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The Fire Next Time: Where Will FireWire 800 Fit?
Posted Aug 8, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 2 next »

When Steve Jobs introduced the first Macs with FireWire 800 capability at MacWorld in January, the crowd responded in typical Apple Corps fashion—wild applause, genuflection, and cries of "we're not worthy." And while the Cult of Jobs reacts to any pronouncements by their leader in the same manner, you couldn't help but share in the excitement even if you weren't one of the faithful. After all, the promise of doubling FireWire's throughput to 800 megabits per second (Mbps) conjured up all sorts of visions of blazing data transfer, lightning-fast DVD burning, and endless daisychaining is enough to get techno-geeks of all creeds a little misty-eyed.

It turns out, however, that if you're not a Mac user, FireWire 800 (which is actually a subset of the 1394b standard, one that allows for not only 800Mbps transfer rates but also, eventually, 1600 and 3200) likely won't do you much good, at least not in the foreseeable future. "There's not going to be any real presence in the PC space until Microsoft releases Longhorn, which is currently scheduled for 2005," says Brian O'Rourke, senior analyst of converging markets and technology for In-Stat/MDR. "It will have native 1394b support, but it won't be until then that they introduce Windows XP support."

The research firm recently released a report called "FireWire's Spark May Have Returned," which predicts that FireWire 400 will find an increased presence in high-definition televisions and digital cable. The firm sees FireWire 800/1394b's chances of market penetration as so slim right now as to hardly warrant mention in the report.

Jobs and others have touted FireWire 800 as a godsend for the digital video market, but a closer look reveals that to be little more than hype. "Digital camcorders are far and away the largest users of 1394, but they only need about 30Mbps," says a spokesperson for Gateway, which currently has no plans to integrate FireWire 800 interfaces on its motherboards. "I believe 1394 will continue to be very important for video editing, but the video applications will likely stick with 1394a."

While the latest Apple computers have both 800 and 400 ports, the 9-pin 800 port is only backwards-compatible to 6-pin connectors with an adapter cable that runs about $20, so using a FireWire 400 device with a FireWire 800 port requires an extra investment, nominal though it might be. Likewise, PC or Mac users who want to upgrade to a FireWire 800 can do so with an $89 PCI card from Orange Micro.

The past few months has finally seen the introduction of FireWire 800 peripherals for the Mac. LaCie and EZQuest have both introduced external HDDs, which run on average about $100 more than their FireWire 400 equivalents. For instance, an EZQuest Cobra 120GB FireWire 400 drive can be had for around $200, while the FireWire 800 version runs $289; LaCie's 500GB Big Disk costs $949 for FireWire 400, $1,099 for FireWire 800.

With the limited availability of FireWire 800, both on the workstation side and on the peripheral side, In-Stat's O'Rourke doesn't see it making much of a dent in the market, though both he and the Gateway spokesperson point to another benefit of the 1394b standard that might help it find a niche: FireWire 400 cables are limited to 4.5 meters in length, while FireWire 800 cables are capable of lengths up to 100 meters of CAT 5 twisted-pair cable, which might finally make 1394 competitive for networking. "It's not really just the speed that makes FireWire 800 appealing," O'Rourke says. "But again, you're only talking about the Mac people rather than the PC people." And with Mac's market share falling (estimates at press time had it at 3.4%), it's hard to imagine FireWire 800 production and implementation reaching volumes that would make it cost-efficient.

Further limiting its adoption is the fact that USB 2.0 has become the de facto standard for connecting peripherals in the PC world. "In my opinion, 1394 has been losing momentum to USB," says the Gateway spokesperson. "USB 2.0 connectors are backward-compatible with USB 1.0 devices and are included on every new PC. USB 2.0 is integrated into almost all core chipsets, which gives USB a huge cost advantage." Heck, even Apple's figured that out—the new G5s come with USB 2.0 ports.

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