Speedy Firewire deserves more than a quick glance

first published in Business in Vancouver, Issue #614, July 31, 2001 The high-tech office column


In some parallel universe, computers would be easily expandable. Just plug your add-on device onto a port on the computer -- and it works.

In this universe, it hasn't been quite so simple. Traditionally, Macs had a SCSI (pronounced "scuzzy") interface, which sort of worked as it would in our fantasy, except that all too often it didn't.

PCs were worse, requiring popping open the case and fussing with microscopic jumpers and switches.

Lately, it's improved. PCs and Macs have started using Universal Serial Bus, making it possible to plug up to 127 gizmos without even having to turn the computer off. At least that's the theory.

The biggest limitation to USB has been bandwidth. Its 12 Mb/sec speed must have seemed plenty fast when it was first designed. After all, that's 12 times as fast as a PC's parallel port and 100 times as fast as a serial port.

But as users started plugging even a few devices into the same USB port, that bandwidth quickly got used up. It's not a problem for slow devices such as keyboards and mice. But network adapters or speakers easily hog all that speed on their own. And then what happens when you try to scan or print?

At the same time that USB was being developed, Apple was creating a different, but much more powerful standard. With bandwidth up to 400 Mb/sec, it has plenty of oomph for digital video, hard drives, high-speed networking and other applications that are just too fast for USB. And, like USB, it's easy to install devices, even hot-swapping them -- plugging them in or out while the computer is running.

Despite its obvious appeal, the Apple standard has been slower to catch on. Some of that's due to its name. Or names. Apple calls it Firewire, but that name is proprietary. Sony calls its version Ilink. Others often refer to it by the less-than-sexy IEEE 1394. To add to the confusion, it hasn't been built into PC motherboards and hasn't been supported by Microsoft's operating systems. Although it would add only about $5 to the manufacturing cost of a PC (Apple charges a modest $0.25 licensing fee), the price-sensitive PC industry has mostly ignored it, even though every digital camcorder has been ready to connect to Firewire-capable computers for a couple of years.

And that has caused a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma: device manufacturers haven't wanted to market Firewire gadgets when there were few Firewire-capable computers. And hardware manufacturers and Microsoft could safely ignore the standard, citing a lack of devices and consumer demand.

As it earlier did with USB, Apple jumpstarted the market. Hoping that digital video would be the "killer app" that would boost hardware sales, they added Firewire across their product line, along with easy-to-use video production software called iMovie.

The result has been a sharp increase in availability of all sorts of Firewire devices (with both Mac and PC support): portable hard drives; CD, DVD and other removable drives; scanners; and more. (See my Gear Guide column in this week's Currentz section for examples.) And Firewire (excuse me, IEEE 1394) is starting to show up on PCs, desktops as well as high-end notebooks. Look for Firewire (and USB) ports on the front as well as on the back, which is much more convenient if you're frequently plugging and unplugging things such as video cameras.

You can also add Firewire to your existing PC or Mac. Cardbus Firewire cards (costing $150-$200) are easy to plug into most notebooks, and PCI card versions (such as ATI's $79 DV Wonder) can add two or three Firewire ports to standard desktop PCs and Macs.

USB fans are fighting back, announcing a USB 2.0 standard with Firewire-like speed. But that's still in the promises stage. Firewire is here now, and takes us several steps closer to that fantasy universe of easily expandable computers.


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan