Connecting peripheral devices to your computer used to be a drag. Not only would you need extra cables and power cords but sometimes you'd also need to reboot your system and wait for it to respond each time you plugged in a new gadget. And, once connected, the transfer of data could be painfully slow. Thankfully, along came FireWire and Universal Serial Bus (USB): faster and easier to use replacements for serial and parallel ports.
We don't recommend one technology over the other, but if you're having trouble deciding which one is best for you, consider:
- What your computer supports without the need for upgrading.
- What you want from your peripheral. Generally speaking, FireWire is better suited to digital video tasks.
- Cost - there may be a significant price difference, depending on the gadget.
FireWire is the older of the two technologies. It began life in the mid-1980s as proprietary Apple technology designed to handle the transfer of large amounts of data. In 1995 it was adopted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) as an official industry standard for use in all types of computers and devices.
Officially named IEEE 1394, FireWire can transfer data at three different rates: 100, 200 and 400 megabits per second (Mbps).
Sony's version is known as i.LINK.
The next generation of FireWire, dubbed 1394b or FireWire 800, has already hit the market. It supports speeds up to 800Mbps.
USB was developed by IT companies including Compaq, DEC, Microsoft, Intel, NEC and Nortel in the early 90s. In 1995, the USB Implementers Forum was created and USB ports began appearing in computers a year later. Originally developed for lower-bandwidth gadgets such as keyboards and mouses, the first versions of USB are only slightly faster than serial and parallel ports. It wasn't until the USB 2.0 specification was introduced in 2000 that the technology became a viable competitor to FireWire.
USB 1.0 (low-speed) and USB 1.1 (full-speed) transfer data at up to 1.5Mpbs and 12Mbps respectively. USB 2.0 has a maximum transfer rate of 480Mbps, but it also supports the slower speeds.
Hi-Speed USB refers only to products that can handle data transmission at the maximum rate.
A new specification of USB is also in the pipeline: USB On-The-Go. It's an extension of USB 2.0 that includes peer-to-peer support. This means you'll be able to connect devices directly without the need for a computer. USB On-The-Go is expected to be popular for portable devices.
In addition to their fast speeds, FireWire and Hi-Speed USB share some other common characteristics:
- Plug and play connectivity: both standards allow you to plug and unplug devices without turning off or rebooting your computer.
- Both are compatible with Mac and Windows.
- Both guarantee a certain minimum data transfer rate. This is beneficial for time-sensitive data such as digital video, which can result in annoying gaps and pauses when it's transferred at low or inconsistent speeds.