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The MacBook Interface Dilemma: So Many Ports, So Little Space

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jan 28, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Look on the side of any MacBook or PC laptop, and you'll see a Swiss-cheese-like array of holes. They're all interface ports for plugs of various shapes and sizes. Mini DisplayPort. HDMI. 8P8C. FireWire 400. FireWire 800. DVI. VGA. WUXGA. And good old USB 2.0. They're all there for connecting peripherals -- mice, monitors, hard drives, MP3 players, cell phones, and even weird little things like flexible gooseneck lights for working in the dark.

The MacBook Interface Dilemma: So Many Ports, So Little Space

These ports have evolved over the years, changing in size and spec, and Apple, in fact, created a tempest in a teapot a few months ago when it dumped FireWire 400 ports from its new aluminum unibody MacBook line.

Still, it seems that we're getting closer to a single interface. USB is now the standard way to connect mice and printers, whereas a few years ago those devices had their own specialized ports. iPods and iPhones sync and charge via USB. Now even some monitors can plug in via USB. And now that USB 3.0 has been standardized, might it become the port through which all data flows? Or will we forever inhabit a land of diverse wires, all of which need a special home of their own in the back of one's computer?

Will FireWire die? Will Ethernet live forever? And what of HDMI, which in an Apple world so far only exists on the Apple TV?

Shrinking Laptops, Shrinking Ports

As laptops get increasingly smaller and thinner -- like the MacBook Air -- a key design challenge becomes fitting the most important ports in the least amount of space.

"Certainly manufacturers want to have as few connectors as possible on a PC, particularly as form factors shrink and there's an increasing premium placed on design," Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis of consumer technology for the NPD Group, told MacNewsWorld.

"The 'Universal' Serial Bus [USB] has lived up to its name pretty well over the past few years as it's taken the place of many legacy ports, but few monitors support the DisplayLink USB video standard, so it appears that we will still continue to see some kind of video connector such as HDMI or DisplayPort on PCs for some time to come," he explained.

"If, for example, you have a media center PC designed to be connected directly to an HDTV, it certainly makes sense to have HDMI on board," he added.

There is pressure to drop other connectors, though, as manufacturers seek to build thinner, simpler PCs.

"The RJ-45 connector used by Ethernet was too thick for the MacBook Air, so Apple dropped it on that model with the rationale that its increasingly common for highly mobile notebook computer users to connect via WiFi. FireWire was the dominant standard for connecting to tape-based camcorders, but nowadays most camcorders use either USB or a memory card," Rubin noted.

Incidentally, "USB can also take the place of microphone and headphone jacks, but these are still included as a convenience so that PCs can be used with standard headphones," he added.

If USB and WiFi Are Strong, Is FireWire and Ethernet Weak?

"Convergence on USB seems reasonable, but Ethernet has its own path and achieves higher speeds," Roger Kay, president Endpoint Technologies Associates, told MacNewsWorld.

"I think Ethernet will survive. FireWire might slowly die, but Apple is a big supporter, and a lot of consumer electronic peripherals use it; however, Apple has a tendency to drop legacy faster than the PC gang," Kay explained.

"The interface in greatest flux right now is video out, with legacy VGA, DVI, HDMI, Component, Composite, and S-video ... clearly, something has to give there," he noted.

When it introduced is new MacBook line in October, Apple moved its video out standard to the Mini DisplayPort, which can support larger, higher-resolution monitors than the popular HDTV and HDTV device peripheral video out leader, HDMI.

Long Live USB!

While Apple has retained FireWire ports in its MacBook Pro line, though, few seem to expect it to live long.

"The upcoming 3.2 Gbps (gigabits per second) FireWire standard is still slower than USB 3.0's 4.8 Gbps," Mel Beckman, an independent network and Internet security consultant, told MacNewsWorld.

"FireWire likely won't survive, as USB 3.0 encompasses its capabilities," he added.

As for video out ... USB 3.0 may also provide some answers.

"USB 3.0's high speed will eventually usher in USB monitors -- even HD monitors -- as well as provide a solid interface for yet-unrealized devices such as fully volumetric 3-D displays, which were demonstrated this fall at the TED conference," Beckman said.

"While monitor ports may be relegated to USB dongle converters eventually, for now monitor ports will continue, mostly due to the available small DVI connectors," he added.

As for Ethernet ports, Beckman believes they will persist for quite some time because so many office-oriented devices use Ethernet ports.

It's worth noting that while peripherals like keyboards, mice, and printers have evolved away from dedicated ports in favor of USB, they continue to evolve into needing ports at all. Wireless Bluetooth connectivity is steadily replacing USB in some cases -- as long as the device can get by on relatively slow speeds. External hard drives, for example, go with USB for speed and reliability.

However, some, like Apple's wireless router/hard drive combo Time Capsule, use WiFi for data transfer to and from connected Macs -- though the Time Capsule retains both Ethernet and a USB port on the device itself.

It's All About Growing Up

"The FireWire brouhaha last year was a good example of what happens as an industry matures. It seems to me that in less mature industries, vendors develop proprietary technologies to gain competitive advantage and product differentiation," Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT, told MacNewsWorld.

"For a long time, FireWire made sense for Apple, but as other technologies like USB caught up and PC consumers moved more and more toward notebooks -- reducing the literal footprint of space available -- proprietary interface technologies became a burden both for Apple and its developers and partners," he explained.

"It's not unlike other industries' moves toward standardization -- including the emergence of SAE standards for screws, nuts and bolts, or electrical manufacturers adopting standardized fittings for light bulbs. The benefits of gained from adopting standardized technologies -- simplified design, development and manufacturing -- easily outweigh the competitive advantages of locking customers and partners into proprietary technologies," he added.

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