I was pretty disappointed with WWDC this last week. I had heard all the rumors about what was in store for the new iPhone and the 3.0 software update. So no real surprises there. I had also heard that the 13″ Unibody MacBook was going to be added to the MacBook Pro line, which makes sense because it looks and functions very similarly to the 15″ and 17″ MBPs. But what I wasn’t expecting, and the rumor sites would never have accepted as true, was Apple dumping ExpressCard from the 15″ MBP for an SD card slot. Apple argues that the number of MBP users using ExpressCard are in the single digit percentages, and adding an SD card slot was a highly requested feature. That’s fine and the numbers cannot be argued with. But if Apple wanted to add a SD card slot, they could have added it without taking the ExpressCard slot away; or they could include an ExpressCard media card reader in the box. The thing that irks me the most is that these are the MacBook PROs. Professional users need ExpressCard. It would have made more sense to add the SD card readers to the MacBooks, and expanded that line, instead of taking features away from the MacBook Pros.
I have read other blogs and their comments, and there’s always users that point out that they never use the ExpressCard slot, and they think that the users complaining about its removal have nothing to complain about because it’s not needed. You can daisy-chain firewire drives and everything can be connected via USB, for example. PROs do need it. This is the MacBook PRO. It’s supposed to have features that regular people don’t need. Another thing users have said is: what about the 17″? Apple has added a lot of great things to the 17″ that make it the true PRO of the MacBook Pros. But they are just too big. Half of the people I know with 17″ MBPs or Powerbooks, replaced them with 15″ MBPs, only complaining they are too big. I agree. In the past there was a pretty decent price jump from 15″ to 17″. Now its only $200 difference, making the lack of ExpressCard on the 15″ even more puzzling. 15″ is the ideal size for me and a lot of other Pros. Like many Pros, the MBP is my only Intel Mac, and I do 95% of my day to day work on it. So every change a single vendor like Apple makes can have a huge effect on my workflow, many times positively, but in this case negatively.
Here is a list of the things I have done with my ExpressCard slot, some of which I do everyday:
– If you are capturing footage from a DV or HDV camera via Firewire, you cannot unload it onto another Firewire drive on the same bus. All laptops have a single Firewire bus, no matter how many ports there are. The bus cannot handle the I/Os and frames will be dropped. Using a different bus, such as ExpressCard with either a Firewire or eSATA card fixes this problem. Firewire-based audio components have this same issue.
– To get the fastest transfers, you need 2 different buses. When offloading video footage from the RED drive (Firewire 800), you will get only about 25-30MB/s if you go to a daisy-chained Firewire 800 drive. If you put a Firewire 800 drive, or a eSATA drive on the ExpressCard bus, your speeds will jump up to 80MB/s. If you use P2 cards and transfer files by connecting a firewire cable to your camera, to get the fastest transfers, you need to have your storage on a different bus. This is for the same reasons as the above point – using different buses in one direction. Instead of one bus in 2 different directions. If you read P2 cards directly with your computer, a PCMCIA to ExpressCard adapter is your only option. Without the camera, there’s no “USB equivalent” of this. All of this is critical for production – you don’t want expensive talent standing around waiting for footage to offload.
– Blu-Ray. I have been burning Blu-Ray discs like crazy lately. I connect my drive using a SATA to eSATA cable to the ExpressCard slot. My drive was only $200. If I wanted a firewire-based external Blu-Ray drive, it would have been closer to $400.
– Matrox MXO2 – This is one of the coolest capture devices to come about in a long time. It’s a fully featured I/O box for HD video, including HD-SDI, 6 channels of audio (you can do 5.1 raw monitoring!), HDMI, etc. There’s also a new feature called MAX that adds a hardware H.264 encoder. The package comes with both an ExpressCard, and a PCIe card. Matrox also sells extra cards for $100 each. So you can use this external I/O box for both your ExpressCard-equipped laptop and your Mac Pro. Or a whole bunch of them. This box allows me to capture HD-SDI on my laptop, print to HDCAM SR from my laptop, do color grading in the field – very important in the RED workflow. And now, I can also encode a Blu-Ray compliant H.264 in real-time on my laptop, versus 1hr for every 10min of video on an 8 core Mac Pro. I can put an HD-SDI, 5.1 audio edit suite, including 23″ monitor, in a single Pelican Case. “Cool” doesn’t come close to describing it.
– Faster storage – Apple is upgrading the processor and RAM on every successive MBP. You can now get a dual core 3.06GHz processor with 8GB of RAM. That’s an awesome upgrade for After Effects, Final Cut, Photoshop, etc for the laptop. As these things get faster, the speed of storage becomes more essential. Just switching from Firewire 800 to eSATA makes a huge difference. Some of those split-second pauses are gone. The system reacts more like a Mac Pro to intense tasks with faster storage. Companies such as G-Tech make eSATA RAIDs that can be used with both desktops and laptops, easily swapping back and forth. The cards for these eSATA RAIDs even allow Uncompressed HD editing on your laptop. CalDigit’s HDPro line of SAS-based RAIDs can also be used with ExpressCard. I don’t know how many people use this RAID with a laptop, but if CalDigit offers it, I’m sure there’s someone using it and finding it essential to their workflow. If you do your work in the field, you need the fastest high-capacity storage available.
– Direct SATA connection – As an Apple Tech, one of my most used accessories was the USB to IDE/SATA adapter so I could attach bare hard drives to my computer. If someone’s hard drive dies, I can take it out and connect it to my computer with this adapter for troubleshooting. Now, the vast majority of my clients use SATA hard drives, so I bought an eSATA to SATA cable to attach the hard drive to my eSATA ExpressCard adapter. This allows me to do things that the USB adapter does not allow, such as SMART testing. If I need to restore a hard drive, which is very often the case, I will have to move the contents from one hard drive to another. Most of my clients have very full hard drives, sometimes up to 1TB of stuff that needs to be moved. The USB-to-SATA adapter runs at only 20MB/s. By connecting using my eSATA ExpressCard, I can get between 80 and 120MB/s depending on the target drive’s speed. Since I’m charging my clients by the hour, this makes a HUGE difference to them. Using a Mac Pro is not an option because most of the time I’m making house calls. For Apple, adding eSATA ports to the MBP line would solve this. But I would only support this move if it was in addition to the ExpressCard slot, not in place of.
– Any PCIe or PCMCIA card – you can get PCIe to ExpressCard and PCMCIA to ExpressCard adapters. Theoretically, any PCIe card you use in your MacPro, you can use in your ExpressCard-equipped MacBook Pro. If you shoot P2 video, this is essential.
Some may look at this list and say, I don’t do any of this. Others may read it and say I do way more than this. The point is, with ExpressCard these options are there. If you take away ExpressCard, you take away ALL of these options. For me and many other video professionals, these are not options. They are requirements.
Apple, you have taken away a requirement of our business. Please bring it back. Apple has brought back previously removed features after people complained – Firewire 800 on the original MacBook Pro, Firewire on the 13″ MacBook. Please ask Apple to bring ExpressCard back on the MacBook Pro Feedback page.