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The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury
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The Seduction of Place by Joseph Rykwert
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The Confusion by Neal Stephenson
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Michael Jennings Extra

Sunday, July 25, 2004
All about Firewire

As I have mentioned on this blog, I recently built a PC for my landlady. As it happened, my landlady recently bought a digital video camera. This was not quite the latest model, which mean that it could only be connected to a PC using a Firewire (IEEE 1394) port. As she saw it, this presented a problem, as the computer I had built did not have a Firewire port.

Now the history of the Firewire bus is essentially as follows. In the mid 1990s two standards were invented for multi-purpose serial buses that were more versatile and allowed higher speed connections than the various ports on the backs of older computers. Microsoft and Intel invented the USB Port, and Apple invented the Firewire port. The USB port could handle connection speeds of up to 12Mbps. However, the Firewire port was designed for much higher speeds, up to 400Mbps. Since then, there has only really been one application for which speeds of higher than 12Mbps are needed, which is for transmitting digital video. (It may well be that this application is what encouraged Apple to develop a higher speed bus when they did, because people who do video editing mostly use Macs). As probably the leading manufacturer of both consumer and professional video cameras, Sony followed soon afterwards, although they confusingly use the very Apple sounding name "iLink" to refer to the same standard.

The USB standard took off for most applications, and it is what we use today for connecting printers, scanners, digital still cameras and the like to our PCs. Many of us use it to connect keyboards, mice, and even microphones and speakers. Within a couple of years most computers will not have the RS-232 Serial, Centronics Parallel, and PS-2 mouse and keyboard ports that computers have had for a very long time, and they will instead have even more USB ports than they do today. (Modern laptops have pretty much reached this point already. The reason for this is that the design of most laptop motherboards is entirely up to the manufacturer, whereas manufacturers of desktop motherboards comply with the ATX standard in order to make sure they are compatible with the hardware of everybody else, and the ATX standard requires all the old ports. However, the transition to the BTX standard (which does not require all the old ports) has begun, and once it gets going the ports will go as this will mean simpler chipsets and motherboard design.

However, the 12Mbps USB standard was not adequate for digital video, and therefore people who bought digital video cameras had to have Firewire ports, even in the PC world. Some motherboard manufacturers put Firewire on the motherboard, but this did not become universal, and it still has not become universal.

For a mixture of intellectual property reasons and costs, Firewire did not get integrated into standard PC chipsets (as USB did) so people wanting to put Firewire on a motherboard had to put a separate controller on the motherboard and pay a royalty to Apple. And some did, but most didn't. Firewire became less crucial a couple of years ago when version 2.0 of USB became standard on PCs. USB 2.0 can provide speeds of up to 480Mbps, and many modern digital video cameras thus support USB 2.0 as well as or instead of Firewire. So for that reason, the need for Firewire is perhaps less pressing than it was. On the other hand, the simple number of people streaming digital video in or out of their computers has increased, meaning more demand for Firewire, and one of the most successful PC peripherals to have been invented in recent years is the Apple iPod, and being an Apple invention, it works better with Firewire than USB. Also, there is a new version of Firewire (IEEE 1394b) which provides a faster speed of 800Mbps, and even newer versions that provide speeds up to as much as 3200Mbps will be around shortly, although some of these will need optical cables). So Firewire probably isn't going away, but it is not universal either, and pressure for it to be universal isn't overwhelming.

Which is why the motherboard I used to build a PC for my landlady did not have Firewire onboard. And of course it doesn't greatly matter that many PC motherboards and PCs do not come with Firewire as standard, as it is easy enough to buy a Firewire PCI card and add Firewire ports later. As the motherboard in question had six PCI slots, there was plenty of room on which to add such a card. If I knew she was getting a digital video camera I would have either suggested getting a USB 2.0 capable camera, or I would have simply put a PCI Firewire card in the machine when I built it.

But, as it happened, I didn't do any of this, and it was thus necessary for me to add a Firewire card last week. No trouble. A quick check on online stores allowed me to buy a Firewire PCI card with a Firewire cable for £13.95 including postage and handling. It came in the mail a couple of days later, I plugged it in, and bingo, the computer and camera could talk to one another.

Which was great.
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