Inside the new MacBooks: FireWire, USB, and the NVIDIA Controller

Posted:
in Current Mac Hardware edited January 2014
Apple's new MacBook and MacBook Pro models contain more innovation than just their case design, graphics, and the improved accessibility of their internals. Here's a look at other details related to FireWire, USB, and the new NVIDIA-based controller that replaces Intel's chipset.



FireWire



Only the MacBook Pro supports FireWire; it supplies the faster FW800 (800Mbps) standard, which is backwardly compatible with the original FW400 (400Mbps). A FW800 port can handle a chain of devices running at either 400 or 800Mbps, and manages data transfers over the bus at the top speed of the device. FireWire does not slow the entire bus down to the speed of the slowest device attached.



The complete lack of FireWire on the standard 13" MacBook means it can't be used in Target Disk Mode, as USB lacks the bus intelligence to support such a system. This also means that MacBook users will need to use the Ethernet-based Migration Assistant developed for the MacBook Air to import files and settings from their previous system, although in the case of the MacBook, this will be considerably faster due to its support for Gigabit Ethernet; the MacBook Air is limited to 10/100 Fast Ethernet, and that is only available when using the optional Ethernet dongle. Out of the box, the Air only supports importing files from an older Mac using Migration Assistant over wireless networking, which many reviewers reported to be very slow and problematic.



Gigabit Ethernet (1000Mbps) is nominally faster than FireWire 400, although it also incurs more overhead related to Ethernet networking than FireWire does. It is far faster than wireless 802.11n, which has a comparable throughput throughput maximum of 300Mbps, a feat that can only be approached in ideal wireless signal conditions.



Another alternative to FireWire Target Disk Mode is the use of Migration Assistant with a USB-connected Time Machine backup, or a direct import from a USB volume containing the previous system's files. This may require removing the hard drive from the old system and installing it into a USB hard drive enclosure. Of course, that's far less convenient than booting it up into FireWire Target Disk Mode.



To perform the reverse (exposing the data from the new MacBook's internal drive as if it were in Target Disk Mode), users will have to remove the MacBook's hard drive and insert it into a USB hard drive enclosure that supports a mini-SATA drive connection. Note that many cheap USB disk enclosures only support notebook drives with mini-ATA connectors, or full size PATA or SATA connectors.



While there are some workarounds to the MacBook's lack of FireWire Target Disk Mode, the missing port is also a problem for users with FireWire peripherals. FireWire is used by musicians to patch together audio equipment and by video filmmakers to connect to FireWire camcorders for video import. Apple's push for FireWire adoption was successfully thwarted by Intel's USB 2.0, leading to a market reality where high volume PC manufacturers overwhelmingly aligned behind the simpler, cheaper USB in favor of adopting the more functional, intelligent, and faster, but subsequently more expensive, FireWire standard.



Apple was forced to respond by first adding USB support to the iPod, and has since removed FireWire support entirely on the iPod and iPhone to cut costs and complexity. Its removal from the MacBook will force users who need FireWire to consider the old white MacBook on the low end, or the full size MacBook Pro on the high end. The MacBook also lacks an ExpressCard expansion slot to add FireWire features as an aftermarket option. Likewise, the MacBook Air lacks FireWire as well and any way to add support for it. The promise of FireWire was not only derailed by USB 2.0 on the low end on most peripherals, but has also been supplanted by SATA and eSATA on the higher end in hard drive applications, leaving FireWire with an increasingly small niche.



USB



Both the MacBook and MacBook Pro supply two USB 2.0 ports, of which Apple's documentation says that only one of which is "high powered." In the USB 2.0 specification, high-powered means suitable for powering certain peripherals that require more than 100mA. Any device that draws significant power or charges itself over USB, such as an iPod, a USB hard drive, or a USB scanner lacking a power source, needs to be plugged into a high-powered USB port.



A low powered port is fine for keyboards, mice, or other passive devices, as well as any devices that supply their own power, such as a printer or full sized USB hard drive that has its own power adapter. An external, powered USB hub will supply the necessary power when using either USB port. However, both USB ports actually supply at least 500mA, enough to each power and charge an iPhone or similar product at the same time.



The two ports are two separate, 480Mbps high speed USB 2.0 busses. The front port is shared internally with the built-in iSight camera. Apple's documentation says the first USB device to be plugged in that demands more than 500mA will get 1000mA, and other devices will all be limited to 500mA or less. This indicates that users will have nothing new to worry about; anyone using higher-powered devices may need to use a powered USB hub, but this does not represent a change for MacBook Pro users.



Internal Busses



As with earlier MacBooks, the slower 12Mbps USB 1.0 is used internally to drive the keyboard, trackpad, Bluetooth, and IR remote sensor, none of which have any need for a faster USB 2.0 connection. As noted above, the internal iSight camera connects internally to one of the faster USB 2.0 busses.



AirPort wireless networking is interfaced with the NVIDIA 'chipset on a chip' via PCIe, and all other peripherals, drives, audio, video, and RAM are similarly managed by the same chip. While most Intel-based PCs use two primary support chips to interface the various components, the new MacBooks use one. The MacBook Pro uses the same architecture while also supplying an additional, dedicated NVIDIA GPU.



Conventional Intel PCs traditionally split controller chipset functions into two components, a "northbridge" that interfaces with the CPU and manages the high performance system RAM and the fast PCIe bus that typically drives dedicated video and expansion slots, and the southbridge chip, which handles the less demanding general I/O functions, including audio, Ethernet, USB, system clock, power management, and other functions that don't demand the fastest possible bus. This split helps keep the northbridge as fast as possible while allowing the southbridge to run slower, and therefore handle cheaper components.



The definition of northbridge and southbridge have shifted slightly with new technologies and between manufacturers; Intel now refers to the northbridge as the Memory Controller Hub or MCH, and the southbridge as the I/O Controller Hub or ICH.







Chipsets and Platforms



When Intel talks about its "platforms," such as the Centrino Santa Rosa, it's branding a CPU, a chipset, and wireless controller under an umbrella brand. Last year's MacBooks used the "Santa Rosa" combination of Intel's Core 2 Duo Merom CPU, paired with the Intel Mobile 965 Express series chipset. That chipset included the GM965 Crestline MCH northbridge using Intel's GMA X3100 graphics technology and ICH8M southbridge.



However, the definition of Intel's Centrino-branded Santa Rosa platform also includes the Intel WiFi Link 4965AGN Kedron wireless chip. Apple didn't use Intel's part for WiFi on the 2007 MacBooks; it used the Broadcom BCM4328. The "Santa Rosa MacBook" was therefore not really Santa Rosa nor a Centrino notebook. That's why Apple never refers to it as a Santa Rosa or Centrino Mac.



Many PC makers are content to source all their components from one vendor, and Intel is obviously happy to bundle all of its components together under a brand name that suggests to consumers that "Centrino" is a feature they need. However, Apple has historically always selected the best parts available for its desired design goals. Last year, that meant skipping Intel's WiFi chip. In the year since, Apple has been plagued with reports of problems related to MacBook graphics, forcing the company to rethink its use of Intel's relatively uninspiring integrated graphics options.



Add in the fact that NVIDIA could offer a replacement northbridge/southbridge controller in one chip combined with far better integrated graphics performance, and it's no wonder why Apple dropped Intel's 2008 Montevina Centrino platform entirely for its new generation of MacBooks. The new MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro all use continue to use Intel's Core 2 Duo Penryn CPUs, but pair NVIDIA's GeForce 9400M G chipset and integrated graphics along with AirPort WiFi supplied by a Broadcom BCM94322USA. Apple is expected to continue its expansion of using competitive components, and possibly even custom parts of its own design, rather than simply branding Intel "platforms" as Macs. This will also make it harder for observers to guess what features Apple's next Macs will have, although that's obviously not Apple's primary motivation.







Other Segments from our Inside the new MacBooks series

Apple details new MacBook manufacturing process

A closer look at Apple's move to NVIDIA chipsets, DisplayPort

Inside the new MacBooks: LSI, Battery, HD, and RAM

Inside the new MacBooks: Audio and Video

«13

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 58
    Just a correction...

    In your first diagram it states that the late 2008 MacBooks use DDR2 1067 RAM when in fact they use DDR3 1067
  • Reply 2 of 58
    Interesting, didn't know the new MBP USB, 1 is high powered and the other is not. I wonder how is the previous MBP USB?
  • Reply 3 of 58
    I think this was a very smart move. Reducing the number of chips on the logic board while increasing performance. Brilliant.
  • Reply 4 of 58
    ytvytv Posts: 109member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by silverpraxis View Post


    I think this was a very smart move. Reducing the number of chips on the logic board while increasing performance. Brilliant.



    Get back in your cube before Steve walks by.
  • Reply 5 of 58
    kasperkasper Posts: 941member, administrator
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by pmac93 View Post


    Just a correction...

    In your first diagram it states that the late 2008 MacBooks use DDR2 1067 RAM when in fact they use DDR3 1067



    Yep! Thanks a bunch. Should be corrected now.



    K
  • Reply 6 of 58
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Kasper View Post


    Yep! Thanks a bunch. Should be corrected now.



    K



    Shouldn't that be 667Mhz for the DDR2 memory, not 533Mhz?
  • Reply 7 of 58
    asciiascii Posts: 5,941member
    So not only does it only have 2 USB ports, one of them is not even fully powered. Where do I insert the crank to start it?
  • Reply 8 of 58
    aplnubaplnub Posts: 2,605member
    No firewire blows as target disk mode was a life saver. These look nice but I am passing this time, and that in itself is a feat.
  • Reply 9 of 58
    hmurchisonhmurchison Posts: 12,353member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by aplnub View Post


    No firewire blows as target disk mode was a life saver. These look nice but I am passing this time, and that in itself is a feat.



    Probably a good decision. I want to see what Apple does with Nehalem and frankly if I'm going to have to give up FW then I want the nextgen CPU.
  • Reply 10 of 58
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post


    To perform the reverse (exposing the data from the new MacBook's internal drive as if it were in Target Disk Mode), users will have to remove the MacBook's hard drive and insert it into a USB hard drive enclosure that supports a mini-SATA drive connection. Note that many cheap USB disk enclosures only support notebook drives with mini-ATA connectors, or full size PATA or SATA connectors.



    I wanted to clarify. (because I couldn't find relevant mini-SATA links on google)



    I was confused (horrified!) about a new SATA connection, I assume that by "mini-SATA connection", you mean a 2.5 inch SATA drive (standard sata laptop drive). The connection is the same for both full size (3.5) SATA drives and 2.5 inch drives. And while the drive might not be snug in a full-size SATA USB enclosure, it will defiantly work. (This is one of the beauties of the SATA connection).
  • Reply 11 of 58
    foo2foo2 Posts: 1,077member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Kasper View Post


    Yep! Thanks a bunch. Should be corrected now.



    K



    Almost! For some reason, the page loads two versions of otherwise the same image, one with DDR2 and one with DDR3.
  • Reply 12 of 58
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post


    FireWire



    Only the MacBook Pro supports FireWire; it supplies the faster FW800 (800Mbps) standard, which is backwardly compatible with the original FW400 (400Mbps). A FW800 port can handle a chain of devices running at either 400 or 800Mbps, and manages data transfers over the bus at the top speed of the device. FireWire does not slow the entire bus down to the speed of the slowest device attached.



    Does this mean that no matter how the FW 400 and FW 800 devices are daisy chained on the FW 800 connection, when only one device is being accessed at a time, the device will get the full bandwidth supported by its FW bridge and also that when both are accessed at the same time, they will each get 50% of the bandwidth.
  • Reply 13 of 58
    Careful, yet another newbie coming through! *stumbles through the crowd*



    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post


    Gigabit Ethernet (1000Mbps) is nominally faster than FireWire 400, although it also incurs more overhead related to Ethernet networking than FireWire does.



    This sounds like a good point to ask a question that has been nagging me since the "No FireWire" revelation this week.



    I currently got a Mac Mini (first-gen) with an external FW drive (M9-DX with FW-400 and USB 2.0), and I'm considering to switch to a Macbook. My lesser question is how USB 2.0 performance is in real life, compared to FW-400 (Yes, I could just check that myself, but I'm lazy right now, and since I'm posting here anyway... ).



    My much bigger question pokes the quote there: How is Gigabit Ethernet doing against FireWire 400 in real life (as opposed to "nominally, but there is some unspecified overhead"), and would I really notice a difference? I'm considering to pick up a Time Capsule after getting the laptop, or I might keep the Mini+M9 setup around as a sort of at-home base station (or hey, maybe both - more storage space is always welcome, especially once Time Machine goes wild, I figure).



    Background: I mostly use the FW drive for storing larger files (for example the odd movie file) and files I don't need on a daily basis. I would like to watch said (non-HD) movies directly from that disk, and I'd like not to wait ten hours just to copy a GB to it. No heavy-duty real-time movie editing/recording, no 10GB Photoshop files, nothing fancy-intensive. I'm also not the kind of guy who sits next to the computer with a stopwatch while a file is being copied, so I wouldn't really care if one of them copied File X in 10 minutes while the other one needed 11 minutes. As long as we're not talking about factors, I'd be cool.



    So: Could I switch to a non-FW Macbook without worrying about the lack of FW?
  • Reply 14 of 58
    zunxzunx Posts: 620member
    FIREWIRE FOR REPAIRS. Via Target Disk Mode. That is absolutely needed on both MacBook Air and MacBook. NO FIREWIRE, NO PURCHASE.
  • Reply 15 of 58
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post


    FireWire does not slow the entire bus down to the speed of the slowest device attached.



    Please cite a reliable source for this. My understanding of the previous gen MBP is that the fw800 and fw400 ports share the same bus and if any fw400 device is connected the fw800 port slows down to fw400 speed. I've run basic transfer tests and my personal results show this to be true. Mac Pros have two separate buses (one fw400 and one fw800) so they do not have this same issue



    Now you're saying that a person could mix fw800 and fw400 devices in a chain connected to the new MBPs single fw800 port and the fw800 devices will continue to operate with 800mbps throughput? I need proof to believe this.
  • Reply 16 of 58
    noirdesirnoirdesir Posts: 1,027member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by ChibiR View Post


    My lesser question is how USB 2.0 performance is in real life, compared to FW-400



    I remember some barefeats test a while ago that showed Firewire 400 to be roughly 50% than USB2 (on Macs, under Windows the difference was less) and Firewire 800 to be roughly 50% faster than Firewire 400 (but here the limiting factor might also have been the drive speed). Moreover, to see the difference between Firewire 400 and 800 you needed a 7200 drive.

    Quote:

    My much bigger question pokes the quote there: How is Gigabit Ethernet doing against FireWire 400



    The 'perceived' performance of Gbit Ethernet with my TC is slower than USB2 but maybe it was TM that is slow and not the network interface. Doing my initial backup with my TC (over Gbit Ethernet) took close to 24 hours, doing a clone over Firewire 400 took maybe six hours.
  • Reply 17 of 58
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by zunx View Post


    FIREWIRE FOR REPAIRS. Via Target Disk Mode. That is absolutely needed on both MacBook Air and MacBook. NO FIREWIRE, NO PURCHASE.



    Just got one yesterday after the folks at the Apple Store showed me that they use USB 2 booting for repairs. Tried it at home and it worked. Having to format the external drive and reinstall the OS was a pain though.... Thanks to Carbon Copy Cloner this is somewhat easier.



    I guess the only really interesting aspect about Target Disk Mode that is not addressed by USB booting is migration. Guess I´ll have to depend on transfering my files to an external disk and then retransfering to my new Mac. Bummer!



    My point is that the critical issue -REPAIRS- can be tackled by booting from an external USB drive.
  • Reply 18 of 58
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by noirdesir View Post


    I remember some barefeats test a while ago that showed Firewire 400 to be roughly 50% than USB2



    ...as in "half the speed"? Or were you missing a "faster" somewhere in that sentence?



    Quote:
    Originally Posted by noirdesir View Post


    The 'perceived' performance of Gbit Ethernet with my TC is slower than USB2 but maybe it was TM that is slow and not the network interface. Doing my initial backup with my TC (over Gbit Ethernet) took close to 24 hours, doing a clone over Firewire 400 took maybe six hours.



    Okay, that sounds pretty scary. I'm willing to accept "YMMV" style disclaimers (and I do hope that others made better experiences), but thanks for this glimpse at least!
  • Reply 19 of 58
    I went to the store to check them out, the glass screen is horrible, it reflex everything. Add the lack of fire wire and you just have an over priced Sony with OSX slapped on it. My guess is Apple is going after the PC crowd which is why it looks so PC but with those prices why would a PC user buy something that looks like every other PC but cost $600 more?



    If this is the direction Apple is going with it's portables then my trusty MBP will be the last one I ever buy. Once this one goes I'll have to decide on a Mac Pro, a Dell or nothing.
  • Reply 20 of 58
    eauviveeauvive Posts: 237member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by noirdesir View Post


    The 'perceived' performance of Gbit Ethernet with my TC is slower than USB2 but maybe it was TM that is slow and not the network interface. Doing my initial backup with my TC (over Gbit Ethernet) took close to 24 hours, doing a clone over Firewire 400 took maybe six hours.



    That's normal, what do you expect from Ethernet? Your data is encapsulated in a TCP/IP frame, itself encapsulated in a Ethernet frame. That's a big overhead, compared to FireWire which has never been designed to support anything else than raw data transfer over a pretty reliable media.
Sign In or Register to comment.