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64. Firewire speeds up connections

By Mark Alberstat

When it comes to computing and peripherals, most people want things faster - faster modems, faster connections and faster throughput. Faster is not always needed, but it is one of the factors pushing today's marketplace.

Firewire is one technology that is gaining popularity in a variety of sectors of the computer industry. It is a high-speed, hot-swappable peripheral interface. That definition alone is enough to turn some people off, but in effect it is similar to our now familiar USB ports, found on most computers built within the last few years, or easily added with an add-in card.

Firewire allows you to connect various peripherals to your personal computer through a thin data cable. One of the attractive aspects of Firewire technology is that it allows you to connect many devices to your computer with data transfer speeds of up to 400 Mbps (megabits per second).

This speed is considerably faster than USB 2.0. In fact, it is about twice as fast. The next generation of Firewire is already on the horizon, doubling its existing speed to 800 Mbps.

Before Firewire came along, computer users had a limited number of choices for peripheral connectivity. Printers were usually hooked up via a slow, but robust, parallel cable.

Later, USB (Universal Serial Bus) was developed, and still widely used because of its "hot plug" or "hot swappable" capability.

This is the ability to plug a peripheral into your computer without rebooting the machine. USB, however, is limited to about 12Mbps.

Another, but much less utilized, connectivity method is SCSI (Small Computer System Interface). This type of connection scheme never really caught on very widely due to its more complex and expensive setup.

All Firewire devices adhere to the internationally defined 1394 IEEE standard. Among the definitions laid out in this standard is that a device can be connected to the computer as long as it is within 4.5 metres.

In addition, each chain may have up to 16 devices along it, so, in theory, a device could be as far away as 72 metres and still function as cleanly as it does if it were a few centimetres away.

The primary users of Firewire are system-hungry applications and hardware such as digital cameras, DVD recorders, digital camcorders and some multi-media systems.

These types of applications and hardware like Firewire because they can take advantage of Firewire's speed and its ability to move large amounts of data over a relatively quick period of time.

Two of the main disadvantages to Firewire is that most PCs don't come from the factory with Firewire ports and that many devices on the market today are not being built with Firewire capability.

Instead they are staying with the more common USB interface.

Despite your PC not coming with a Firewire port, adding one is fairly simple. All you need is an open PCI slot and a Firewire card.

Today, the cards cost about $30-50. Smaller format Firewire cards are also available for laptop computers.

If you are looking for optimum performance from your peripherals, and can find those you want with a Firewire option, this may be the connectivity solution you are searching for.

The Mousepad runs every two weeks. It's a service of Chebucto Community Net, a community-owned Internet provider. If you have a question about computing, email If we use your question in a column, we'll send you a free mousepad.


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Originally published 17 July 2005


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