Solipsism Gradient

Rainer Brockerhoff’s blog

Browsing Posts published in October, 2008

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Thanks to John Gruber for mentioning my recent analysis of the new MacBooks (and MB Pros).

From there, several other sites picked it up. The emphasis and comments on some were… interesting. Let’s go into that a little.

The article at Wired has a somewhat sensationalistic headline (which was copied by others): “Killing FireWire on MacBooks Was Necessary”. Well, a careful reading will reveal I didn’t say so outright. I said that under the design conditions that were chosen there was no good way to include a FireWire port on the MacBook. Also, most of my arguments didn’t touch on the FireWire port at all, and there were almost no comments about those; so I’ll mostly confine myself to FireWire in my answers here.

By the way, the lack of the FireWire port on the MacBook doesn’t necessarily mean that Apple is “killing” FireWire at all. Yes, Apple killed the floppy drive, ADB, serial ports and so forth; because no shipping Macs include these. Contrast to FireWire: two shipping laptops don’t have the ports, all others have them.

The Wired article also features some feedback from iFixIt, whose pictures of the laptop’s disassembly I’d linked to:

IFixit’s Luke Soules, who performed the disassembly of the MacBook cited by Brockerhoff, agreed with the engineer’s assessment that there isn’t room for a FireWire port given the new unibody design and motherboard layout. Soules added that it’s also important to keep in mind that the new MacBooks are substantially thinner than their predecessors (.95″ vs 1.08″).

I spent some time reading all comments posted to the various sites. Some people, as expected, hadn’t read my post at all, or not carefullly. After filtering out the noise, here’s a list of points of view expressed in decreasing order: (percentages sum to more than 100% since some people scored in more than one category)

35% say Apple/Steve Jobs are idiots and/or just want your money and/or don’t care as long as idiot Mac users pay. I don’t know how to respond rationally to that, so I’ll leave it to the specialists.

31% agree with my arguments, at least for the most part. Thanks.

25% say that Apple can do anything they want to, so they obviously didn’t want to in this case. These were about equally divided between people disagreeing with the particular trade-off chosen (which is reasonable) and people of the “bah just jam an extra port in there, make it so” variety (who overlap a lot with the first crowd, above).

(Most of the following arguments suggest inserting a FireWire port. To make things shorter, I’d like to recall my previous comments about any such port needing extra board space in form of a PHY (transceiver) chip and filters, several watts extra power supply requirements, extra battery capacity, all implying in either much shorter battery life or increasing the size of the machine. Yes, Apple could use Sony’s 4-pin connector, or leave the 6-pin connector unpowered, getting around part of the problem… but imagine the complaints!)

18% say Apple should have put an extra FireWire port elsewhere; on the other side, in front or on the back. Of course it’s not possible to put anything on the back – the hinge precludes that – or on the front, as that would have meant cutting down a little on the battery (refer to these photos). Putting one or more ports on the side, near the optical drive, means moving or shrinking the speaker (see also my comment below on the security lock). Some people objected to my describing this as an expensive solution, no doubt thinking of the cheap ribbon cables used inside desktop PCs. Well, inside a laptop such cables have to be thin and shielded against interference, especially at FireWire speeds. Think of your normal FireWire cable… with the thinner body, there’s little or no space to route that behind other components. In older laptops, Apple got partially around that problem by using very thin (and therefore, flimsy and expensive) flat cables.

15% say that Apple should have left off one USB port and put a FireWire port in its place. At first glance this sounds reasonable; port sizes are about the same, the functions are supposed to be about the same, and the existence of adapters like the USB->Ethernet adapter for the MacBook Air reinforce this opinion. (Many people also asked why Apple doesn’t bundle or make USB->FireWire or Ethernet->FireWire adapters; see more on that below.) Then again, some were complaining about having only two USB ports…

12% say that Pro users should buy the Pro models. However, much of the controversy is either about Apple’s definition of what “Pro” means, or about people wanting “Pro” features at “Con” price. It’s easy to forget that these are just temporary marketing names for price points.

11% complain that Apple is putting form over function, and letting the designers run free. Of course that’s Apple’s shtick, so to speak (ahem), and a big part of their appeal. (And yes, it doesn’t always work out fine.) But in my humble opinion that’s not the case with the MacBooks.

8% want even more things: more(!) USB ports, two FireWire ports for chaining devices (perhaps the “consumer pros”?), an ExpressCard slot, or one or more “media card” slots. Unsurprisingly, most of these also belong into the “make it so” group; they want it all, but in a small cheap package.

7% say that Apple should have moved the security lock to the other side (where it indeed is, in the MacBook Pros), and put a FireWire port where the notch in the motherboard is. But moving the lock would also mean flipping the battery latch mechanism to the other side, which would mean having the lock just above the hard drive, moving the optical drive upwards, and leaving no space for the speaker.

5% would opt for leaving out the Ethernet port and inserting a FireWire port there (nearly all of these were immediately contradicted by people who do need Ethernet). The Air’s USB->Ethernet adapter is a makeshift, since it can’t attain gigabit speeds. All Macs (except the Air) do have gigabit Ethernet, so… (Yikes! Apple would be killing Ethernet!!!)

5% say that Apple should have made the MacBook thicker or longer, or made the battery smaller. Can you imagine Steve Jobs signing off on that?

The rest are miscellaneous ideas: using stacked ports, leaving out the optical drive, crowding the connectors closer together, combining two ports, and so forth; and fall under similar arguments.

A common thread in many suggestions is a misunderstanding, or perhaps just ignorance, of the technical details of USB and FireWire. While their areas of application overlap, the solutions they offer are different, and so are the protocols they use. USB is master/slave, FireWire is peer-to-peer. Converting one to the other isn’t simply a matter of rearranging pins, or reencoding signals, as happens inside most video adapters; you’d need a fast processor and RAM to do that, and even so you can’t replicate special functions like target mode or streaming on the USB side. You’ll find very few such converters on the market, and they’ll all have some limitations.

Finally, a frequent question is “why doesn’t Apple just implement target mode on USB”? It’s not that simple. On FireWire, target mode is just a software matter – since the interface is peer-to-peer, no chip change is necessary. On the USB side, target mode would imply switching the originating Mac from master to slave and using a hard-to-find A-to-A plug. Current USB chips don’t support that, and connecting such a cable without the port being pre-switched would probably fry one end or both. The upcoming USB On-The-Go supplementary standard supports this over two new protocols and a new connector type; neither work over hubs, and it needs different PHY chips too.

Re: More tradeoffs

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Farewell Firewire, Nice Knowin’ Ya

The Mac community seems to be quite enraged about Apple’s decision the slowly get rid of Firewire on the new MacBooks. The newly-introduced smaller MacBook (13-inch) has no Firewire port whatsoever and the larger MacBook Pro (15-inch) only has a …

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Psystar Still At it – Now With Notebooks

Six months ago, Psystar entered the Desktop arena with a PC for $600 that could get your choice of Windows, Linux or Mac OSX. Of course Apple responded with a Lawsuit and Psystar countered. Every time we speculated Psystar is…

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Rainer Brockerhoff talks about the New MacBooks

With the new unibody, for the first time, both lines use the same materials…

More tradeoffs

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Apple’s new MacBooks (and MacBook Pros) are out, and there’s the usual breathless enthusiasm from some people and angry disdain from some others. As always, it’s about design tradeoffs – what I called the snowball effect in my discussion of the MacBook Air, several months ago.

Sidenote: it’s been over six months since I bought my Air; I took it on our 70-day trip and I’m mostly well satisfied with it. The 80GB hard drive is a little tight, mostly because I insisted on carrying my full iPhoto library around; otherwise it wouldn’t be an issue. One positive surprise was the glossy screen, which didn’t bother me at all, even under wildly varying lighting conditions. Having only a single USB port (which I used mostly with the Ethernet adapter or an SD card reader) was no problem either; I’m glad circumstances conspired to not let me buy an extra USB hub, it wouldn’t have seen any use.

Apple’s new laptops embody significant trends. The styling and keyboard are based on the first MacBook Air, combined with the April ’08 iMac’s glass screen. While the “unibody” construction is also derived from the Air’s, it’s an evolution. Being a little thicker at the borders, the new laptops are in themselves very rigid, not depending at all on the battery for bracing, as the Air does. It will be interesting to see if the third version of the Air gets a removable battery – though that probably will imply incorporating the battery into the bottom cover, instead of having a panel over it.

Structurally the new laptops are great. Access to the hard drive is very convenient – this mitigates, in the MacBook’s case, the unavailability of Firewire target mode, at least for a technician. The major components are also easier to access; previous laptops were a nightmare of special adhesives, tricky assemblies, and easy-to-break snaps. That said, some things are now much more expensive to replace, being either single parts (the enclosure) or considered as such (display or keyboard).

There’s a surprising overlap of structural design and marketing. The fossil remains of the previous lines are the low-end white MacBook, the 17″ MacBook Pro, and to an extent the MacBook Air; all of which have received superficial updates but are structurally unchanged, and hit the same markets. No doubt all three will, in their next incarnation, be adapted to the new marketing distinctions… but which distinctions are these, then?

As always, differentiating the “Pro” from the “consumer” line is tricky both for Apple and for users. With the new unibody, for the first time, both lines use the same materials and design. This means that Apple must distinguish the lines by feature sets alone. In this case, it seems that the major distinction is screen size: the normal MacBook has a 13″ screen, while the MacBook Pros have larger screens. Of course there are the usual somewhat faster CPUs and larger hard drives, but these are more of an expected consequence of the size difference. All this also makes for a natural spread in prices among the lines.

Now, of course, there’s a sizable contingent of users who want Pro features at consumer prices, and want Apple’s designers to produce such a miracle every time. These “prosumers” are also prone to think that the “real” Macs are the high-end ones, but that Apple then maliciously cuts features from them to produce the low-end machines; call it the conspiracy theory of hardware design.

While I can’t say with certainty that this never happened in the past (remember the Performa days?), it’s very unlikely in this specific case; the MacBook is not a crippled MacBook Pro. Indeed, indications are that, surprise, the MacBook Pro is really an expanded MacBook. Let’s look at design considerations for the new MacBook.

First of all, Apple is usually limited to standard sizes built by its suppliers, at least for such a high-volume item, and of course to the width of a standard keyboard; reusing parts from other successful product lines is also a win. This means a 13.3″ screen; sharing the display with the MacBook Air pretty much fixes the front/top dimensions and makes the keyboard also shareable. So, we have our width/depth dimensions; the LED backlight and display determine most of the lid thickness; the body thickness is determined by the thickest connector and internal peripheral.

A full-size Ethernet plug needs at least 10mm, not counting any PC board it rests on, while current DVD drives are 9.5mm thick. (Notice the MacBook Air excluded both items.) From pictures, I estimate that the MacBook display measures 8mm, the body is about 16mm thick, the side where the port connectors are measures barely 11mm; and indeed the Ethernet connector opening uses up nearly all of the latter. The extra 5mm of the rounded bottom were probably necessary to ensure a minimum battery volume.

Turning the MacBook over, the decision to make the hard drive accessible under the battery cover (and the need of using 2.5″ drives which are both inexpensive and of reasonable capacity) makes the rest of the layout fall into place. At this point, you may want to refer to one of the many disassembly photos available on the web; I liked the ones from ifixit. Check out the photo in step 11; notice how there’s no component overlap (except, unavoidably, for the keyboard). The left top rectangle is the optical drive and the black rectangle north of it is the speaker/subwoofer. The right part is the motherboard with a cutout for the fan and another one for the RAM modules. On the bottom, the hard drive uses the left portion, so the battery has to use up the remaining rectangle on the right.

Again, I want to emphasize that this very rational layout is a serious design win. It’s made possible by the unibody’s rigidity and space-saving, but once you take those into account, it’s almost forced; you can’t have a smaller laptop using those particular components.

But there are consequences. In older models, the motherboard either spanned the entire width of the machine to accomodate ports on both sides, or there was a secondary module on the opposite side, with fragile/expensive ribbon cables connecting that to the main board; not a good solution. Remember that making a unibody is an expensive process and that cost must be shaved off elsewhere; even so, the MacBook is $100 more expensive than its predecessor.

So we pretty much have to accomodate all ports on one side of the MacBook. Check out this page, especially the logic board photo in step 17. This is where some more tradeoffs come in. Apple has decided to adopt the new DisplayPort standard, apparently in all Macs from here on. While at first glance HDMI might have been a better choice, DisplayPort is license- and royalty-free. Remember Jobs giving licensing issues as a reason to avoid Blu-ray for now. Without going into further details, note that Apple has taken a dislike to the standard DisplayPort connector; I couldn’t find the standard dimensions, but it seems to be at least 17mm wide. Of course this means yet another proprietary mini-version of the connector; hopefully Apple is coming into the market early enough, so that other manufacturers may adopt it.

Even with the mini-display connector, space is limited. Audio in and out are necessary, so there’s space for only 3 normal-sized ports. Apple has decided in favor of Ethernet and two USB ports. I’ve seen arguments favoring 3 USB ports (meaning the Air’s USB/Ethernet dongle would be necessary); 1 Ethernet, 1 USB and 1 Firewire port; 1 USB port and 2 Firewire ports; eSATA in the mix; and so on. Stacking USB ports, while not unknown in laptops, tend to go over the allowed 10mm height; mini-USB ports are fragile and would need special dongles or cables. No doubt an argument could be made for some sort of combined port expansion box, or a combination hub, or…

Omission of a Firewire port has raised the most objections; this happened too when the Air came out, remember? No Firewire also means no target disk mode. Target mode for migration, while convenient, is not really necessary if you have gigabit Ethernet. With the hard drive so easily accessible, a technician no longer needs target mode for debugging; it’s easy to yank the drive out and plug it into a SATA-USB converter.

Now, there’s a crowd of prosumers using Firewire for audio and video, and complaining. I’ve no idea how large this crowd is; apparently Apple thinks that it’s insignificant compared to the number of people needing two USB ports. Whatever the rationale, I’ll repeat here what I said in a previous post about the missing Firewire in the MacBook Air:

To put in a FireWire connector means reserving resources for a 7W additional power drain…

while an additional USB port uses only 0.5W; only the first USB port on recent Macs seems to get the full 2.5W allotment.

I don’t think that this means the end of Firewire as such. The FW800 connector will also support the upcoming FW1600 and FW3200 standards, and works with FW400 peripherals if you have a converter cable or inexpensive adapter. It’s just being squeezed into larger (which now means higher-end) equipment.

This post is already too long, and it’s late, so I’ll talk about the MacBook Pro design tomorrow.

Re: More tradeoffs

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Having looked at the new MacBooks it’s time to examine the new MacBook Pros.To recap, my main point is that the MacBooks have been designed from the 13.3″ form factor inwards, and that the MacBook Pro, having a 15″ display and more internal space, is really an expanded MacBook.

(The contrast is, of course, to the usual view of the Pro version as being the “real” machine, and the consumer version as a maliciously crippled of that.)

Looking at the internal space is, again, instructive. Refer to step 9 on the ifixit site. Now compare this to step 11 for the MacBook. Notice that the depth of the battery/drive compartment is the same (the hard drive being a standard 2.5″ model), so the Pro’s battery is only a little over an inch wider than the MacBook’s.

The optical drive is in the same position and is the same size. To its right from this angle, the motherboard is an inch wider and deeper than the MacBook’s it also has another cutout for a second fan, necessary no doubt because of the Pro’s extra power requirements. These, in turn, are a consequence of the larger display, added video processor, higher CPU speeds, and the extra drivers for the ExpressCard slot and the Firewire interface. Of course, all that needs a larger battery, as we’ve seen, and a beefed-up power supply/charging circuitry.

Look at the motherboard in step 20. The ports are the same, except for the inserted FW800 connector.The empty space to the lower left corresponds to the ExpressCard slot, which is actually below the board (check it out in step 24). As in the MacBook, there’s no wasted space, and changing anything will involve some tradeoff where something else would have to be removed.

To recap, the added space made possible the added features. When the updated MacBook Pro 17″ comes out, it will have even more space, and I can only speculate what this space will contain. As before, the larger display will need more power, so we’ll have a wider battery – maybe 1.5″ wider than this one. If they maintain the same depth, there’ll be some empty space – good for conserving weight. On the other hand, they could sacrifice this space, either to get longer battery life, or to feed more circuitry – quadcore, anyone? And/or 8-16GB RAM?

By the same token, there’d be leeway to have either a second FW800 connector, or eSATA; perhaps both and/or a third USB port. I don’t think that an SD slot (or other media slot) is in the cards, as Apple probably doesn’t want to get locked-in to a particular format, and USB adapters are so cheap. I can’t see Apple using any of the extra space for a full-size DisplayPort as they seem to be trying to pull the industry into using the mini size for that everywhere.

In a few weeks we’ll see how the new MacBook Air looks inside; I suspect we’ll see fewer screws and a similar motherboard layout.

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A correction regarding Apple’s mini-DisplayPort connector. The DisplayPort organization’s page is none too clear, and the actual standards aren’t available for free, but it now appears that Apple has been instrumental in working with them to define the new mini connector; unlike past “minis” adopted by Apple, this seems to be a bona-fide standard. So there’s real hope of it being more widely adopted by other manufacturers.

I don’t see any major advantage in the full-size DisplayPort connector, except perhaps for the optional locking mechanism on the plug. Don’t expect it to appear in any Apple products; in any event, mini-to-full cables will probably be sold by third parties.

There’s an interesting picture on the interoperability page: it shows what appears to be a previous-generation MacBook, with USB, FW400, FW800, S-VHS and the full-size DisplayPort connector. Looks like a Photoshop job to me… icon_smile.gif

The XML version of the surprisingly popular U.S. International keyboard layout is finally out. I was writing a drag & drop installer for it, but had to put that on the backburner for now; there’s lots of more important things for me to do.

Many thanks to Rafael Fischmann of MacMagazine for making a step-by-step screencast (in Portuguese) about it! Installing a keyboard layout seems to be a stumbling block for less-technical users, so every little bit helps.

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