Blog Post

FireWire R.I.P?

Although I finally have a new PowerBook on the way, up until now I have owned nothing more powerful than an 800Mhz iBook G3. My other machine, bought second hand subsequently, is a 400Mhz iMac G3. And whilst, courtesy of no less than three logic board failures (two in the space of less than a month), I have no love for the iBook, the iMac is a solid machine. But because of the age of both of these, they are both firmly stuck in USB 1.0 land.

But both of them do have a FireWire port. Actually, the iMac manages to cram in two in that little panel on the right hand side – you know, the one with the upside-down USB connectors. With 2G iPod and external hard disk in tow, I have enjoyed the benefits of its lightning fast speeds even on machines as antique as these. In fact, FireWire has proved speedy enough for me to configure a 14″ iBook which boots from an external drive, and Mac mini performance whores are recommended to do the same to overcome the sluggish speeds that are caused by the 4200rpm laptop-class drive within. FireWire, in short, is quick, and I love it because of that.

USB 2 has, of course, become commonplace since these machines first hit the shelves, and provides eminently acceptable performance for most needs. Despite claimed speeds of 480 Mbps, it’s certainly not as quick as FireWire 400 (to say nothing of FireWire 800), but the significance here is in the acceptability. The fact is that for most users – who do little more than watch a DivX video, play some MP3s or view some photos – USB 2 is more than good enough. Why would they pay extra for a FireWire drive?

When the iPod came out, as well as its then impressively diminutive size, its ultra-fast transfer speeds soon became an impressive selling point. Whilst most MP3 players at that time contained about 64MB of memory and used USB 1 as their interface, Apple – producing the ultimate MP3 player – used FireWire. It made sense – all their Macs had it, and it was ridiculously fast for the time.

With the passage of time, much has changed. Apple no longer really pushes the iPod as much of a premium product, something which is perhaps most evident from its pricing – I paid £330 for a 10Gb iPod in August 2002; three years on, a roughly equivalent 20Gb iPod costs £209). With this, Apple has had to take a pragmatic approach to compatibility, introducing USB connectivity, then charging over USB, then removing the FireWire cable from the package and finally, with the iPod nano, removing FireWire connectivity altogether.

Why? Why would they do this? Why would Steve let this happen?

It’s simple, of course. Apple wants to kill FireWire.

Right. Yes, that’s it.

Try this. Go to an Apple Shop. Pick up an iPod nano. Marvel at its minuscule size. Maybe buy one. Then head on over to Ars Technica and examine their post-stress test autopsy. Examine it closely.

Strikes me that there is not an awful lot of spare space on the iPod nano’s circuit board. Would it not be prudent – given that “everyone” has a USB 2 port but not everyone has a FireWire port – to strip out any unnecessary elements? Like, say, a FireWire controller?

More importantly, perhaps, are the cost implications. Given the now fierce competition in the MP3 player market, and the considerable drop in the price of the iPod (as illustrated above), sacrifices have had to be made. Manufacturing has moved from Taiwan to China (and quality has dropped as a result). And given that FireWire external hard disks always cost more than their equivalent size USB 2 counterparts, something which is at least partly due to the cost of the controller, cutting FireWire from the nano seems a pretty obvious choice.

Finally – and this applies more generally to the iPod line – is the issue of need. I pointed out earlier that USB 2 is more than sufficient to satisfy the needs of most users. Indeed, I can think of people who are quite happy with USB 1.0 for iPod syncing. Simply put, now that we have USB 2, FireWire is over the top, especially given the slow speed of the hard disks and flash memory on which iPods store your music and data.

So we don’t need FireWire for the iPod anymore. I can hear the clacking of a thousand keyboards as cynical Apple types prepare obituaries for what they see as the inevitable.

But this is probably a little hasty. Get rid of FireWire, and the film industry will let out more than just a little whine. FireWire is the de-facto interface for high-speed data transfer of video to the computer, for amateurs and professionals alike. Record your work on a DV camera, stream it into iMovie or Final Cut Pro using FireWire and probably out onto an external hard disk, again using FireWire. Graphic designers use FireWire scanners and save their work onto external FireWire hard disks. Sound engineers record audio using FireWire-connected audio sources and save to FireWire hard disks. USB 2, because of its comparatively poor performance, will never make real inroads into the professional segment of the market, and is still not as universal as FireWire in the lower end (for DV).

And as if to ensure FireWire’s superiority over USB, not long after USB 2 emerged Apple started shipping Power Mac G5s with FireWire 800. Now the (larger) PowerBooks have it too. Kinda leaves the USB folk standing in the dust…

13 Responses to “FireWire R.I.P?”

  1. I agree with Gareth. You can read my opinion on this subject in my own weblog.

    What Gareth had done in his article was to play the “devil’s advocate”. You know tongue-in-cheek.

    I my weblog I have also addressed some of the unfounded concerns that individuals had regarding the need to upgrade their computer to support USB 2.0 and the fact that Apple made this decision based on the fact that there are more Windows users using the iPod®

  2. macFanDave

    I have a strange feeling this is true, especially since the developer of the rival technology, Intel, is now on OUR side.

    I just got a replacement hard drive and put it in my FireWire enclosure. I could neither erase nor partition it using Disk Utility. I put it in my combo FireWire/USB2.0 enclosure and the story was the same with FireWire, but IT WORKED WITH USB2.0!!!

    I don’t know why this happened, but it sure suggests that Apple is trying to move people to USB2.0.

  3. Scott,

    Really? I can’t say I’ve ever tried so I have no experience either way, but if a PC can boot from USB, then why can’t a Mac? Seems slightly surprising, although it would be painfully slow.

    Ah yes, and Target Disk Mode. How I love thee, who have saved me on so many an occasion. :P Good point.


  4. Scott Rose

    FOLKS! The most important reason that FireWire will NEVER go away is because you can BOOT off of FireWire drives, and start them up in target FireWire mode. You cannot boot off of USB drives! So unless Apple plans on making their Migration Assistant obsolete, FireWire is going nowhere.

  5. Matt,

    I don’t think Apple will replace FireWire 400 with 800, or at least not for a very long time (certainly not as soon as the Intel switch), because, as you may be aware, the connectors are different. Unlike with USB, where both USB 1.0 and USB 2 use the same connector, for FireWire 800, a different connector has been adopted. So you can’t just plug your old hard disks and scanners in.

    It’s probably not too much hassle, and it’s not like FireWire ports take up an enormous amount of space on either the back or the front of the machine, so I can see FireWire 400 hanging around for quite a while, being joined, gradually, by FireWire 800 on all models.


  6. My guess is that they will eventually be replacing firewire 400 with 800 on all the intel macs, because to transfer lots of video quickly, you’ll want a firewire 800 ipod. Since usb2 is found on lots of windows machines as well as on the , it makes sense to keep usb2.

    Plus there is always the “lets get them to by a new computer” mentality at apple.

    I bought my second mac just so I could get the original iPod (to replace my rio, which I was using with SoundJam). I had a 266 imac at the time which only had usb. Man, to think they went from where they were then to where they are now!

  7. Well, I suppose we’ll see.

    My point wasn’t just for reasons of space, but also cost. As I said, the cost of the iPod has been dramatically reduced in the past couple of years, and sacrifices have been made. At the end of the day, I see little point in sticking a FireWire bus on the end of a 1.5″ hard disk – it just doesn’t have the throughput.

    Now if there were a really “premium” iPod – say, er, the PowerPod, if that didn’t sound so lame – then perhaps that would use FireWire, etc. It’s also plausible that any video iPod will incorporate FireWire, because once you start talking about 700 MB files, the time difference becomes more significant.

    The only case that one could really make for FireWire in iPods these days is to allow users of older Macs (such as myself) to enjoy high speed transfers to and from the devices. But given that we are a fast-dwindling minority, I wouldn’t expect them to devote much time/money/attention to this.


  8. I apologise for not having taken in the obviously not-so-subtle irony… I’m ashamed to say I’m from the same side of the pond as you, so really no excuse.

    I still differ from you that firewire will be expunged from the ipod line, since the nano’s lack of firewire can equally be attributed to mitigating reasons of tight space, as to wanting to rid the ipod line of it. Therefore I don’t think the nano constitutes reliable evidence of your viewpoint.

    Surely it would disappoint a whole lot more ipod users to remove firewire compatibility from the premium ipod line? In my view, that would be an unwise strategy, and for what gain?

  9. Ah.

    Now I see the issue.

    I never suggested that Apple was trying to kill FireWire. You will, of course, point to the line where I say “Apple is trying to kill FireWire” and add that I said just that.

    The italics – and the conversational follow on, being “Right. Yes. That’s it.” – were intended to convey sarcasm. In Britain, when a statement is so ridiculous it is unbelievable, it can be stated (and perhaps italicised to make the underlying intent clear) and readers will understand that the opposite is meant. This is – I must say – the first time I have fallen afoul of this little cultural sticking point. That said, I steadfastly refuse to use fake HTML quotes to make the intent clear (à la Slashdot, perhaps).

    To clarify, I do indeed mean that Apple is only intending removing FireWire on iPods (it remains only on the full-size iPod now). The first iPod was FireWire only, as it was a premium device, which transferred data at premium speeds using Apple’s premium interface. Plus, USB 1 would have been far too slow for a 5GB device.

    I’m pretty sure that Jobs doesn’t want FireWire dead – the rumoured Asteroid XLR breakout box for GarageBand was to connect via FireWire, and, as I illustrated above, FireWire is indispensible in Apple’s traditional strongholds, being music, movies and graphic design.

    A lesson learned for those on both sides of the Pond, I think. :D


  10. Well, is apple trying to kill firewire or not?

    The contradiction is in suggesting that apple is both trying to kill firewire, and that there are good cost/space/cost-space reasons for cutting it from the nano. I don’t think you supply sufficient evidence that jobs wants firewire dead – a point which seems to contradict the fact that all your now-legacy macs were firewire-enabled, suggesting apple is and always has been enthusiastic regarding firewire.

    Perhaps you mean that apple is trying to kill firewire on ipods? Why? Wasn’t the first ipod firewire-only? Aren’t all but the single most most space-tight ipod firewire enabled, and in that case isn’t there good reason for it not to be?

  11. How so?

    What I’m saying is that the iPod is a consumer-oriented product, so doesn’t need FireWire, but that this need not mean its death. Reason: it will always have a place in the professional market, where it has replaced SCSI for external connectivity.