Put A Little Fire(Wire) In Your Life

Many new technologies are nothing more than minor tweaks of old technologies, which upon closer inspection turn out to be rather ho-hum. But now and then, something neat comes along—such as IEEE 1394, also known as FireWire or Sony iLINK.

Okay, I realize FireWire isn't, strictly speaking, a new technology. But when FireWire was a new technology, I gave it a few tries and was sorely disappointed. In 1999, I reviewed several FireWire adapters for PCs and found them expensive and the Windows NT drivers buggy. A year later, a second look at those FireWire adapters revealed that none of them ran well under Windows 2000, either. But in late 2001, the situation changed. The FireWire boards that had once cost $400 now cost $40. Whereas early Win2K and NT 4.0 drivers made installation a nightmarish experience, new chipsets and better drivers make installing FireWire adapters on Windows XP and Win2K systems childishly simple. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I purchased three different FireWire adapters, plugged them all into PCI slots in my XP workstation, turned on the computer—and they all worked.

So FireWire isn't new, but I'm writing this piece because the technology seems new to so many people whom I speak to; I hope to intrigue those of you who haven't looked at the technology in a while into reconsidering. If you're not using FireWire, here's a simplified reason why you want to use it: Take the speed of SCSI drives, add the ease of installation of a well-designed USB device, and you've got FireWire.

In the past 2 years, I've found FireWire's combination of speed and ease of installation extremely useful. How many of you really love opening up your system's case to add or change a hard disk? Have you considered buying a new type of drive, perhaps a DVD burner, but declined because you'd have to install it? FireWire can help.

Of course, FireWire's not the only game in town if you want hot Plug and Play (PnP) convenience: You also have USB 2.0 and USB 1.1. USB is the predominant interface for PnP devices, but the technology is still relatively slow. USB 1.1 is 25 to 40 times slower than FireWire, which runs at up to 400Mbps. (FireWire cables shouldn't exceed 4.5 meters in length, and you can daisy-chain up to 16 FireWire devices.) USB 2.0 greatly improves upon USB 1.1's speed, but my tests show that it's still 20 percent slower than FireWire, although that might just be a matter of chipsets and drivers. In the not-too-distant future, USB 2.0 devices likely will be as fast or faster than FireWire. At that point, USB 2.0 might be an attractive alternative to FireWire if for no other reason than you can plug a USB 2.0 device into an older USB 1.1 port and get it to work, albeit much more slowly than through a USB 2.0 port.

If I've whetted your interest in FireWire, then let me caution you about the one thing that drives FireWire users nuts—the four-wire versus six-wire difference. To use FireWire devices, you need a FireWire adapter on your computer—but you might already have one. For years, Sony has incorporated a FireWire adapter on its laptops but has cleverly disguised the fact by calling it not a FireWire or IEEE 1394 adapter but an iLINK port. The original IEEE 1394 standard includes six wires—four for data transfer and two for power. Adding power to the FireWire interface was a smart move; it means that vendors can offer devices that require power but that don't need separate power "bricks." Some vendors offer a four-wire FireWire version that lacks power; the iLINK is an example, and many people use the term "iLINK" interchangeably with "four-wire FireWire." Whatever you call it, four-wire FireWire appeals to vendors because the four-wire connection is physically smaller than the six-wire connection and therefore fits more easily on portable devices, and not having to provide power simplifies engineering the connection. Four-wire FireWire and six-wire FireWire devices can communicate with one another with no trouble, and you can purchase four-to-four, six-to-six, and four-to-six wire FireWire cables and adapters. However, some four-wire to four-wire connections are incompatible.

For example, I have an incredibly small Smartdisk FireFly 5GB FireWire hard disk that uses no batteries or power adapters—you just plug it into a six-wire FireWire port. That's unfortunate, because most laptops with FireWire have four-wire ports. You can only use FireWire for four-wire to four-wire connections if both devices are powered. How, then, can I connect my laptop to a FireFly? I can't, unless I add power to the FireWire chain somewhere—and you can, using a powered FireWire hub.

If you've been thinking about upgrading your storage or backup devices and SCSI looks fast but a bit ugly to set up, or if you work with digital video technologies, give FireWire a look. I suspect you'll become a FireWire fan!

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