Blog Post

Camcorders and USB: Is Steve Jobs Right?

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 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 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.

37 Responses to “Camcorders and USB: Is Steve Jobs Right?”

  1. @ Richard Downes: “Axing floppy drives or SCSI wasn’t so much of a problem as you could continue using your floppies via external USB floppy drives and a replacement was provided for SCSI (Firewire).”

    Firewire didn’t make it into the iBook or iMac line until a couple revisions down the line the original couple iMacs and original iBook were USB-only. One could argue that perhaps Apple put firewire in when most consumer DV cameras started supporting it. And then took it out when most consumer DV cameras moved to USB2.

    I remember people freaking out that they couldn’t use their SCSI scanners and hard drives and serial port printers when the iMac came out, saying that apple was forcing them to get higher powered Macs when they wanted the iMac. No, they were just making the iMac, and saving everybody a few bucks by leaving out extra ports.

    Apple does this from time to time. Every time you remove a feature, it’s painful for the people who relied on it. But Apple’s not forcing you to buy a new Macbook. The old ones are a heck of a deal. And you get a ton of bang for your buck w/ the Pro line.

  2. USB IS still slower and has higher latency then even Fireware 400, not to speak about 800.
    On all Mini DV cameras which I saw ($300-$3000) is firewire. And only reason its that USB is not fast enough. Sometimes they have USB, but its only for still pictures. Non of manufacturers will put both intefaces on camera unless its needed.
    Only cameras where footage is stored in file on memory or harddisk are using USB, because in this case speed and latency are not important.
    For the same reason is often used fireware in audio products.

  3. Roger Mudd

    TMM — Please point to recent, independent benchmarks to back up your claims. Then we can put the USB/FireWire speed issue to rest.
    Also, while you may not require FireWire, others do. There are legitimate reasons for its inclusion. I have yet to see a legitimate reason for its removal.

  4. Concerning all the Firewire vs. USB benchmarks:

    I see a lot of you post old benchmarks done on PowerPC Macs.
    USB WAS slower back then.

    It is much faster on the Intel Macs.

    I’ve got a MacBook Pro, I am a graphic designer and I’ve never needed either FireWire or the Express Card Slot.

    the FireWire “Tax” doesn’t make ANY sense ANYMORE for external storage or cameras.

  5. @ Brian Warren

    Yep i kne this, but what Apple should have done is include a FW800 port in the MacBook. Because that way you get FW400 and FW800 by just switching cables.
    In the MAcBook Pro getting both FW400 and FW800 would be nice too ; )

  6. I have a iBook G4 and have been using firewire for backups to my external HD. Its much faster and more convenient than USB 2.0. Many external HDs require the use of both USB ports for power, where as only the one FW port. If you are running an external HD and wanting to do other things like Skype using your USB headset, you aren’t able to do that in the new configuration.

    That being said, I guess Apple wants me to buy the newish Airport HD and do the backups wirelessly.

  7. I would bet that if as many people actually used it as are complaining about not having it available then maybe it would be still be in the Macbook.

    I like Eric’s point on this. He needed FW, and got a machine that addressed that need and ended up with something that was much better for his money than he had previously.

  8. I don’t understand why every is so pissed over the removal of Fireware. No one said you had to buy the new Macbook. If you need firewaire so much get the older and cheaper macbooks that have the firewire 400 in them. If that does not suit your needs, then put the money for the macbook pro. That’s life!

  9. Richard

    I agree I was being simplistic. FireWire is widely used and will be missed from the cheaper Macbook. Thanks. But I really can’t see this as the start of Apple dropping Firewire from all products.


  10. Somehow are missing from that list MiniDV cameras. Those cameras use mostly fireware.
    Cannon ZR line, most Sony cameras. Cameras which record on DVD, Harddrive or memory don’t need firewire, because transfer speed is not essential, but for MiniDV you needed.

    Also there was question of speed comparision between USB and Fireware. From my tests is somewhere between 10-20% diffrence in speed, but also computer is much more responsive if you copying between firewire HD then between USB.

  11. Richard Downes

    Eric your reasoning is somewhat flawed.

    Firewire is cheap, universal (well, not now obviously) and useful to Mac users.

    There has been a tendency among those who are supporting Apple on this move to associate FW with one use, be it CamCorders, TDM, Hard Drives etc.

    The point is that FW is all of those and more to lot’s of users. Firewire is used in audio (not only pro audio), cameras (not point and shoot but for things like astronomy hobbyists) instrumentation and lot’s of other uses.

    Also, there is no such thing as a ‘pro machine’ these days. People now have multiple computers and many ‘non pros’ have Mac Pros and many ‘Pros’ have non-pro hardware.

    People buy what they need or what they feel they need. It would help a lot if they could count on the same ports across whatever systems they are using. Trying to shove FW into a ‘pro only’ hole just doesn’t make sense. FW is for everybody and has been for most mac users for many years.

  12. The loss of FireWire on the Macbook was a surprise to me but I now agree it was a good move for Apple. I am a heavy Firewire user for external disk and target mode use for client support and video editing and backup, so I had to get a Macbook Pro (still in the box!). As far as I’m concerned, I get a lot more for my money than I would have 3 months ago. There is now a clear definition between Pro and consumer Macbooks, which is good.

    And as for the loss of target disk mode, buy a £20 caddy, and take the disk out – they’ve made that really easy. And a Firewire 800-400 converter cable is really cheap, so no loss there either. I just hope to God that the Airport signal is better than my Powerbook G4, which sucked.

  13. Richard Downes

    Axing floppy drives or SCSI wasn’t so much of a problem as you could continue using your floppies via external USB floppy drives and a replacement was provided for SCSI (Firewire). Technological change has to happen and when something comes along that really provides a step up with what was available prior to the change people generally accept it.

    This case is different as no such alternative has been given (it doesn’t exist anyway) so it is a step back. eSATA may be faster in some situations but eSATA wasn’t designed from the ground up to be external. The ‘e’ part was tagged on very late in the day and it shows. USB2.0 doesn’t even come close to matching FW.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say Apple is full of idiots but they have made very stupid mistakes in the past. Those mistakes were detrimental to the company and sometimes put right. The original iPhone pricing is an example of a stupid decision. Apple was derided when it announced pricing and then had to hastily cut prices two months later

    I contend the suggestion that only a ‘small percentage’ of mac users want FW so we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one.

    Later today there is a conference call and this issue will raise its head. I wonder what they’ll offer in the way of an explanation?

  14. Richard,

    I can appreciate that view, but I already wrote about the web reactions to this issue in another article here.

    I’ll simply restate the gist of that article: I think Apple knew exactly what features of their most popular Mac were being used by the vast majority of users, and which weren’t. They added the most requested features and removed one a small percentage needed.

    I think discussion of Apple removing it because they are idiots, or conspiratorial, or “EVIL”, are kind of silly.

    To me, if you want to talk “evil”, it was much more “evil” that I had to go to a pro model just to avoid a plastic case, or get reasonable graphics, or get a great screen. I believe far more users will appreciate one or all of those features long before FireWire.

  15. I don’t know, the removal of the floppy drive and SCSI back when the iMac came out was a much bigger deal. People all over wondered what they were going to do with their blazing fast SCSI drives.

    Apple does this from time to time. They look for areas to trim, and they do it. It’s totally annoying for people who already have a bunch of firewire devices, want a new laptop and don’t want the MacBook Pro. For everybody else, it’s a nonissue.

    I honestly dont think Apple sat around and thought up ways to screw macbook users. But hey that’s me.

    As for me, I have a Firewire device I use ALL the time (Drobo). I’m going to pick up a MacBook Pro. I was going to get one anyway, except apple tossed in the 30″ display support in the macbook, so I did hesitate there for a sec.

  16. Richard Downes

    Look around you Tom. The web is ablaze with negative reaction to the missing FW400.

    If Apple had asked users if they minded a lack of FW on the MacBook what do you the answer would have been?

    Ask yourself what the new number one feature is right now based on feedback from the last six days.

    There is simply no justification for what they have done. That might explain why there has been no official comment thus far.

    I have never seen Apple fans react so vehemently to a move by Apple EVER, and I’ve been a mac user since the Mac II.

    Maybe everyone at Apple is just shell shocked by the response. Either way someone at PR needs to come out talking to set things straight. If Firewire is being killed off the reaction will just go nuclear as Apple is not offering a better technology to substitute it.

    If FW was taken off the MacBook to make people who needed it upgrade to the MBP the reason would not only be vile but EVIL.

    And let’s not forget. FW is not ONLY about video cameras. There’s a whole lot more to it than that.

  17. David B.

    Yes, all the mac users I know don’t use their firewire. That’s because when they have a problem they bring their computer to me and I USE THEIR FIREWIRE PORT in target disk mode to quickly fix their problem. Of course now I have contributed to their complete ignorance on this issue, so sorry folks – don’t blame Steve – blame me for telling people that if they buy a mac, I’ll fix any problems they run into. Going to have to stop making this promise now.

  18. I’d just like to say as a new reader of this site that the USB on my wife’s new Macbook seems alarmingly fast and after rigging up a test files of 5GB on my Mybook external drive i test moving it both with USB and Firewire through my Imac and the Macbook seemed to trump the speed of both through it’s USB.

    So who knows…Matt UK

    PS Great site!

  19. Roger Mudd

    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.

  20. 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!

  21. @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.

  22. Tor Einar

    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.

  23. Roger Mudd

    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.

  24. 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.

  25. Roger Mudd

    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….”

  26. 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.

  27. Roger Mudd

    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:

    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?