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Tech 101 | PC Focus

Data Transfer Is a Flash With FireWire

February 15, 2001|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | larry.TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anyone who connects a digital video camera or an external disk drive to a PC owes a debt to Apple Computer. Apple developed FireWire, a high-speed method for connecting computer peripherals. After Apple made the technology available to other companies, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers adopted it as an industry standard with the official and more boring moniker "IEEE 1394." Sony came up with yet another name--"i. Link."

By whatever name, the technology represents an easy way to connect high-speed devices to a PC. Although Apple and a few enlightened PC makers build machines with FireWire ports, most don't. But it's relatively cheap and easy to add FireWire to a desktop and even easier--but a bit more expensive--to add it to a laptop.

The advantages are many.

Connecting a FireWire device to a PC is identical to adding a device to the Universal Serial Bus ports included in all recent PCs. In both cases, users plug a cord into a socket and can "hot swap" devices. In other words, users don't have to turn off the PC or the device to connect.

The big difference between FireWire and USB is speed. FireWire operates at up to 400 megabits per second, or about 50 megabytes per second, whereas the current version of USB transfers at a slow 12 Mbps, or 1.5 MBps.

USB is fast enough for a mouse, keyboard or printer and adequate for digital cameras and scanners, but it's far too slow for transferring data between a PC and a digital camcorder or for connecting an external hard drive. It's also a limiting factor for external CD read/write, or CD-RW, drives.

A future version of USB, called USB 2.0, will run slightly faster than FireWire at 480 Mbps, but it's not here yet. The likelihood that PCs will eventually have faster USB ports is of little consolation to someone who is now in the market for a fast and easy way to connect an add-on device.

Users can add FireWire to a desktop machine by plugging a 1394 "host adapter" card into an empty PCI slot on the motherboard. Adding FireWire to a laptop is as easy as inserting a credit-card-size adapter into the PC card slot.

Maxtor loaned me a $49 1394 PCI Host Adapter Card along with its $399 80-gigabyte 1394 External Storage hard drive. The only difficult thing about the installation process was taking my machine apart to install the PCI host adapter.

Windows ME immediately recognized the 1394 card and automatically loaded the drivers for it. I then plugged the Maxtor external hard drive into the FireWire port and, without having to install any software, the drive immediately worked. It was that simple, and, as regular readers of this column know, I rarely use the words "PC" and "simple" in the same article. Many FireWire devices have two sockets to enable users to "daisy chain" one device to another. I plugged in an external LaCie CD-RW drive into the hard drive and it, too, worked right away.

I then plugged in a Sony digital camcorder, that, like all DV camcorders, has a 1394 port. I had to spend $29 for a special cable, but, again, connecting the camcorder to the PC was a breeze. Life around PCs is rarely this good.

When I ran Microsoft's Movie Maker software, it immediately recognized the camcorder and allowed me to control the camcorder from the PC. FireWire transmitted the software's rewind, fast-forward and play functions directly to the camcorder and quickly transferred the video from the camcorder to the PC.

My next move was to get a copy of Studio DV Video editing software from Pinnacle Systems. This $89 home video editing software comes packaged with a three-port 1394 card and a cable, which makes the software a very good deal considering that it would cost at least $78 to buy the cable and card separately.

So, thanks to FireWire--or whatever its name is--I'm now a virtual Frank Capra, making movies on my camcorder, editing them on my PC, storing them on that 80-GB external hard drive and distributing them on CDs. It's a wonderful life.


Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour.

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