What is FireWire and should I have it?

Question

What is FireWire and should I have it?

- Artie

Answer

This question was answered on March 26, 2003. Much of the information contained herein may have changed since posting.

FireWire is Apple’s trademark name for a technology that they developed in 1986 known as IEEE 1394 It is basically a very high-speed method of connecting external devices to a computer Other companies have trades names such as iLink and Lynx for the same technology

Some devices that greatly benefit from this high-speed data rate (400Mbps) include MP3 players, digital video cameras, external DVD burners and external hard drives If you have an external music device, such as Apple’s iPod MP3 player, the amount of time that it takes to load the thousands of songs that can be stored on it is dramatically reduced (Apple claims it can transfer a song a second!)

Windows based systems have a similar technology called USB 2.0 (Universal Serial Bus) which also has a high data transfer rate (480Mbps) that is designed for the much the same use.

Which technology is best for your use depends mostly on what you want to connect to your computer Even though the theoretical rated speed of FireWire is lower, in virtually every test that I have ever seen published it is noticeably faster in reality because of several factors including the overhead that it takes to operate.

The device that you want to connect to your computer will generally determine which interface you should use, because very few peripherals come with both connectors (It’s usually one or the other.)

To add to the confusion, a newer version of FireWire known as IEEE 1394b (or FireWire 800 because of its 800Mbps transfer rate) is just hitting the market.

If you are interested in working with digital video from a camcorder, FireWire is going to be the best choice because the transfer rate for video is critical so you don’t lose frames during the transfer In most Windows XP based systems you will have to install a special card since most don’t currently come equipped with the port.

If you live in the MacOS world, FireWire is your standard and if you live in the Windows world, USB is your standard If the time savings that is associated with increased speed is not important to you, than you probably have no use for either interface.

If you have an older system that only has USB 1.1, your transfer rate is a measly 12Mbps, which is fine for keyboards, mice and speakers, but it is excruciatingly slow for video or audio transfer, so upgrading to one or both of the high-speed interfaces is likely in your future.

Newer computers that put a ‘multimedia’ moniker on the box will often come with both USB 2.0 and FireWire connectors If you are in the market for a new computer and you think that audio and video will be a big part of your computing experience, try to get both of these interfaces so you are ready to connect virtually any external device (for the foreseeable future that is!)

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Posted by Ken of Data Doctors on March 26, 2003