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On the Way Out: FireWire and Matte Screens?

Last week’s introduction of the redesigned MacBook and MacBook Pro brought a number of welcome (or at least interesting) changes – the buttonless glass trackpad, a magnetic latch for the MacBook Pro, the capability to drive a 30-inch external display, and more.

But two seemingly small details have generated a firestorm of complaints from Mac users: the elimination of FireWire from the MacBook, and the dropping of a matte screen option from the MacBook and 15-inch MacBook Pro (the 17-inch MacBook Pro retains the matte option for now). Has Apple gone too far in the quest to simplify, or are users just whining? And with the removal of FireWire – first from the MacBook Air and now with the MacBook – are we seeing the beginning of the end of the technology for Mac users?

Whither FireWire? The removal of FireWire from the MacBook is highly troubling, and many people have declared it a deal-breaker, opting instead for the previous generation of MacBook or for the FireWire 800-equipped MacBook Pro. Some have even opined that the dropping of FireWire from the MacBook is one way Apple can differentiate the more-expensive MacBook Pro from the increasingly capable MacBook.

FireWire is most commonly used to connect external hard drives and digital camcorders, but hard drives increasingly support both FireWire and USB 2.0, and in an email response to a user published on TUAW, Steve Jobs claimed that many HD camcorders now use USB 2.0 as well. So should we just learn to love our new USB 2.0 masters?

(It’s ironic that Steve Jobs himself responds to user concerns while Apple simultaneously deletes forum posts from its support discussions about the controversial removal of FireWire and the matte screen option. Of course, the Apple Discussions Use Agreement specifically says, “Unless otherwise noted, do not add Submissions about nontechnical topics, including: 1. Speculations or rumors about unannounced products. 2. Discussions of Apple policies or procedures or speculation on Apple decisions.” So no one should be surprised when such deletions happen.)

Unfortunately, USB 2.0 isn’t a full replacement for FireWire. Despite its nominal throughput of 480 megabits per second (Mbps) versus FireWire 400’s 400 Mbps, in real-world usage, USB 2.0 is significantly slower than FireWire due to increased overhead and – in theory – reliance on the Mac’s CPU. (I say “in theory” because I’ve heard results of informal tests run on an 8-core Mac Pro that still showed USB performance suffering badly, and that’s as much power as can be thrown at the problem right now.) Of course, FireWire 800, which has a theoretical throughput of 800 Mbps, is faster yet.

So on the performance end alone, FireWire trumps USB 2.0. But the real story of the attachment Mac users have to FireWire, I believe, is with Target Disk Mode. Boot any FireWire-equipped Mac with the T key held down, and the Mac will go into Target Disk Mode and act just like an external hard drive. This proves wildly useful for troubleshooting, since you can boot a recalcitrant Mac from a working Mac in Target Disk Mode to troubleshoot or repair a possibly troubled hard drive. You can also put a Mac with a dead screen or other problem into Target Disk Mode to work on its hard drive from a functional Mac. In particular, Target Disk Mode is a lifesaver when a Mac’s optical disk is non-functional.

Apple’s party line seems to be that there’s no more need for Target Disk Mode. An article at the Australian site quotes Geoff Winder, Product Manager for Hardware at Apple Australia, as saying that Apple believes Time Machine and the Migration Assistant (which now works over USB, Ethernet, and AirPort as well as FireWire) take over for Target Disk Mode’s primary features. That’s either wishful thinking or missing the point – Macs do experience problems, and nothing is more useful than Target Disk Mode in resolving those problems quickly.

Personally, I use Target Disk Mode in every hard disk- or boot-related troubleshooting situation I encounter. And in enterprise situations, Target Disk Mode enables support technicians to carry a utility-equipped Mac laptop to nearly any Mac that’s not working and perform all sorts of diagnostic and troubleshooting procedures, significantly reducing the cost of support, particularly in comparison with PCs, which lack a similar feature.

On the downside, the Apple-backed FireWire never achieved ubiquity, due largely to high initial licensing fees and component costs, both of which have since dropped. Only Apple and Sony ever made FireWire common in their computers, and digital camcorders were the only device that relied nearly exclusively on FireWire for a number of years (many audio interfaces also rely on FireWire, although there are PCI and USB audio interfaces as well). Intel’s USB 2.0 isn’t as flexible or speedy as FireWire by nearly any technical measure, but it’s good enough for most purposes, and it remains cheaper to embed in computers and electronic devices.

From Apple’s perspective, dropping FireWire must hurt, given the company’s role in creating the technology, but Apple is more interested in reducing component costs and increasing compatibility than in propping up a technically superior standard. The iPod started as a FireWire-only device, but to make it easy to connect to PCs, which seldom have FireWire, Apple added USB 2.0 support. As Macs gained USB 2.0 ports as well, Apple gradually dropped FireWire support from the iPod, which undoubtedly also reduced Apple’s manufacturing costs.

Some have called for Apple to support eSATA in place of FireWire, since SATA has theoretical throughput of up to 3 Gbps (or 300 megabytes per second – MBps – in real transfers). (SATA, or Serial ATA, is the data transfer bus used by most hard drives and other mass storage devices; eSATA extends SATA to external devices, largely via different connectors.) Although eSATA can be hot-swappable and might be welcome for connecting hard drives, SATA in general is aimed at mass storage devices and likely wouldn’t be appropriate to take over FireWire’s role in connecting camcorders, audio interfaces, and more. (Unfortunately, eSATA isn’t
necessarily hot-swappable in practice, as our friend Dan Frakes wrote in Macworld.)

Instead, we should probably look for Apple to support USB 3.0, which is supposedly nearly complete and will offer 4.8 Gbps of theoretical throughput. Apple was the first major manufacturer to support USB 1.0 with the iMac back in 1998, so it’s not inconceivable that Apple could be planning a major switch to USB 3.0 once it is finalized and chips start shipping in 2009 or 2010. I don’t know if USB 3.0 will address the architectural limitations in USB 2.0 that prevent Target Disk Mode from working.

Glossy or Matte? The other major controversy about the new MacBook and 15-inch MacBook Pro is that the choice of whether you get a glossy screen or a matte screen is gone – it’s all glossy, all the time.

Whereas it’s easy to explain why FireWire is important, the elimination of the matte screen option is, pardon the pun, fuzzier. (In essence, fuzzing is exactly what’s happening, since a screen is made matte by virtue of a polarizing film that reduces the intensity of light that’s reflected directly back into the eye of the user.)

Most people seem to think the glossy screen’s colors are brighter and more vibrant, with deep blacks and bright whites, and that text is crisper. Glossy demos well. Also, I’ve heard, but haven’t been able to confirm, that the glossy screens are entirely recyclable, as opposed to matte screens.

On the downside, glossy screens show smudges more readily, and they suffer much more significantly from reflections. You can of course adjust screen angle to minimize reflections, but my experience on a glossy-screened MacBook is that there are times when it’s nearly impossible to eliminate reflections while working in a brightly lit environment like an airport.

But the most violent reaction has come from professional photographers, many of whom say that they can’t color-calibrate a glossy screen accurately because the color and contrast vary too much based on viewing angle. There seems to be some debate about that question, but regardless, it’s clearly a topic of significant concern to photographers.

What to Do? There’s certainly no reason people who are upset by these changes should sit idly by. Go to Apple’s Product Feedback page and tell Apple exactly what you think.

To be blunt, though, I don’t see Apple changing anything in the current set of products, and almost certainly not in the next major revision either. Although there may be one, I can’t think of a single situation in which Apple has brought back a dropped technology that was loudly lamented by the Mac community.

Apple has been unafraid to break with the past before, and unless sales of the new MacBook and MacBook Pro models were to drop precipitously, I fear that those of us who are unhappy will just have to live with the changes. If we’re lucky, Apple or another company has other improvements in the works – such as Target Disk Mode that works over USB or anti-reflective screen films – that will alleviate our concerns.

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