The 13″ MacBook Pro That Could Have Been

Apple had it so close…
That was the first thought I had when Apple unveiled the new aluminum MacBook and MacBook Pro on October 14.
Many Mac owners out there are still longing for a successor to the PowerBook G4 12″. I am one of them. Someone needs the features and performance of Apple’s Pro notebooks in a 12″ or 13″ form factor that, to me, is just right. In the days leading up to the unveiling, I had hoped that the new MacBook, already rumored to sport blazing fast graphics performance, would essentially be a MacBook Pro. As it turns out, the new aluminum MacBook is really The 13″ MacBook Pro That Could Have Been.

Size vs. Features

As part of my daily work, I often have to use devices ranging from HDV camcorders to RAID arrays that connect by FireWire 400, 800 or eSATA (via ExpressCard). For this, my Mid 2007 MacBook Pro 15″ is the perfect workhorse. But having lugged the five-pound MacBook Pro around almost daily for over a year, I am yearning so badly for something lighter to relieve these aching shoulders of mine.
My first notebook, a Sony VAIO ultraportable, had everything I could ask for in a small, lightweight package and was a pleasure to use. This ultraportable has had me convinced that the size of a notebook does not have to be inversely proportionate to the richness of its features.

So what are my options? The new aluminum MacBook comes closest to being the candidate of choice. The leap in graphics performance alone sets it as a worthy MacBook Pro replacement, and is why it is a contender now when I never took a second look at its predecessor before. But the lack of either FireWire or ExpressCard, both exclusive to the MacBook Pro, is the one deal-breaker.

The FireWire Fiasco

Since the announcement, it is almost impossible to talk about the new aluminum models without mentioning FireWire. A lively debate regarding Apple’s decision to drop FireWire from the MacBook has risen among users; proponents favoring the move cite the fact that FireWire has a smaller marketshare than USB, while opponents see the omission as a blatant maneuver by Apple to protect its Pro product line.
So who’s right and who’s wrong? The answer is a sum of many parts.
The NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics chipset in the new portable Macs has been getting all the attention. But little has been said of another internal change: the I/O controller chipset. In the previous-generation MacBook, it is the Intel “Santa Rosa” chipset which governs SATA, USB, Audio, Wi-Fi, and networking. This has been replaced with an NVIDIA integrated controller. What is interesting is that, in the course of designing the GeForce 9400M and its accompanying integrated controller, NVDIA left FireWire out of the list of I/O interfaces supported by its integrated controller.

The Trend Is Bucking

Digging deeper, Apple’s only response so far (in the form of an email ostensibly from Steve Jobs) is that consumer camcorders released in the past two years use only USB 2.0 for connectivity. Specifically, such camcorders record footage into AVCHD files instead of onto tapes. FireWire, for which its high sustained transfer speed is crucial to capturing footage from tape in real-time, is now irrelevant; getting the footage in your solid-state or HDD camcorder into your Mac is now a simple file transfer operation.
Personally, I am of the opinion that the increasing irrelevance of FireWire in those consumer products is conveniently a coup for Apple to leverage FireWire as a differentiator between the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. Marketing has won this round.
The good news? There is a FireWire specification called FireWire S800T (IEEE 1394c), which provides the speed of FireWire 800 over a Cat 5 cable. Yes, that’s Gigabit Ethernet. The standard was proposed a year ago; to date, no products have shown for its adoption. I suspect something is brewing at Apple.

The Search Continues

Going back to my search for the imaginary successor to the PowerBook 12″, I do believe a 13″ MacBook Pro would be a huge hit with consumers and professionals alike. Now that both classes share the same unibody form factor, I would think that introducing a 13″ MacBook Pro is more of whether Apple wants to rather than if Apple can. Naturally, if that does happen, Apple would want to protect the sales of the MacBook. Even if it prices this 13″ MacBook Pro close or equal to that of the 15″, I am confident it would still fly off the shelves.
Apple nailed the psyche of Mac users when it stated, in its recent Q4 2008 financial results conference call, that Mac owners are more likely to “postpone purchases… to delay than switch”. And it is true: I love OS X and I will never go back to Windows. I am a professional user whose needs are beyond what the MacBook can give me, but I could really do with a smaller and lighter notebook. For now, I’ll just have to hang on to my Mid 2007 MacBook Pro 15″ for as long as my suffering shoulders can bear.