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Summary:

Much is being made of the lack of FireWire in the new MacBooks. Seems like everyone’s weighed in on this topic, myself included. Even more recently, an email response to one irate customer set off more controversy. In this email, Steve Jobs himself is alleged to […]

Much is being made of the lack of FireWire in the new MacBooks. Seems like everyone’s weighed in on this topic, myself included.

Even more recently, an email response to one irate customer set off more controversy. In this email, Steve Jobs himself is alleged to have responded

Actually, all of the new HD camcorders of the past few years use USB 2.

So, is that true? Perhaps the best way to find out is to look at Amazon.com and see what’s selling, then check what interface they use. 

I hit the bestsellers list from Amazon for camcorders, and the first thing I noticed is that the Flip series occupies five of the top 10 slots (as of this writing). The Flip supports USB 2.0, so it qualifies, but in case some people would like to have a little more camera representation than that, I decided to include the top 20 (which includes two more Flips).

Not counting the seven Flip cameras, the camcorders rounding out the top 20 are: 

  • Panasonic SDR-H40 40GB Hard Drive Camcorder 
  • Canon VIXIA HF100 Flash Memory High Definition Camcorder 
  • Canon VIXIA HV30 MiniDV High Definition Camcorder 
  • Canon VIXIA HF10 Flash Memory High Definition Camcorder 
  • Sony HDR-SR11 10.2-MP 60GB High Definition Hard Drive Handycam Camcorder 
  • Sony DCR-SR45 30GB Hard Drive Handycam Camcorder 
  • Sony DCR-DVD610 DVD Handycam Camcorder 
  • Canon FS10 Flash Memory Camcorder 
  • Aiptek A-HD+ 1080P High Definition Camcorder 
  • JVC Everio GZ-MG330 30 GB Hard Disk Drive Camcorder 
  • JVC Everio GZ-MG330 30 GB Hard Disk Drive Camcorder 
  • Canon VIXIA HG20 AVCHD 60 GB HDD Camcorder 
  • Oregon Scientific ATC 2K Action Cam Flash Memory Camcorder

So you’ve got Flip, Panasonic, Canon, Sony, Aiptek, JVC, and Oregon Scientific all represented.         

I need to make it clear that I make no statement, good or bad, about these companies nor the individual cameras represented here. They were selected solely by virtue of being the Top 20 Bestsellers on Amazon.com at the time of this writing.

As mentioned, the Flips all support USB 2.0, so my next task was to look at all the others and see if they support USB 2.0 for video as well (some cameras may include USB for stills; I wanted to make sure video support was available).

The results? I believe all but one of these models allows USB 2.0 for video. The one exception being the Canon HV30, which appears to include USB 2.0 for still shot transfers only.

Not counting the HV30, it’s interesting to note that prices range from $88 (the Oregon Scientific) to $775 (The Canon HG20), with a few located in what might be considered the “sweet spot” for consumer camcorders in the $300’s. 

Of course, if the camcorder you currently own is not due for replacement, and only supports FireWire, this news is of little use to you. I understand that, but then again I’m not trying to answer each individual case; ultimately only you can decide for yourself. Rather, I simply reviewed the current crop of popular camcorders to see if FireWire or USB is the most common interface. Clearly, it’s the latter, and overwhelmingly so. I can’t say I’m too surprised. In my opinion, if Apple didn’t already know this they wouldn’t have pulled FireWire from the MacBook to begin with. 

Finally, I’d like to point out that this “top 20″ list didn’t just materialize in the last week. It seems clear the movement away from FireWire in the popular camcorder space has been in the works for a while, else they wouldn’t so thoroughly dominate the top 20 now.

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  1. USB 2.0 transfer speeds under OS X are substantially slower than the same on a PC. Barefeats did a test a while back (2004) and confirmed this:

    http://www.barefeats.com/usb2.html

    I think that’s one of the sticking points here. It appears as if Apple has intentionally “crippled” these machines. I’d obviously like to see Barefeats update their results, but you have to ask yourself why Apple would do such a thing?

  2. Regarding the 2004 USB speed tests: do you think they are still valid? A lot has changed in your average Mac in 4 years and I bet the speed of USB transfers is one of them.

  3. Barefeats tested USB 2.0, Firewire 400 and Firewire 800. I’m not sure the technical specifications/performance of these technologies can change. I’m ripe to be proven wrong, though. A similar test of the current crop of Mac portables would be welcome. That’s why I wrote, “I’d obviously like to see Barefeats update their results….”

  4. Should be noted that the Firewire-only HV30 is MiniDV. The remaining 19 camcorders are Flash/HardDisk.

  5. Earlier this year I purchased a Panasonic HDC-SD5 HD Video Camera, and it is USB2-only. I’ve found transfer speeds to be plenty adequate. I wont dispute that firewire is faster and has the added benefit of not being as processor-intensive, but for everyday usage, USB2 is just fine. It makes sense to me that they kept it on the Macbook Pro but left it off of the Macbook.

  6. USB 2.0 may very well be serviceable. However, Firewire 400 is hardly a pro feature. I’d argue that Firewire 800 shouldn’t be a pro feature either. Heck, I’d argue that Apple’s penchant for forcing consumers to make a substantial financial leap from Macbook to Macbook Pro for features such as I/O ports is ridiculous. They need to come up with a more concrete way to differentiate their product lines. This differentiation should come through offering more/better features in the “pro” line, not removing features from the “consumer” line.

  7. In 2004 Mac was still a PPC platform and using a NEC chipset for USB, which was notoriously slow at that time compared to other solutions. I betcha that the Intel USB chipset used in 2008 is speedier than the chipset barefeats tested in 2004.

    Even though I accept that FW400/800 is faster than USB, I would like to think that the transfertime and somewhat increased CPU usage is negligible in 2008.

  8. @Roger Mudd:

    I’m absolutely sure there are many people like you who are MacBook users and use firewire on a regular basis. And for people in that category, dangit, it stinks.

    I imagine, though, that you’re in the minority. I’d guess that Apple’s decision to remove firewire from the MacBook was based on research that the vast majority of MacBook users have never even touched their firewire port. I could be wrong, but that’s just my guess.

    For what its worth, Apple has added a lot to the MacBook, despite taking this one thing away. You can get backlit keyboard, support a 30″ monitor, a big bump in performance, and a superdrive across the aluminum line. If anything it feels more that the MacBook is closer to the Pro than it ever has been.

  9. Roger,

    For all the hoopla about removing a feature from the consumer line, Apple actually added far more features to that line than they removed. They removed FireWire, yes, but they added the aluminum casing, LED screen, and much, much, much better graphics. According to Apple, these were the three most requested features of their most popular Mac (and the bestselling one ever).

    In addition to those three most-requested features, the MacBook also shares the same speed bus and high-speed memory as the pro models, and offers the same HDD size options as well. Further, the high-end model even gains the pro’s backlit keyboard.

    In short, they made the consumer portable pro-like in just about every way. Was getting all those features worth a trade for FireWire on a consumer product? In my opinion, the answer is an emphatic and resounding yes!

  10. There’s no question that they added quite a few features to the late 2008 MacBook. That’s not the discussion here, however.
    I’m more concerned about why Firewire was removed completely? Apple didn’t simply forget. If the current bus allows greater USB 2.0 speeds than reported several years ago by Barefeats — great. If not, then I call shenanigans.
    It may seem like a small loss, but explain that to photographers and videographers (those who require Firewire) who have to transfer large batches of big files to their laptops. Add to that the lack of an ExpressCard slot — signifying the possibility of expanding/increasing import speeds — and you have a legitimate gripe.

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