BOOT CAMP 248 (22/10/02)


All About FireWire


When it comes to connecting devices like printers, scanners and digital cameras to your PC or laptop the Universal Serial Bus or USB is the most popular method. Generally speaking it does a pretty good job but the existing USB 1 standard can only transfer data at a maximum of 12 megabits per second (Mb/s), which is just not fast enough for the new generation of high capacity storage devices and multimedia peripherals. The new USB 2 standard, currently being introduced can operate at speeds of up to 480 Mb/s (see Boot Camp 247) but it’s a bit of a Johnny-come-lately and a perfectly good connection system capable of shifting data at speeds of up to 400Mb/s has been available for some years and is widely used on products like digital camcorders and latterly on external disc drives and CD and DVD writers.


The unglamorously named IEEE 1394 serial connection system was devised back in 1995 by Apple, which wisely renamed it ‘FireWire’. In 2001 it had the rare distinction of being awarded an Emmy Engineering Award for its impact on the television industry. Three years ago Sony managed to confuse matters by calling it ‘iLink’, but rest assured IEEE 1394, FireWire and iLink are one and the same.


USB and FireWire have several things in common. They’re both ‘hot swappable’ so you don’t have to reboot or reconfigure the PC when you connect or remove a device. In addition to data both connection systems carry a low voltage DC supply, to provide power to small devices and like USB 2, there’s an even faster version in the pipeline called IEEE 1394b, which can operate at speeds in excess of 800Mb/s. To put that into context that would mean being able to copy the contents of a CD-ROM in a little over a second! The first PCs and peripherals to use the new standard should be available within the next twelve months.


You can easily identify a FireWire socket they look a little like miniature USB connectors. There are two styles with 4 and 6-pins; the 6-pin plug has a bevelled edge and carries both power and data whilst the smaller 4-pin connector has flat edges and is for data only. Most PCs and laptops use the standard 6-pin socket whilst devices like digital camcorders that have their own power supplies, have a 4-pin socket. When buying FireWire peripherals make sure you get the right lead, which in the case of something like a digital camcorder would be a 6-pin to 4-pin adaptor cable. By the way, the maximum recommended length for a FireWire cable is 4.5 metres but 10 metre high-performance cables are now available.


FireWire connections are still comparatively scarce on desktop PCs (Apple machines excepted) but they are becoming quite common on laptops and again it is Apple that is leading the way. However, you can easily add a FireWire port to almost any PC with a 400MHz or faster processor running Windows 98 or above with a simple card adaptor that slots into a vacant PCI socket on the motherboard; prices start at under £30. In the case of a laptop you will need a credit-card sized PC-Card (PCMCIA) adaptor and these can be found selling for less than £60.


So what is it good for? A growing number of high speed external disc drives, DVD/CD writers and networking components are coming on to the market but at the moment FireWire is mostly used by video movie-makers, for transferring footage recorded on a digital camcorder to a PC for editing and post production. The main advantage of this method is that the recording can be edited and copied back to the camcorder (or a digital video recorder) without any loss of quality. Unfortunately not all digicams sold in this country have the necessary facility to record from a FireWire input. This is due to a bizarre EU directive, which classifies camcorders with an external recording mode as VCRs and subject to restrictions and higher import tariffs. Fortunately many models can have their FireWire inputs ‘enabled’ using a simple plug-in adaptor or special remote control. 


FireWire is now an established and successful standard thanks largely to its adoption by digital camcorder manufacturers, but it could have been even more widely used. There were plans to use it as a common connection system for a variety of home entertainment products, most of which now rely on digital technology, such as satellite and terrestrial television, DVD players and recorders, digital video recorders and not forgetting Compact Disc. However, in almost all cases they can only be linked together – so called ‘convergence’ – by converting the digital information into a lower quality analogue format. FireWire would have been the ideal system to bring all of these technologies together and but plans to use it were scuppered by fears that it would be used to create high quality digital ‘clones’ of copyright audio and video material.


Next week – Top Ten Traumas





Usually pronounced ‘eye triple e’ the IEEE is the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, a global organisation responsible for establishing and policing technical standards



The main printed circuit board inside a PC, containing the processor chip memory modules and plug-in expansion cards or ‘daughter’ boards



Personal Computer Memory Card International Association. Body responsible for PC card standards. PC cards are credit card sized modules (but a little thicker) used in laptops for modems, memory expansion and other peripherals



The excellent Adaware ( continues to do a sterling job of ridding PCs of adware and spyware nasties that creep in on the back of web pages but if you‘re determined to keep your machine free of infection then it’s worth running another cleanup utility called Spybot, which manages to find even more of the little pests hiding away inside your Registry and program files. It’s also very quick and easy to configure, it’s freeware, the download ‘zip’ file is just over 1 Mb and it can be found at:

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