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
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.
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 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
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. 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?
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, 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.
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