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what is firewireConnectivity is a bit of a boring subject. It’s an important one however, because your PC doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s really just the centerpiece of a constellation of consumer electronics including digital cameras, external hard drives, thumb drives, smartphones and more.

Every device meant to communicate with a PC needs a method of connection. Most rely on USB, but FireWire is an alternative with a long history. Although less common, FireWire does have advantages when compared to other standards.

What is FireWire? Some History

what is firewire

The brainchild of Apple, the FireWire standard began its existence as a concept in the late 1980’s. The goal of the project was to create a relatively inexpensive, high-speed connection that was easy to use, but Apple did not originally intend for the technology to be used as a connection for external devices. FireWire was used by Apple and by other companies, such as Sony, for years until the standard was presented to the IEEE as a method of connecting external devices to a computer. FireWire was ratified in 1995, and it began appearing on Apple computers soon after.

FireWire quickly became popular on audio and video devices like digital camcorders. The reason for this popularity was the speed; the original FireWire 400 standard could achieve a data transfer rate of up to 400 Mbit/s. This left USB in the dust, as the first version of that standard could only manage a maximum data transfer rate of 12 Mbit/s.  The massive gap in capability made FireWire an obvious choice for anyone with the need to move big files.

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Speed continued to be FireWire’s advantage for over a decade. When USB 2.0 arrived packing a 480 Mbit/s transfer rate FireWire responded with the FireWire 800 standard, which boasted a 800 Mbit/s transfer rate. In addition, benchmarks The 5 Best Free Benchmark Programs for Windows The 5 Best Free Benchmark Programs for Windows There are many tools that promise to optimize or speed up your Windows computer, but how can you make sure the software did what it promised? Confirmation bias can make it very, very hard to... Read More consistently reported that FireWire was better able to sustain a high rate of transfer, giving FireWire a larger advantage than these numbers would suggest.

The Uses Of FireWire

what is a firewire port

FireWire connections are easy to distinguish from USB because they are smaller and tapered on one end, while USB is flat and rectangular. As said above, FireWire is most commonly found on audio and video devices like digital camcorders. It’s also common to find FireWire on external storage devices 4 Things You Need To Know When Buying A New Hard Drive 4 Things You Need To Know When Buying A New Hard Drive Read More . The main reason to use FireWire over USB is simply the connection speed. If you have a device that supports both FireWire and USB, you’re better off using the FireWire option – unless your device supports USB 3.0. I’ll explain more about that in a second.

In addition to simply connecting devices, FireWire can be used to set up ad-hoc networks. There are no routers; a direct FireWire connection will work and Firewire hubs can be used to split connections. However, Microsoft discontinued support for this feature in 2004, which means that the latest versions of Windows (Vista and Windows 7) do not support FireWire networking. Mac OS X and most variants of Linux continue to support this feature.

The Death Of Firewire?

what is firewire

The history of FireWire has been one of a capable underdog that never quite gets ahead of its competitor (USB, in this case) despite being generally superior. Unfortunately, this is a history that could soon come to a close.

USB 3.0 USB 3.0: Everything You Need to Know USB 3.0: Everything You Need to Know USB 3.0 beats USB 2.0 in so many ways. Here's everything you need to know about why you should always pick USB 3.x when possible. Read More , which is slowly filtering into the market as it is added to new devices and new PC motherboards, has a theoretical peak transfer rate of 5 Gbit/s.  This astonishingly high figure is well in excess of what Firewire can currently manage, which makes FireWire’s future uncertain. FireWire has continued to exist solely because it offers a higher data transfer rate than USB. With that advantage gone, the purpose of FireWire remains unclear.

That’s not to say that FireWire is guaranteed to become extinct, but the standard will have to be revised substantially if it is to compete with USB 3.0. FireWire may also have to tangle with Light Peak, Intel’s prototype optical standard that is aiming at sustained transfer speeds of 10 Gbit/s. It’s unclear when Light Peak will become available, but any future revisions to FireWire would likely want to take aim at Light Peak rather than USB 3.0.

Image Credits: TweakTown

  1. Mike
    February 12, 2011 at 12:24 am

    I guess it's for the better you left it out ~ it probably would have gotton way to technical to explain it.

    Some of the reasons don't even apply anymore.
    For example with PCI-Express you have the distributation of 12V all across the mainboard. In comparison when USB started to grow you used to have conventional PCI Slots which are 3.3V or 5V hence it favoured the use of USB.

  2. Mike
    February 11, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    From what I know the Target Disk Modus is independent from the interface. My guess is it was a "design" decision not to offer it via USB [probably because the speed is insufficient for thousends of small files].

    I think the main reason why FireWire is dying are the expenses for the interface on mainboards. Onboard, FireWire usually offers 1.25A/12V while USB is 500mA/5V. This makes the entire interface less expensive and easier to implement (smaller lanes and transistors, less heat).

    I think the biggest loss with FireWire is the daisy chain ability. That's where USB [or any other interface] has to come up with a similar solution.

    • M.S. Smith
      February 11, 2011 at 5:48 pm

      I ran into the cost issue as well in my research for this post. I decided I probably shouldn't go into it in my article, but it would help explain why FireWire didn't become dominant even when it was blowing USB's transfer speeds away.

      • Mike
        February 11, 2011 at 11:24 pm

        I guess it's for the better you left it out ~ it probably would have gotton way to technical to explain it.

        Some of the reasons don't even apply anymore.
        For example with PCI-Express you have the distributation of 12V all across the mainboard. In comparison when USB started to grow you used to have conventional PCI Slots which are 3.3V or 5V hence it favoured the use of USB.

  3. Habib Alamin
    February 11, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    What about FireWire 1600 and 3200? Though, that's unimportant. Apple backs Light Peak. They will likely ditch FireWire if Light Peak supports TDM, like FireWire. And I will support. Apple is always first to ditch ageing technologies. FireWire doesn't need to compete.

    • M.S. Smith
      February 11, 2011 at 5:26 pm

      Yea, you answered your own question ;) FireWire could compete, but it needs to have someone driving it that wants it to compete, and there no longer seems to be anyone at the wheel.

  4. Mike
    February 11, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    From what I know the Target Disk Modus is independent from the interface. My guess is it was a "design" decision not to offer it via USB [probably because the speed is insufficient for thousends of small files].

    I think the main reason why FireWire is dying are the expenses for the interface on mainboards. Onboard, FireWire usually offers 1.25A/12V while USB is 500mA/5V. This makes the entire interface less expensive and easier to implement (smaller lanes and transistors, less heat).

    I think the biggest loss with FireWire is the daisy chain ability. That's where USB [or any other interface] has to come up with a similar solution.

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