There’s pretty universal consensus in the Mac portable community that Apple jumped the gun in dropping FireWire support from the new unibody MacBooks, with nothing adequate to replace its full functionality. Sure, you can transfer and backup files reasonably efficiently over a USB 2.0 connection, but […]

There’s pretty universal consensus in the Mac portable community that Apple jumped the gun in dropping FireWire support from the new unibody MacBooks, with nothing adequate to replace its full functionality. Sure, you can transfer and backup files reasonably efficiently over a USB 2.0 connection, but you can’t boot your Mac (at least conveniently and dependably) from an OS X install on a USB drive, and USB has nothing at all to replace FireWire Target Disk Mode.

For a concrete example of what a huge deficiency that is, over several days last week I booted and ran my G4 PowerBook from a clone of my hard drive and system on an external FireWire drive while I dealt with a stubborn issue afflicting the OS X Leopard install on its internal hard drive. If a similar issue cropped up with one of the new, FireWire-less Macbooks, dealing with this problem would have been far more difficult, inconvenient, time-consuming, not to mention disruptive of my be ability to continue using the machine for production work in the meantime.

I would like to think that Apple has listened to the howls of dismay over their misbegotten decision, and will restore a FireWire port on the Revision B unibody MacBooks. After all, the original Clamshell iBook was initially released without FireWire support, but it was added with the final revision of that model. However, that was in 2000; this is now, and I’m not inclined to be holding my breath waiting for Apple to blink on this.

One reason is that USB 3.0 is coming. Now I hasten to emphasize that there is no indication I’m aware of that USB 3.0 will support any analog of FireWire Target Disk mode, but there is probable cause to imagine that Apple may be working on making it conveniently bootable. The MacBook Air, for example, can boot from its optional proprietary external USB optical drive.

A company called Symwave Inc. demonstrated what it claims to be the world’s first consumer application of SuperSpeed USB 3.0 at the Computer Electronics Show at Las Vegas last week.

USB 3.0 will reportedly be about 10 times faster than USB 2.0 with a maximum throughput of 4.8 Gbit/s, which should make it faster than even FireWire 800, which is still supported (plus FireWire 400 through an optional adapter) by the unibody MacBook Pro.

Symwave says it is collaborating with leading test, cable, components and hard drive manufacturers to demonstrate the transfer speeds of USB 3.0 and will showcase streaming data to and from external storage devices at speeds previously unattainable, predicting that SuperSpeed USB 3.0 is poised to become the most pervasive high-speed connectivity technology over the coming years, and it is backwards port compatible with the more than 10 billion USB devices shipped to date.

Presumably, Apple will be getting on board with USB 3.0, and it should be an exciting technological advance in some ways, but they still were too quick pulling the plug on FireWire with the MacBook.

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  1. Your PowerBook probably can’t, but Intel Macs can boot from an attached USB drive.

  2. I’ve not had any issues when booting off external USB devices. I have had good results booting a full system from an external USB HD, as well as with bootable DVD image (for iDefrag) that was copied to a 2GB USB stick.

    What’s the actual issue that you are discussing?

  3. Good article on USB 3.0, but you are confusing things by going on about FireWire and disk mode and Apple which all have relatively nothing to do with your topic.

    Why talk about USB 3.0 replacing FireWire, when you have to admit lower down that there won’t be any disk mode in USB 3.0?

    Why re-hash the myth that Apple is discontinuing Firewire support when in fact all it did was remove it from one computer (it’s lowest end portable)?

    Why use a comparison between your old PowerBook (a Pro product) and a MacBook (a consumer level product)?

    As both commenters above me have noted, the lack of disk mode is somewhat alleviated by the fact that a MacBook can boot from a USB drive. Migration assistant (the main use of disk mode) can also still be used over Ethernet or WiFi.

  4. @ #3.

    Awesome comment and all I wanted to say as well.

  5. Charles Moore Monday, January 12, 2009


    Delighted to hear of the success booting via USB 2.0 on Intel Macs. I’m hoping to have an Intel Mac in the not too distant future, and look forward to experimenting.

    May have to reformat my external drives with Intel-friendly drivers.

    I haven’t given up hope that there will eventually be a USB Target Disk Mode, which is one of the great Mac OS FireWire features.

    I think you’re over-trivializing the removal of FireWire from the MacBook, which is the highest-volume Apple laptop and used by many high-end “professional” users who covet its campactness (ie: the crowd who loved the 12″ PowerBook). But for that matter, an awful lot of “consumer” users have FW gear. It’s also not trivial (IMHO) that Apple has dumped FireWire 400 from the MacBook Pro. My principal FireWire interest is FW 400 — all my FireWire peripherals are 400 — and the necessity of havong another extra cost dongle is a pain. It also cuts FW ports by 50 percent, and I think it’s reasonable to suspect that when USB 3.0 is in place FW 800 will be gone as well.


  6. “…….FW 800 will be gone as well.” Replaced by FW 3200 as Mr. Smith pointed out.

  7. they’ve beaten me to it, but yes – any intel mac can boot from a usb drive conveniently and reliably.

    loss of fw is a little annoying, but to be honest, one of the main consumer uses was fwtdm, which I’d be willing to bet the majority of entry level consumers don’t know about. I work in apple retail, and most people aren’t aware of the feature at all, and the cases where we’d use it in house (data transfers) work just fine over Ethernet. and should we need to get at the contents of a drive when re computer itself isn’t booting, we usually pull the drive and stick it in a sled anyway.

    not saying it’s not a useful feature (it is!) but I’m not so sure it’s absence from their entry level books is that huge a deal. the streamlining of the product line means that this is the sort of feature distinction were likely going to see.

    as for seeing a usb alternative for fwtdm, I doing it, as the USB architecture doesn’t really allow for it. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I’m not holding my breath.

  8. just to amend my previous comment – one of the OTHER major consumer uses for FW was in digital video, and i agree that the loss there definitely hurts more than the loss of some of the other ‘prosumer’ features that FW afforded the macbook.

  9. Booting from USB is pretty simple with Intel Macs.


    It just takes a simple settings adjustment with Disk Utility and the install from any OSX Disk.

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