New FireWire forges ahead at double speed

A FireWire trade group plans a new version of the computer-connection standard-dubbed IEEE 1394b--that could initially double the speed of data transfer between PCs and peripherals. At 800 megabits per second, it's also almost twice as fast as the competing USB 2.0 standard that's in the works.
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As competition looms, FireWire backers have finalized a plan to initially double the speed--and eventually offer eight times the speed--of the connection used to link PCs to camcorders and other peripherals.

The speed boost for FireWire, officially known as IEEE 1394 and marketed by Sony as I-link, comes as a faster version of the universal serial bus heads to market. USB 2.0 and FireWire will compete directly for a spot on computers.

USB started out as a replacement for older parallel and serial ports as a way to connect keyboards and mice to PCs. It is now also used for MP3 players and CD burners. FireWire has its roots in consumer electronics such as digital camcorders but is also increasingly popular for connecting to storage devices such as hard drives and recordable CD drives.

After 18 months of work, the 1394 Trade Association said this week it has approved the specifications for the new FireWire, which will be called IEEE 1394b. The standard still requires final approval by member companies.

The new 1394b standard is expected to deliver data at up to 800 megabits per second, while USB 2.0 is designed to exchange data at 480mbps.

USB 2.0 will be 40 times the speed of USB 1.0 and slightly faster than the 400mbps under the current version of FireWire. This means that a file that took 80 seconds to transfer using USB 1.0 theoretically will take about 2 seconds using either USB 2.0 or today's FireWire. With the new FireWire, it will take about 1 second.

Dan Devine, a senior product manager for both USB and 1394 products at chipmaker Agere Systems, said USB 2.0 is slightly further along in development than 1394b. But "they are both very immature," he said.

"As with any technology, it always seems it takes one or two years longer than anyone expects to get here," Devine added.

Industry sources said Apple Computer will likely be first out of the gate with computers that support 1394b, with the technology likely to show up in Macs as soon as late this year or early next year.

Texas Instruments and Agere, a Lucent Technologies spinoff, are expected to be two of the first big chipmakers with 1394b chips.

Both the new USB and FireWire standards are designed to work with their predecessors, so USB 2.0 devices can run on computers with USB 1.0 ports, albeit at slower speeds. Meanwhile, a 1394b device can work on a computer with an older FireWire port, although the process with the new FireWire is a bit more complex. Devices with 1394b can be designed either to support only that standard or to work with either version of FireWire by using so-called bilingual chips.

Although the initial version of 1394b is designed to double the speed of today's FireWire using the same type of copper wiring, the standard is expected to eventually allow speeds of up to 3.2 gigabits per second using plastic optical fiber instead. Fiber optics will also allow FireWire to transmit data over longer distances than today's FireWire.

As the new 1394b standard tries to get out of the gate, USB 2.0 is having trouble getting established. Microsoft initially planned to snub USB 2.0 in the Windows XP operating system and support only the older USB and FireWire standards. But the software giant somewhat reversed course this year. Microsoft still doesn't plan to natively support USB 2.0 but will support the standard through add-on drivers.

Devine predicted that both technologies will find their niche, with each likely to appeal mostly to the types of products it has been used with in the past. However, in some categories, such as hard drives and scanners, the two standards will go head-to-head.

"I don't personally think you will see consumer products abandon 1394 for USB 2.0," Devine said.

Although both standards are competing to convince peripherals makers to choose them, both may find their place in future PCs anyway. Assuming that each standard can attract enough peripherals, computer makers will likely include both ports, as is often the case today.

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