Farewell FireWire?

Christina Warren
C. Warren|10.15.08

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Christina Warren
October 15th, 2008
Farewell FireWire?

During the meta-liveblog yesterday, I was in full-out Apple fangirl mode. I won't lie; after the MacBook specs and design were revealed, I was already contemplating putting my current BlackBook (that I bought in August '07) on eBay or Craig's List, hoping that the RAM and hard drive upgrades and all the software I would include could net at least $900. Then I would buy a new MacBook.

After the dust settled and the specs were released, a dark cloud quickly dashed my plans: FireWire 400 ports are no longer included in the redesigned MacBook. The old style MacBook (now selling for $999) still includes FireWire 400, but the new beauties are FireWire free. What a bummer! Back in January, we listed lack of FireWire as one of the biggest downsides of the MacBook Air. On our Talkcast earlier this week, we actually discussed the idea of FireWire being withdrawn from the MacBook line. I thought it was plausible on the then-rumored $800 MacBook (a rumor that never materialized, sadly), but I was really, really hoping it wouldn't be removed from the line as a whole.

Whether the reason was based on user-feedback (which I'm sure Apple will claim), or done merely to force a schism between the "consumer" and "pro" lineups (as commenter Kai Cherry suggested), the net result is that a technology Apple has been pushing for nearly 10 years and that many of us have come to rely on, for external devices, target-disk mode and digital video needs, is no longer available in any laptop other than the MacBook Pro (or the older generation white MacBook).

No company has pushed IEEE-1394 (the technical name for FireWire) more than Apple (though Sony is close). The iPod was a FireWire device until its fifth revision in 2004 (USB adapters were available for the third and fourth generation units). Target Disk Mode is arguably one of the most useful Mac diagnostic tools. As long as you have a FireWire hard drive, you can safely migrate, repair or perform component tests on Mac, without damaging the internal drive.

As of right now, there is no true support for USB devices in target disk mode. Yes, you can boot from a USB device, but it's not the same as TDM. It's a shame that they are now phasing out this feature, and without a genuine successor. I don't want to start a USB 2.0 vs. FireWire 400 argument, but for sustained transfer, power consumption and the ability to daisy-chain devices, FireWire remains superior, especially under OS X (other operating systems don't benefit from FireWire as much). I mean, if you are going to get rid of FireWire, at least give us an eSATA port. That would at least be a better alternative for external drives than USB 2.0.

While it is true that FireWire-only devices are on a serious decline -- the latest generation of digital camcorders that use AVCHD and store data to SD cards all utilize USB 2.0, as do the vast majority of external devices -- are we really at the point that it is a "pros only" feature? It took years and years for consumers to finally ditch VHS-C and move on to miniDV. Are we already at the point that everyone has migrated to AVCHD and converted all their old footage digitally? Obviously, for existing Mac users who are just buying a new MacBook, this might not be a big deal. Use the iMac or an older MacBook for digital conversion. But this is still a blow to anyone who relies on (or -- shocking -- prefers) FireWire and wants to replace their primary machine.

There are bridge adapters available that will allow you to connect a FireWire device to a USB port, but they are expensive, and Windows XP-only. It is likely that a similar adapter will be created for the Mac, but how these devices will actually perform is questionable.

As a fervent supporter of the standard since 2000 (when I bought an OHCI compliant PCI card for my PC so that I could edit video at home or at school on an iMac DV), I have demanded FireWire support on every computer or laptop that I have purchased in the last 8 years. Buying a laptop without a FireWire port, that I will use as a primary computer, is frankly not an option for me. My next MacBook will have to be a MacBook Pro. And because spending another $1000 is a bit different from spending another $500, I won't be upgrading any time soon.

What are your thoughts? Is a FireWire-free MacBook a deal-breaker for you, or is it something you can live without? Do you know of any devices or cables that will help ease the transition? Sound off in the comments!

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