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Sunday, November 02, 2008, 07:35 am PT (10:35 am ET)

Apple's unibody MacBook: the review


Expansion and FireWire's ultimate fate

It's undoubtedly stating the obvious that Apple's decision to axe FireWire of any kind from its entry-level MacBooks has been one of the company's most controversial moves of recent years and may well rank as the riskiest design decision for the company in the past decade, short of the choice to scrap virtually all proprietary Apple ports with the original 1998 iMac.

It actually results in less expansion for the MacBook overall than the previous computer and also limits the types of peripherals that can be used: FireWire storage drives, many MiniDV and professional cameras, and even legacy iPods are now all cut out of the mix.

There are potentially good technical reasons for this. A look at the inside reveals very little room for extra ports on either side. However, Apple has also defended itself by arguing that modern users don't need FireWire nearly as much as they did even a few years ago. In fact, company chief Steve Jobs has responded at least twice to fans and journalists alike noting that the majority of new camcorders now transfer video over USB and thus don't need the since-discarded FireWire port.

That may be true, and in our case we're (mostly) placid about the whole affair. Most prospective buyers moving to HD or newer SD camcorders will need to rely on USB regardless; few other modern peripherals absolutely depend on FireWire or substantially benefit from it, and the all-in-one nature of a notebook reduces the need for extra devices.

MacBook aluminum expansion ports


That said, it's still a significant omission from an otherwise fine notebook and still forces some buyers into an uncomfortable position. Professionals are now excluded from smaller systems not just for high-end video editing but for many audio breakout boxes, which often need the low latency of FireWire to work. And those of us who simply want to use FireWire to free up the two USB ports now don't have a choice. There's always the slight chance that Apple will find time for a slight redesign of the MacBook to fit a port, but we're not counting on it.

Apart from what's missing, there's only one real change to expansion, and that's the addition of a Mini DisplayPort jack. While that has upset MacBook Pro buyers used to a full DVI link, in the MacBook's case it's almost uniformly positive. Even the most affordable Apple notebook can now drive a 30-inch display (albeit with an adapter, at present) and is considerably more futureproofed than the old Mini DVI model. There are very few DisplayPort screens today, but that will change.

Buyers may want to be careful before opting in, though. Apple doesn't include any DVI and VGA adapters in the box and charges a fairly steep $29 for the privilege; it's yet another adapter to fit another new standard. Moreover, it's not as simple as buying a third-party DisplayPort screen, such as those from Dell. At present, there's no Mini DisplayPort to full DisplayPort adapter, and so users are faced with buying a pricey LED-backlit Cinema Display if they want to use the new standard with a direct connection.