME, and you’ll have to do all audio, MIDI, and external storage through two USB 2.0 jacks.

In fact, given this, I think I have to revoke my recommendation of the MacBooks. I’d suggest getting a US$999 plastic MacBook, which is still available, if you’re on a budget. It’ll run software like Ableton Live and Logic Studio quite well, and it offers better connectivity than the new MacBook. Otherwise, if you want a Mac, you should opt for the US$1999 Pro – or, if you want something in between, look for a used or refurbished previous-generation MacBook Pro, which has none of these compromises.

Apple: Stop Killing Our Ports!

I think Apple deserves a lot of the great press they’ve gotten lately. I think there are real reasons people switch to the Mac that aren’t related to marketing or image, which is something Microsoft often fails to recognize. But this does reveal a weakness of the Mac platform, which is that you are constrained to what Apple gives you in hardware choice. It’s worth noting that this is a definite mark in the plus column for standard PCs running Windows and Linux. That might not change your mind on OS choice, but there is still a choice, and each platform choice involves tradeoffs.

And OS choice aside, I hope Apple reconsiders and finds a way to occasionally add a port and not just take them away.

Yes, there is a lot of other news on these models, and I’m sure for some, on balance, this will be great. Go have a look at the specs and decide for yourself. I’m going to pass on this one, though – just my personal call.
MacBook Pro Specs
MacBook Specs

Updated: It’s time to talk to Apple, say fellow Mac users. Eugenia of Eugenia’s Rants and Thoughts is encouraging unhappy Mac users to tell Apple they want FireWire back on the MacBook:

No firewire on new Macbooks
Apple – MacBook – Feedback