Is FireWire dead?

There has been some speculation on the demise of FireWire.

Most of this is based around two facts:

  • Rumors that the Intel-based iBooks and PowerBooks wont have a FireWire port
  • Lack of FireWire support for new iPods

Although I’ve speculated myself before now about the features of the new Intel machines from Apple, I think it’s too early to tell what the port availability is going to be like.

For the second item, the fact that the iPod has lost FireWire connectivity probably has more to do with Apple trying to keep the costs down on an item which is probably already running fairly tight on margins. Since most modern machines (including Apple’s own) support USB 2.0, the fact that USB 2.0 is backwards compatible with USB ports probably has a lot to do with why they went USB only.

Add to the fact that even ten years on FireWire is stil comparatively rare on PCs, while all PCs now have USB and more frequently USB 2.0 ports and it’s not hard to see why USB has become the standard.

Lowest common denominator in compatibility makes for a much wider possible audience. Let’s face it, there’s a reason why you find very few FireWire *only* hard drives. Most companies selling external drives offer two options, USB/USB 2.0 only and USB/FireWire combos – the reason is simple. Everybody has USB and that makes their product compatible with a much wider audience.

More recently, large capacity external hard drives and RAID units have been moving to the SATA interface which is faster than both USB and FireWire 800. SATA/150 runs at 150MBps (approx. 1.2Gbps, compared to the 800 Mbps of FireWire 800, or 480Mbps of USB 2.0). SATA/300 doubles the rate to 2.4Gbps. In nearly all cases the choice in external storage now goes USB 2.0 at the low end, USB/Firewire combo in the mid and SATA at the top.

Before we take the iPod and external storage as the only reference point, let’s consider some other devices. The iSight has been a popular item for Mac users, especially when using iChat, and for most its been a FireWire device. But as this review states that the iSight built into the new iMac is a USB 2.0 based camera, not a FireWire device.

Another nail?

Possibly, but there’s one item that remains a FireWire device. The video camera. Most Digital Video (DV) cameras support a FireWire port so that you can download the content onto your computer (PC or Mac). Even in the professional world, FireWire (or i.Link) is the standard for transferring DV. Some cameras include a USB port, but it’s for streaming live content, usually at lower quality, rather than the quick high-quality transfer available with FireWire.

We also have announcements this, which definitely give FireWire a key role in the digital video stakes for a few years to come, for Apple and other companies.

It would seem highly unlikely, even given all the other factors, that Apple would drop the port that enables one of their key markets (video editing) and key applications (iMovie and iDVD) to be eliminated just for the sake of the few pounds they would save on including the FireWire port on their machines. You can’t even argue that they would remove the port from their consumer devices – it’s one of the key parts of their consumer offering.

The most likely scenario is that Apple will remove the 400MBps port and standardize on the FireWire 800 standard. With the right cable, it is FireWire 400 compatible. Who knows – we might even see a speed jump to FireWire 1600. The FireWire standard technically supports up to 3.2Gbps.

Ignore the rumors; they don’t apply any type of logic once you include digital video in the equation.

  1. It is not just video and film makers that leaving firewire out would effect but photographers also. Photographers don’t want to use the slower USB 2.0 for their external hard-drives. Also shooting with a camera tethered to the computer requires it be tethered by firewire. If Apple gets ride of firewire on their portables I don’t I could be more upset. But, I have learned not to take all the apple rumors to seriously.


  2. I had forgotten about digital cameras; but it makes it even more unlikely ;))

  3. Agreed.

  4. And what about booting from external drives? I was under the impression that one cannot boot from an external USB drive, whereas FW drives are bootable.

  5. Firewire is here to stay for all the reasons stated. Makes no sense to pull it from the new machines. Apple never tries to lowball their desktops/laptops.

    But having said that I was/am miffed at the drop of the FW on the iPods. (hence why Ibought an “older” model in the summer rather than a new colour one).

  6. I agree. USB and USB 2 will never cut it for high bandwidth data transfer. It is here to stay.

  7. Portable, bootable external drives have been a powerful tool for Mac experts for years. You can load one with multiple partitions, known good systems, and utilities, boot a target machine from the external, quickly test a known good OS, do diagnostics, do data recovery, run utilities, etc. Apple should keep the bootable external drive feature, whatever peripheral system they use. This article from June 2005 says that USB is not bootable: http://www.macworld.com/weblogs/editors/2005/06/usbharddrives/index.php.

  8. There’s no technical reason that USB2 external drives can’t be made bootable on the Mac… It just requires firmware/BIOS support. Newer PCs support this… I suspect the new Intel-based Macs will start supporting booting from an external USB drive.

  9. Don’t forget professional audio. USB 2.0 audio devices exist, but are hard to come by while Firewire devices are everywhere. Actually, I only know of one USB 2.0 pro audio device.

  10. Firewire is the choice of the newly formed HANA group (HD Audio/Video Network Alliance).



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