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What Is a FireWire® Connection?

A USB cable to the left of two Firewire® cables.
A FireWire® port.
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  • Written By: M. McGee
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 06 September 2014
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    Conjecture Corporation
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A FireWire® connection is a variety of the IEEE 1394 computer interface that is owned by Apple. This connection type is designed to allow high-speed transfer of information across a universal plug system. Its direct competitor in the field is the universal serial bus (USB) connector. A FireWire® connection is generally faster than all but the newest forms of USB and allows multiple devices to connect to one another without a central computer. The USB connection can power devices, which some forms of FireWire® can’t do, and is significantly cheaper to produce. Primarily, the difference in cost has caused the USB to take prominence in the industry as the go-to device connection.

FireWire® began in 1986 via a massive push from Apple. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) began working on the specification immediately. While Apple was the largest motivator on this project, other prominent computer and media device companies also donated significant amounts to it. As a result, the IEEE released what would become the alpha version of the FireWire® connection in 1995. The generic name for the connection is IEEE 1394, but individual manufacturers were free to name their version however they wished.

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This connection type was designed to be a replacement for the older small computer system interface (SCSI) that was common on most media-based computer peripherals. SCSI was fast in its day, but modern devices had left it far behind speed-wise and the hardware was complicated. The new FireWire® connection would allow devices to connect to each other without the need for computer interaction, allowing easy and fast transfer of information.

The alpha version of the FireWire® connection had a very distinct appearance. It looked like a rectangle with a pointed end, similar to a child’s drawing of a house. This connection performed well, but the expense and limited availability made it less common than it could have been. This is also when the competition between FireWire® and USB began in earnest.

With the release of the beta version of the FireWire® connection, the playing field began to change. This plug looks similar to the more common USB connection, but it has two plastic fang-like prongs that give it a unique shape. This version is faster than USB 1.0 but it is technically slower than USB 2.0. In reality, the maximum speed of a USB 2.0 connection is extremely difficult to achieve and beta FireWire® is typically faster in actual use. On the other hand, it is definitely slower than USB 3.0.

The differences between the alpha and beta versions of the FireWire® connection are minor, but significant. The beta version is much faster but is unable to transmit power to connected devices, which the alpha can. This functionality was left out in order to make the connection smaller, more energy-efficient and faster. Both versions have the basic design methodology and daisy-chaining capabilities originally designed into the specification.

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