FireWire: it’s all about speed

FireWire. What a sexy name for a bit of technology most of us have difficulty understanding. And yet, since the late 1990s, we have been able to find it on many PCs and almost every Mac
on the market.

So first off: what is it? FireWire is a standard for transferring data from various devices to a Mac or PC, much like the USB connection standard. Indeed, Apple Inc. created FireWire as a direct competitor to USB. Sony
adopted it in all of their PCs. And so have many other PC manufacturers.

What makes FireWire special? Two words: data transfer. The high speed of FireWire has made it the standard of choice on digital camcorders since 1995, allowing the huge volume of digital data from these devices to be easily streamed to a computer for storage or editing.

A comparison of various transfer rates shows that FireWire is among the fastest of the commonly available methods for connecting devices to today’s computers.

The reason that there is a USB in almost every modern computer and FireWire only in a few is quite simple: until recently, Apple
demanded a small royalty for any computer to use FireWire. This meant that for mid- to low-end computers, FireWire added a little too much to the bottom line to implement. Besides, and this is important to remember, there wouldn’t be too many buyers who would use the port’s speed capabilities. Since manufacturers have to look at the bottom line in terms of pennies saved per computers built, installing the cheaper USB connections means decent savings on every system they make. Also, most of the external peripherals on the market today use USB 2.0 connections, so the choice is obvious.

Yet times are changing. The emergence of HDTV means that even more data is going to be moving to and from modern computer systems in the near future. Digital recordings will only grow in size, meaning that the systems used to transfer the data will need to be robust enough to handle the load. The upcoming USB 3.0 standard promises to create a pipeline big enough for quite some time to come, though again, it has the same limitations of older USB standards, depending on the host computer to control and run all the devices. Usually this is not an issue with modern multi-processor computers, but being able to offload control of devices like FireWire does means that the host computer need not waste any of its time controlling ‘dumb’ devices connected to it.

FireWire devices can be supply quite a lot more power than their USB cousins, directly through the FireWire interface: up to 30 volts of power at 45 watts. This means that many FireWire devices do not need external power supplies when plugged in, saving both fumbling with more cables and desktop space, too.

Another interesting difference between USB and FireWire devices is that FireWire devices can ‘talk’ to each other. They don’t need to use a host computer’s CPU or memory. They can be ‘daisy-chained’ together, allowing a scanner to talk to a printer, for example. Connection of a digital camcorder to a computer using FireWire allows the computer to control the camcorder’s various functions, depending on the software used. As well, one standard FireWire cable will let users link two computers in a network. No need for Ethernet cables or a router. Talk about cheap.

While the difference between USB 1.1 and 2.0 devices is simple to see and understand (hint: older USB devices are slower), FireWire comes in several flavours from different manufacturers. Sometimes called 1394a, the first version of FireWire maxes out at about 12.2 megabytes per second, and is commonly known as S100 FireWire. The most recent FireWire standard called S800 (or 1394b) allows data rates of up to 98.3 megabytes per second, almost triple the average throughput of ‘High Speed’ USB 2.0 ports. Sony calls their version of FireWire ‘i.Link’, and Panasonic names theirs ‘DV’ (not to be confused with DV digital camera tapes). All of them use FireWire to talk between devices.

The next computer you purchase may come with a FireWire port on it, though likely there will be many more USB ports on board, as well. Having the option of this high-speed data port is a good idea, though, given the rapidly advancing pace of technology standards.

Discovering that your amazing video footage will take hours to transfer from your camcorder to your computer is not a fun experience, where you could have been editing in minutes if there was a FireWire port available.

Hopefully, the arrival of the new USB 3.0 and FireWire S3200 standards will make data bottlenecks a thing of the past, as nobody likes to wait for their computer to catch up with them.