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Articles: I/O and You!

I/O stands for input/output, which is just geek-speak for any peripheral device that talks to and/or listens to your computer. Apple has slowly and quietly been changing the included I/O ports of its new computers. It is important to understand what changes, because the add-ons you buy and the ones you own will be affected by these changes. So before you buy that FireWire 800 hard drive, check your connections and read on.

Probably the most discussed I/O change is with expansion card slots. The expansion slots on a Mac tower have gone through many changes. Particularly because video cards occupy one of the expansion slots, updates are needed to accommodate faster video cards. Starting with the first G3 systems, we had PCI 33 change to a combination of PCI 33 and PCI 66. Then there was AGP combined with PCI. After that there was faster AGP with Power Sockets and PCI. Later with the G5 systems it changed to yet another fast standard of AGP with PCI-X. All those changes had one common theme. Which is, in most cases, your older PCI card could find a home in your new Mac. But the new standard expansion slots introduced in Macs recently do not support older equipment at all. PCI-Express (PCIe) is a new and better standard but it has no legacy support for older cards. Most PowerMac G5 users are going to be OK with this because expansion cards are often updated with the computers in a professional setting.

As Apple moves on with its Intel switch, they have decided to further the move to PCIe. The MacBook Pro abandoned the "PC Card" once standard in laptops, and has moved on to support the new ExpressCard/34 standard. This new PCMCIA standard combines both PCIe and USB 2.0 into one slot. It has great potential to improve a portable's card expansion, but once again it will not support old and new PC cards. This will upset the many Verizon EVDO users, for example, who will not be able to use their current PC Cards and who, for now, have no other options.

Another shift in supported I/O has been seen in FireWire. Both the fifth generation video iPods and the iPod nano only connect to computers via USB. Previously, FireWire was used in addition to, or as the only, means of connection. Also, the built in iSight cameras in the new iMac and MacBook Pro are USB 2.0, though you can't unplug them. The most interesting anti-FireWire move was to drop FireWire 800 on the MacBook Pro altogether. Both the 15" and 17" PowerBooks include FireWire 800 to support video editors. This is a drastic change from the direction Apple had been taking with its Pro equipment. A change that could leave some video editors out in the cold when they try to bring over their projects on the FireWire 800 hard drives that most professionals use.

Apple does have an advantage over PC makers in that it controls the whole eco-system. So for example, they led the way with the first iMacs by not including any floppy drives, which created quite a stir in the computing community at the time. They of course were proven right, as most users, both Mac and PC, haven't used a floppy disk in years.

But I/O change is always difficult on longtime users; and Apple has sometimes worked to make it easier. When the "Blue and White" G3 towers were released, Apple built-in an ADB port in an effort to ease the transition to USB. But today, just like the first iMacs, they are seemingly less concerned with a smooth transition with peripherals and more or less want to force you to buy the compatible peripherals as they drag you into the next generation of computing power. But that's Apple, they can do it, so they do, and the result is that Mac users in general are able to stay a step ahead of the rest of the computing world in terms of the entire computing experience.

So the changes are good for technology and will eventually be good for you. But in the meantime, Apple is putting us through a rough ride through these changes, and especially early adopters, who must learn to pay the price or make the adjustments they force. Many of these I/O changes are on the forefront of computing, which makes the availability of add-ons limited, so the price is often that you can't even do what you used to do until all the peripheral manufacturers catch up.

I think we are in for a confusing year of adjustments, but remember, change is usually good, and certainly inevitable in this industry. Just look out for the sharp turns on this bumpy road.
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