'Book Value

Low-end MacBook Pros: SD Card and FireWire In, ExpressCard Out

Charles Moore - 2009.06.16 - Tip Jar

GizMag's Tim Hanlon notes that as one who had a lot to say about the missing FireWire 400 port on the Unibody MacBook, he's glad to see the return of a FireWire port to the new 13" MacBook Pro. However, he pans the decision to drop ExpressCard/34 from the 15" MacBook Pro in favor of a Secure Digital (SD) Card port.

I've had a fair bit to say about FireWire being left off the 13" Unibody MacBook as well. It didn't stop me from buying one, but it has been a sore point, so I'm very happy to see Fire Wire restored on the 13-incher.

I do part company with Tom on the ExpressCard to SD Card swap for the 15" machine.

Hanlon makes an excellent point about his old 15" PowerBook G4 including a FireWire 400 port, a FireWire 800 port, and a CardBus slot (which is bigger than the ExpressCard/34 slot), as does my 17" G4 PowerBook. Even his 10" netbook has an ExpressCard/34 slot, while the contemporary 15" MacBook Pro is down to a single FireWire 800 port and a couple of USB ports - discounting the SD Card slot, the functional capability of which can be added to any machine with a USB port for less than $10.

True, but that's not as convenient as a built-in slot, eats up one of your usually oversubscribed USB ports, and it appears that the SD format is on the verge of a major expansion in versatility and expandability options.

The standard Secure Digital (SD) devices are nonvolatile memory cards with dimensions of 32 mm x 24 mm x 2.1 mm. The slots in the new MacBook Pros also support thinner cards such as MultiMedia Cards (MMC; Mini SD, Micro SD), and higher density formats like Mini SDHC and Micro SDHC can also work with the use of "passive" adapters that conform to the width and thickness specifications cited. Any cards that conform to the SD 1.x and 2.x standards should work.

The MacBook Pro SD card slot can use cards that are Standard SD (4 MB to 4 GB) and SDHC (4 GB to 32 GB). SD equipped Macs have a maximum throughput speed of 240 Mbps for SD media using the SD Card slot, which exceeds the transfer rate of most SD media. (Class 2 media has a maximum transfer rate of 4 Mbps, Class 4 media has a maximum transfer rate of 4.8 Mbps, and Class 6 media has a maximum transfer rate of 45 Mbps.) Most SD cards use the FAT32 file format, and preformatted FAT32 SD media is widely available up to a capacity of 32 GB.

Using OS X Disk Utility, you can partition and format an SD device as FAT32 (using the MS-DOS FAT setting) or Mac OS Extended, and you can even install Mac OS X on an SD storage device and use it as a startup volume if you change the default partition table to GUID using Disk Utility and format the card to use the Mac OS Extended file format.

The MacBook Pro SD card slot also works with Boot Camp in both Windows XP and Windows Vista.

Tom Hanlon outlines a list of mostly esoteric add-ons that are supported primarily by ExpressCard, but I think Apple's claim that actual ExpressCard use by 15" MacBook Pro owners was in the single digits is likely accurate, and folks who really do depend on ExpressCard expandability can still get it in the slightly larger 17" MBP. Apple's director of portables, Todd Benjamin, told PCMag's Mark Hachman in an interview last week, that the ExpressCard/34 slot was dropped from the 15" MacBook Pro because the "vast majority" of owners use USB connectivity and that Apple opted for a SD Card slot because that format has become "ubiquitous".

I think the ExpressCard/SD Card tradeoff makes sense. It would be great to have both, but for most users, SD Card support will be more useful. As much as I like the idea of having ExpressCard capability in my laptop, I'm doubtful that I would miss having it on any machine that has built-in FireWire. The only thing I've ever used the CardBus slot in my G4 PowerBook for in 3-1/2 years of ownership is to add a third FireWire port.

For the minority of users who depend on, for example, ExpressCard-based 3G cards for WiFi connectivity or ExpressCard-based Gigabit Ethernet cards to provide a second network connection, or to provide extra FireWire ports on their own dedicated bus operating at full speed instead of daisy chaining devices or ExpressCard-based PCI expansion options or ExpressCard-based eSATA interfaces, one obvious solution is to get a 17" MacBook Pro, which has been cut in price to $2,499 (what you would've paid for an entry-level 333 MHz Lombard or 400 MHz Pismo PowerBook 9-10 years ago).

Technologizer's Harry McCracken sayshe's surprised by restoration of the FireWire port on the 13" MacBook Pro, noting that Apple has historically been aggressive about erring on the side of removing technologies from its computers early. McCracken says he thought what would happen is that other Macs would begin to lose their FireWire, but he was mistaken - at least so far. I think the widespread chorus of protest was just too loud for Apple to stonewall, especially in a struggling economy with Mac laptop sales down.

Whether the FireWire restoration will stick once USB 3 comes on stream, probably next year, is another matter. This may be a temporary reprieve.

McCracken says he can't think of another instance in which Apple has moved to retire a technology and then changed its mind, and that the return of FireWire to the 13" aluminum MacBook is as if the Revision B iMac had come equipped with a floppy drive.

Well, Apple did finally relent and put FireWire ports in the theretofore FireWire-less clamshell iBooks back in 2000, but that's not quite the same thing.

I don't find the floppy drive analogy particularly compelling. In 1998, the floppy format was objectively on its last legs, and frankly at the time I switched to a floppy-less Mac, I really never missed it, while FireWire vastly outclasses the USB 2.0 that ostensibly was to pick up the slack on the 13" Unibody MacBook (I have one - it doesn't), and is still a state-of-the-art, actively-developed technology.

As for SD Cards, IDG News Service's Agam Shah reports that memory cards based on the new SDXC (extended capacity) specification could be out as early as next year with capacities up to 64 GB, with 2 TB thinkable at some future point. Sounds promising- and for the 13" model, having any expansion slot at all is something new. The 12" PowerBook never had any, nor have any of the iBooks or MacBooks. It gets a thumbs-up from me, although I intend to run my FireWire-less, slotless 13" Unibody MacBook for a couple of year at least yet.

For more information on SD Card slots in MacBook Pros see Apple's SD Card in MacBook FAQ.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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