FireWire is the odd man out in the computer peripheral derby.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
On the periphery: What peripherals are, Part 2: FireWire

Jan. 28, 2007

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, The Post-Standard

   Sometimes names make sense. As we saw last week, the name of the common connection method for computers -- Universal Serial Bus -- is a perfect example of proper nomenclature.
   USB is "universal" (everybody uses it), has a "serial" nature (stuff flows in strict order) and is a computer "bus" (a pathway for stuff going to and from the computer).
   So then why, if USB is such a universal invention, used by everyone in the Apple and Windows world, would you have to face disaster when you buy a new Mini-DV camcorder? Many videophiles find out that the digital camcorder they bought isn't a USB-thingamabob at all. It has a different kind of connector to get videos off the camcorder.
   Worse yet, instead of bearing a friendly name like USB, the connector has a name that even geeks don't understand. It's IEEE 1394. And if you're a Windows user, you have more bad news coming. When you ask about IEEE 1394, you're told it's actually an "Apple thing."
   What's going on here?
   That "1394" thing is called FireWire. For years, Apple's Macintosh computers have sported FireWire connectors. This has enabled Macs to do a few things that Windows PCs can't usually do.
   It's true that FireWire is an Apple technology, but many others in other companies helped out. Apple had so much help, in fact, that the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers -- the IEEE -- gave FireWire the name IEEE 1394. (Maybe they wanted to keep it dull and unexciting. Good thing they didn't work for Ben & Jerry's. Imagine Cherry Garcia being sold as "6108.")
   So when Windows users talk about this connection method, they might say "1394." Mac users will say "FireWire." That's all fine except for the fact that PCs are often made as cheaply as possible, so they usually don't have any 1394 (or FireWire) connections, which cost a bit -- maybe $15 extra on each computer.
   FireWire is the odd man out in the computer peripheral derby. It ended up in all Apple Mac computers because it allowed fast transfers between a Mini-DV camcorder and the computer. Just stick one end of a FireWire cable into the camcorder and the other end into the computer, and the computer gets all that data quickly.
   Mini-DV camcorders capture an outlandish amount of data for every minute of video, so FireWire was the big boost amateur video needed. When Apple introduced FireWire 12 years ago, amateur videographers had a way to start editing their video recordings easily, too, because they could get it into their computers right away. Once video is on a computer (in DV, or Digital Video, form), it can be edited and turned into DVDs.
   FireWire turned out to be great for another use. With the invention of FireWire, Mac owners started connecting up multiple FireWire hard drives simply by plugging in the first drive to the computer, the second drive to the first one, the third to the second, and so on.
   This daisy-chain method of connections is much different from the way USB drives are hooked up. Each USB device has to be connected directly to a hub or to the computer, and can't be plugged into another USB device.
   FireWire was a hare compared to the turtle of USB, too. USB (officially called USB 1.1) couldn't win a race even if nothing else was entered -- that is, until the engineers behind USB dreamed up USB 2, which brought USB speeds up to the level of FireWire.
   It might seem odd to add that with all those wonderful attributes, FireWire seems to be losing ground. Even Apple, father of FireWire, took FireWire off all its iPods in favor of USB connectors. And external drives with USB 2 connectors are a lot easier to find than such drives with FireWire connectors.
   It's sad, to be sure. But if you're going to head off into the twilight, you might as well do it sitting tall in the saddle, and that describes FireWire perfectly.