What is Firewire?

Category: Hardware

I was told that I should have a Firewire cable to transfer videos from my camcorder to my computer. I have USB connectors on my PC, is that the same thing, or can the Firewire plug in to that?

Firewire Versus USB

Firewire is a name that refers to a set of Apple branded data ports that are designed for high-speed data transfer. These ports were developed back in 1995 by Apple Inc. as a connectivity solution for digital media devices like digital cameras and camcorders. Since their introduction, the digital camera industry has included Firewire connectors with most of their new products. Firewire ports may also be found on external hard drives and other devices that need to transfer large volumes of data quickly.

Firewire interfaces are definitely faster than USB interfaces. In fact, Firewire interfaces can transfer data at a rate of 50 megabytes (MB) of data per second, which is about 33 times faster than the USB 1.1 data transfer rate of 1.5 MB per second. USB 2.0 devices, which are more common, can achieve speeds of 40 MB per second.

Another advantage of Firewire over USB is that it reserves 3.5 MB per second of bandwidth to use with video equipment. This means that if you have additional Firewire devices running when you are using your attached video equipment, the quality of your video image won't be affected. Finally, Firewires, like USB interfaces, allow you to hotswap your devices quickly, however, Firewires will allow you to chain up to 63 devices per port. Just in case you have a LOT of cameras, I guess. :-)

One more thing you should know about Firewire technology is that it uses a peer-to-peer model in which the peripheral devices have the intelligence to resolve potential data transfer conflicts, which can result in much higher sustained transfer rates. USB uses a master-slave model which requires the computer to handle data flow issues, which tends to slow things down a bit.

Even though Firewire is technically superior, USB is still much more common. If you have Firewire devices and are planning to buy a new computer, make sure it has Firewire ports built in. If you have a peripheral device that supports both, and a computer with Firewire ports, you'll get faster data transfer with Firewire. The only downside is that most devices which support Firewire don't come with a Firewire cable, and they can be somewhat expensive (US$20 or more).

Do You Have Firewire?

Firewire adapters Firewire devices have become more popular in the last few years, and today most computer systems that are designed for audio and video applications have Firewire ports built into them. If you have an Apple Computer that was built after 2000, or a new Sony computer, then your computer has one or more Firewire bus ports already installed. If you recently bought a Dell computer that is set up for audio and video media then chances are it too has at least one Firewire built in. However, Dell does not include Firewire bus ports in their Dimension 8300 series models or in their Inspiron 1501 models.

If you're not sure if you have a Firewire port, take a look at your external ports. Firewire is smaller than a USB port, however, it probably will be located near these ports. The Firewire port will look like a small rectangle with angled corners on one side, and inside it will have 4 small teeth. The Firewire icon (see photo above), which looks something like the "radioactive" warning symbol, is usually next to the port, but some systems label the Firewire port as "1394" instead.

If you don't have Firewire installed in your computer, then you can probably add it by installing a PCI Firewire adapter card (for a desktop PC) or a Firewire notebook adapter (for a laptop), like the ones pictured. If you have an older computer then you may also need to replace your motherboard with one that is compatible with the type of Firewire cards and devices that you have.

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Most recent comments on "What is Firewire?"

Posted by:

Ron Mann
08 Aug 2007

On the front of my computer is a port shaped just as you have described it, placed beside two USB2 ports. Above it is inscribed "1394" and beneath it is a a symbol which does, indeed, "look something like a 'radioactive' symbol". And now, after a year, I know what it is! Nobody made me wait that long to find out; I suppose I COULD have read the manual. From a lazy innocent, who doesn't know what RTFM means, many thanks.

Posted by:

11 Aug 2007

My computer didn't have firewire ports, so I just got a low cost PCI card with a couple. It was plug and play with XP. I also got 2 cables. Like USB, there are mini connectors and regular size. (as you illustrate) So I got one of each cable. Several devices I own have options for both. Some told me USB 2 was faster than Firewire - thanks for the detail.

Posted by:

Richard Adams
11 Aug 2007

Have you investigate FireWire 800? It's been on the professional level Macs for a few years and is on the brand new iMacs that debuted 8/7/07. Its data rate is TWICE that of the "old" FireWire 400. Besides cameras, the FW800 is really handy with external hard drives and arrays.

Posted by:

11 Aug 2007

I just installed a firewire card on my 3 year old Dell (with XP SP2) this week! How timely this article is for me... A comment: I purchased a PCI card for my computer for $15 including shipping, and it came with a firewire cord... if you shop carefully, it is relatively easy to get things in a completely usable fashion at a low price! Most cords I found were more than this combo deal. Happy video editing!

Posted by:

12 Aug 2007


Posted by:

13 Aug 2007

If you don't already have Firewire, and you are buying a DV camera, check to see if it comes with a Firewire card in the kit. Mine did. I also choose external hard drives (whether prebuilt or kit) that have FW connections so that I can chain them. I have had problems with USB devices "disappearing" from my computer, but no problems with my FW hard drives, DVD burners or scanners.

I do have one cheap external HD kit, made by Ultra, that says it allows chaining of up to 3 devices, why the limitation? My Seagate external has no such limitation. Remember that Sony refers to Firewire as iLink, and their cameras have a littl i next to the port.

Posted by:

P. Smith
10 Jun 2008

Firewire issue: I have a Gateway 506GR with 3 firewire ports which I never tried to use until now. I got a video camera and shot video and plugged in an IIIE firewire cable to the computer to download the video and NOTHING! My brother brought his firewire cable over and still NOTHING! I took my cable and camera and video over to his house and was able to download it to his computer.

Nothing at all happened when i plugged the cable into the computer, like 'found new hardware' or the software didn't open up that I was going to use. It's like the firewires aren't even there. I'm not computer savvy enough in this area to know what steps to take to see if these are 'active' or plugged in or if the drivers are updated. Can you please help me?

EDITOR'S NOTE: You may need to install the software that came with the video camera. Let me know if that helps.

Posted by:

05 Mar 2009

I have a Compaq Presario A900 notebook and I want to buy a extreme card reader but it comes with fire wire. I don't think my notebook accepts firewire because I don't see any devices on my computer like you all described above. Is there an adapter I could buy to accept firewire?
Thanks everyone but I am not very clued up with all these teqnical things....

Posted by:

Karen Payne
26 Aug 2009

Hello. I have a question about PCI Firewire cards. My pc doesn't have firewire ports. I'm wondering if I purchase a firewire card and a transfer cable is that all I will need?. My pc is 5 years old, running Windows XP.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, that should do it!

Posted by:

Alan Banks
29 Sep 2009

Does Firewire provide a higher quality image (video) than a USB transfer or is it just faster?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Just faster transfer.

Posted by:

15 Aug 2010

Do you know if Flip cameras are Firewire compatible?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Seems they are just USB.

Posted by:

jonh mayor
21 Aug 2010

I bought a fire wire card for my brand new Toshiba Satellite A 500 Series lap top, but it seems it is not attaching, it does not click in.
My question; Did I buy the wrong card, how do I go about finding the right card?

Jonh Mayor

Posted by:

25 Aug 2010

I am buying an old camcorder Sony DCrTRV30 (miniDV)because I read great reviews and I am getting a great deal on it. Problem is I'm just learning all this technical stuff and all it comes with is a powercord,charger and battery. I was told firewire is the way to go. I don't have a firewire port and have no idea how to install one. I have a compaq presario Cq60 notebook. I really want this camcorder, does anyone have any suggestions?Are their any alternatives to firewire? I also heard that recording onto the memory stick or card or whatever it is(lol see)drastically reduces video quality or i would just get a big memory and record onto that. I don't know what to do. I have no idea what cable I'm going to need or anything. Any suggestions would be so appreciated.Thank YOU.

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