A FireWire® hard drive is an external drive connected to a computer through the FireWire® cable system, an alternative to the popular USB system. Most FireWire® hard drives are designed for portable use. However, they can have some advantages even when only used in one location only.
When looking for a FireWire® hard drive, remember that there are several alternative names for the technology. The technical name for it is an IEEE 1394 interface, which is why you may see a FireWire® hard drive listed as an 1394 connection in Windows. While "firewire" is the most common spelling, the word is actually a brand name of Apple and written FireWire®. The same technology is known as i.Link by Sony and Lynx by Texas Instruments. While most hard drives are sold under the FireWire® name, it can be worth searching for the alternative names to pick up a bargain, particularly on auction sites where fewer people may find and bid on the listing.
While FireWire® sockets are available on all Macs, they are not on all PCs. This may not be a problem if you only want to use the drive on a particular set of computers, all of which have FireWire®. If you need to be sure your drive will work on all computers, for example if you travel to different offices, then you should look out for a drive which has both FireWire® and USB sockets, however. This will usually cost more but will give you peace of mind.
You may wish to use a FireWire® hard drive as an easy way to add extra capacity to your computer storage without opening up the machine. Bear in mind that this will work out more expensive than fitting an internal drive. It will also be slightly slower: What PC? estimated that a FireWire®-connected drive is about a third slower to access than an internal drive. Unless you are lacking confidence about fitting an internal drive, or you do not have any space inside your computer, a FireWire® hard drive will usually not be an efficient choice for leaving permanently connected to a machine.
A FireWire® hard drive may be useful for backing up your machine. The large storage capacity available makes such drives particularly suited to back-up systems which copy your main hard drives in their entirety rather than simply individual files or folders. The portability of a FireWire® drives means you can back it up and then store it in a different location to your computer so you are better protected against losing data in a fire or flood.
If your main reason for using a FireWire® hard drive is digital video, you will need a higher specification drive. The key measure to look for here is the sustained transfer rate which measures how much information the drive can send to and from your computer at a consistent rate rather than in bursts. This figure will usually be considerably lower than the maximum transfer rate on the drive. Digital video requires a consistent transfer speed, so you will want the highest sustained transfer rate possible.
One alternative to a FireWire® hard drive is a FireWire® enclosure. This is a special frame which houses a traditional hard drive, but has a FireWire® connection which runs between the drive and your computer. This can work out as a cheaper overall option, particularly in higher capacity drives where the savings of buying a traditional drive as opposed to a FireWire® hard drive will usually outweigh the cost of the enclosure. It's also a handy option if you buy a new PC and need a convenient way to occasionally access files from the hard drive on your old computer.