MacBook Pro SD/ExpressCard Slot Tradeoff: Brilliant or Blunder?

Apple’s new/refreshed MacBook Pro 13″ and 15″ models each come equipped with an SD Media Card reader slot, but in the case of the 15-incher, this has required elimination of the ExpressCard/34 expansion slot that had been in every 15-inch MacBook Pro since the get-go, back in 2006. This has led to a crescendo of protest from certain classes of MacBook Pro users who depend on the expansion interface, even though an ExpressCard/34 slot is still offered on the 17″ MacBook Pro.

Does this move represent wise decision-making, or is it a blunder on the scale of the misbegotten elimination (now thankfully rectified) of FireWire support from the first revision 13″ unibody MacBooks? I think the ExpressCard/SD Card tradeoff makes some pragmatic sense. It would be great to have both formats, but for most users, SD Card support will be more functionally useful. Apple CFO Phil Schiller was quoted on Monday saying that surveys had determined only 10 percent of MBP owners ever used the ExpressCard slot.

As much as I like the idea of having ExpressCard capability in my laptop, I’m doubtful that I would miss having it on any machine that has built-in FireWire. I did make a fair bit of use of the PC CardBus slots in my G3 PowerBooks back in the day, and still do use the one in my “road” Pismo for a Buffalo G54 802.11g adapter card I use in conjunction with OS X’s AirPort software to log onto Wi-Fi hotspots. However, built-in AirPort has been standard on even the cheapest Apple notebooks for about five years now. On the other hand, an SD Card slot would be very useful for transferring image files from my digital camera. (Alas, my 13″ unibody MacBook has no slots and no FireWire.)

However, there are a minority of users who depend on the ExpressCard slot — for example, 3G cards for Wi-Fi connectivity, Gigabit Ethernet cards to provide a second network connection, or cards to provide extra FireWire ports on their own dedicated bus operating at full speed instead of daisy chaining devices. There are also ExpressCard-based PCI expansion options used by audio and video pros, and they work with ExpressCard interfaces. ExpressCard-based eSATA interfaces are also available for data transfer faster than FireWire 800 can support, and some folks, of course, use ExpressCard-SD card adapters or a variety of other media card readers such as 7-in-1 readers or 12-in-1 readers that can read much more than just SD cards. With an SD Card slot, you can only read one type of card.

All that said, Apple’s director of portables, Todd Benjamin, told PCMag’s Mark Hachman in an interview this week that the ExpressCard 34 slot was dropped from the 15″ MacBook Pro because the “vast majority” of owners use USB connectivity, and that Apple opted for a SD Card slot because that format has become “ubiquitous.”

The obvious solution, if one absolutely requires ExpressCard support, is to get a 17″ MacBook Pro, which at least is now more reasonably priced at $2,499, and most professional notebook users should find that affordable. The 17-incher is a bit larger and heavier to lug around, but having the bigger display is no hardship, and as a 17″ PowerBook owner myself, I would say that the diminished portability aspect is often exaggerated. I’ve found mine a surprisingly tractable road warrior-ing machine.

So, which would you prefer: ExpressCard 34 or SD Media Reader?


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