iPod na... no FireWire?!

by Chris Adamson

So, the iPod nano can't use FireWire... at least it has the decency to say so rather than just failing. Still, considering that FireWire was the original iPod's only interface when it debuted in 2001, this is quite a fall from grace.

It's harder on Mac users than Windows users, who've had USB 2.0 for longer. Consider the Macs that can't connect at high-speed to an iPod nano:

  • All G3 PowerMacs

  • All G3 iMacs

  • All G3 PowerBooks

  • All G3 iBooks

  • All G4 PowerMacs

  • G4 Cube

  • Most G4 (pivot flat-screen) iMacs

  • G4 PowerBooks made before mid-2003 (TiBooks, early 12" and 17" AlBooks)

  • G4 XServes (not that you would...)

  • Pre-2004 eMacs

Note: Dates and specs from apple-history.com

I should be surprised, but I'm not. USB 2.0 has been out for long enough that FireWire is presumably expendable, from Apple's POV. But, you might wonder, isn't FireWire required by the Tiger tech specs? Doesn't that say that it's important?

Here's my take: it's not about FireWire. It's about planned obsolescence. If you look, you can see a pattern that Apple considers consumer machines more than about three years old and pro machines more than about four years to not be worth supporting anymore. Or, perhaps phrased more nicely, candidates for upgrades. The FireWire requirement on Tiger simply pushes out the first few generations of iMacs and iBooks, and the first G3 pro machines (actually, the non-USB G3 machines weren't supported by earlier OS X releases either, if memory serves). So adding in the FireWire requirement for Tiger basically obsoletes a number of 1999-2001 consumer machines. Maybe Leopard will push the CPU requirement into the GHz range, to obsolete 2002-3 machines.

The iPod nano's exclusion of FireWire is similar, just more aggressive. The newest machine incapable of using a nano at high-speed would appear to be an early-2003 iBook model. So maybe there are some 18 month old machines getting left in the cold. Ouch. Then again, Tiger's CoreGraphics and CoreVideo weren't supported by the iBooks that were available when Tiger shipped. Double ouch.

Then again, is it realistic to expect support for five-year-old computers? Mac partisans used to take pride in the fact that System 7 only obsoleted the original 128K and 512K "Fat" Mac, and could run on the third Mac model, the Mac Plus. But that said, System 7 came out in 1991, and the Plus appeared in 1986, so even then, the standard was to maintain compatibility only with machines five years old or newer.

I don't know how this is going to fly if Apple fancies itself a consumer electronics company. When Sony launches the PlayStation 3, it is expected to be backwards-compatible with software from PlayStations 1 and 2. Consumers expect their stuff to last, and don't appreciate arbitrary limitations meant to make them buy new products.

Don't think it'll be a problem? Come back and drop a comment if you see the following footnote sometime around 2007:

Note: Songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store prior to iTunes 7 cannot be played in iTunes 8 or iPod atto.

Or should I be happy to give Apple my money on their schedule, not mine?


2005-09-09 11:16:38
Two reasons
There are two other reasons for not including FireWire with the nano: cost and physical volume.

Considering the size and price of the nano, Apple's profit on the device is surely much lower than on previous iPods. Also, to put extra hardware inside to perform the FireWire communication (not to mention making room for the FW connector itself) would make the nano's engineering a much greater feat.

The availability of FireWire on lower priced/sized units was doomed from the moment the shuffle was introduced. I'm sure the higher capacity iPods will continue to have FireWire for some time to come.

2005-09-09 13:00:24
no firewire support? this sucks
One reason USB 2.0 is going to cause problems is the inability to charge your iPod unless your machine is always running. Maybe I just haven't figured it out, but my Shuffle is never fully charged since I let my machine go to sleep, or even turn it off. My iPod Mini still charges if the machine is in sleep mode. Would it have been so difficult to put both USB 2.0 and Firewire on the Nano, in the same way that the Mini and iPod have? Im not so sure Im going to want the Nano, no matter how great it looks. I might even have to buy a USB hub just so I can plug in my Shuffle, Keyboard, Scanner, and Nano (if I do buy one)
2005-09-10 03:20:54
no firewire support? this sucks
If you get a powered hub, then you can charge your iPod without needing to have you Mac on, or even connected to the hub.
2005-09-10 07:11:03
Phase out of firewire
This isn't such a suprise, as the shuffle is USB only and I recall many of the newer models not coming with a firewire adapter.

Plus, if they want to draw in Windoze users, firewire is not so ubiquitous there.

But it wouldn't surprise me they want to phase out firewire in Apple's consumer line at least. It is cheaper to support USB only.

2005-09-10 09:59:34
USB 2.0 Options for Macintosh
It is odd that Apple is not supporting FW with the iPod nano. But, one may come later. Anyway, its clear that most people have USB based computers, and so Apple made the right business decision in terms of prioritization.

I'd rather see Apple drop Firewire than relegate Mac users to a second tier standard like they did with ADB for so many years.

Anyway, I have this problem with my Macs, so what will I do if I get a nano?

Sonnet technologies offers a USB 2.0 card for PCI Macs for $29.95. Not too bad, so I won't rush out and replace my PCI based Mac just yet.

And for you all-in-one Mac owners that have WiFi there are a number of Wifi based USB 2.0 hubs that are in the $50-$80 range. Here is a link with more info: http://www.wi-fiplanet.com/reviews/article.php/3301181 If you don't have WiFi, well tack on another $20-$50.

Moral to the story? If you buy an all-in-one Mac, expect to have compatibility issues down the road as new products are released. Technology is evolving at a rapid clip, so if you don't want these sorts of problems, buy a computer that can be expanded.

2005-09-10 10:07:28
Two reasons
I think ghiebert's on the right track. The nano (and the shuffle, for that matter) is basically a USB flash drive. To add a FireWire bridge in there would have raised the cost and likely increased the size of the nano.

I noted in our articles about the nano that the lack of FireWire is especially disappointing for users of older with FireWire but no USB 2.0. (The nano will sync over USB 1.1, but it's really slow.) However, I don't think this is "planned obsolescence"; I think it's economics and aesthetics ;-)

2005-09-10 10:07:55
iPod nano will work with older Macs
While the nano won't work at high speed, it will work at the lower USB 1.1 speeds. So, what's the impact? How much longer will I have to wait to sync a few songs, or to reload all of my library?

Data point 1: USB 1.1 is 12 million bits per second.
Data point 2: USB 2.0 is 480 million bits per second.
Data point 3: iPod nano has 4GB capacity.

At USB 1.1 rates, it will take about 1 hour to download 4GB worth of music to a nano.

At USB 1.1 rates, it will take about 2 minutes to update 50 songs.

At USB 2.0 rates, the 4GB transfer will take less than 2 minutes. The 50 song update, a few seconds. Sweet!

So, you older Mac owners are supported, but with degraded performance. If you need the speed, you can upgrade your current system, but you don't have to.

2005-09-11 15:18:00
Obsolesence Ad Nauseum
So let me get this straight. Despite owning 3 Macs (and a PC), I don't have a computer capable of high-speed transfer with the nano? So if I want one, I need to also buy a new Mac (okay, I could buy a PC, but I'd rather not) with a G* chip that will itself be obsolete in, say, 6 months. At which point, the Intel-based Macs will be out and Apple will stop supporting the G* chips. (Yeah, they say they will keep supporting them, but at this point do you still believe them?) This really stinks.
2005-09-12 07:42:54
Please draw the line
Please draw the line at iPods. Let there be no suggestion that Firewire is going away. As soon as you go anywhere near video editing, you've got Firewire. Camcorders use it. Hard drives use it. And Macs pro and 'consumer' need it. (I put consumer in quotes because all us 'pros' now use 20" iMacs ;-)

Any talk of phasing out Firewire makes me very anxious. Let's never confuse iPods with Macs. iPods are for today - Macs are forever.

2005-09-12 08:05:19
USB 2.0 Options for Macintosh
Hmm, could this be the planned reason for the USB 2.0 port on the Airport Express? It was obviously not expected for people to want printers by their entertainment systems, and the whole IR control of iTunes seemed like way too much of an afterthought.