FireWire R.I.P.

A lot has been written about Apple’s newest iPods, announced last week. While these new models offer no innovations, they stand out by what they do not offer: FireWire cables. Apple pioneered the use of FireWire as an interface back in the days of the early iMac. This high-speed interface offers good, stable throughput, and also powers devices able to draw power from the cable; the six wires and pins of a FireWire cable provide both data and power transmission, with 4 pins for data and 2 for power.

But USB 2.0 came along, changing things. USB 2.0 provides a throughput that is slightly higher than FireWire, though less stable (in practice, FireWire seems able to provide a more regular amount of data transfer than USB 2.0). FireWire is a great interface: you can hot-plug or unplug devices, you can daisy chain a large number of devices, and FireWire connectors are relatively idiot-proof (there’s no way you can insert a connector the wrong way, and the connectors themselves are hard to damage).

However, FireWire ports only come standard on Macs; PC users generally have to buy additional FireWire cards to add to their computers. Early iPods were FireWire only; later generations offered both cables; now, only USB cables are provided.

So Apple’s decision to abandon FireWire cables with its iPods, at least in the box, seems like an admission of defeat. While you can still use a FireWire cable with the iPod (Apple sells the cable for $19), it seems likely that they won’t be offering them standard again in the future. After all, with the majority of iPod users owning PCs, which don’t offer FireWire ports, it makes sense. Or does it?Many computer users have far too many devices that use USB. Even if they have a USB hub, it is usually overloaded. In addition, the hub has to be able to handle USB 2.0 transfer speeds, or they’ll be waiting a very long time to update their 60 GB iPod photo. Also, a lot of PC users don’t have USB 2.0; while this is the norm on recent PCs, I know plenty of people still using Windows 98 on relatively old PCs. On the flip side, lots of Mac users, who don’t have recent Macs, will be left out as well: they’ll have FireWire ports, but not FireWire cables.

It is understandable that Apple wants to save money – and keep the price of the iPod down – by not offering this cable. But one problem is that users who need a FireWire cable won’t know it’s missing until they get home, unless they’re lucky enough to shop in a store where the sales clerk points this out. This happened to a friend, but in the other direction; when he bought his first iPod about a year ago, it didn’t have a USB cable. He only discovered this when he got home, and since he didn’t have a FireWire card in his PC, he had to go back to the store to buy one.

What Apple should do is sell the iPod in two versions: one with FireWire and one without. Barring this, they should make sure that FireWire cables are available in stores, so users who want FireWire can get the cable easily, without have to order it from the Apple Store.

But the larger question is this: is FireWire dead? I have several external hard disks with FireWire connectors, but in the past year or so, combined interface disks have become common (with both FireWire and USB 2.0). Could Apple’s decision be the death-knell for FireWire? Time will tell.

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6 replies
    • Kirk says:

      Actuallly, there is a way to get iPods to work on Windows 98, but not out of
      the box. You have to install some DLLs, but it will work.

      Reply
  1. bmorisky says:

    No way should Apple sell a Firewire version and a USB 2.0 problem, this is not a cost effective solution for Apple. Do you remember the Apple and Windows versions of iPod? Or colored iMacs? These set ups are inventory nightmares. K.I.S.S. Just sell a USB 2.0 model with the Firewire cord available.

    Reply
  2. purpleshorts says:

    Pehaps Steve looked over and saw iPods accessories selling for about as
    much money as the pods themselves, and said: Hey, I want that money.
    Unbundle and accessorize. Hide some costs in add-on accessories. Sell socks,
    armbands, cables, anything that’s not an integral part of the pod itself.

    Reply
  3. lexicon5 says:

    Actually, FireWire is faster than USB 2.0 in practical use. The stated
    throughput of USB 2 is only burst and it never actually achieves that speed. A
    2k file sent across USB 2 and FireWire
    will get there sooner on USB 2. Transfer of gigabytes of data is where FireWire
    wipes USB 2.0 out. It’s due to the crappy USB way of error checking…there is
    so much overhead in USB data transfers it’s a miracle that anything ever gets
    there.
    The fact that multiple FireWire devices can be daisy chained together and all
    devices in that chain have the full FireWire throughput capability bears out a
    substantial USB 2.0 weakness…bandwidth sharing. Plug in two USB 2 drives to
    the same hub and you just lost half.

    Look around the pro audio market..FireWire is far from dead and buried…in
    fact it is on the rise BECAUSE of the USB 2 deficiencies. No more than 8
    channels of audio that is sample rate impaired…
    FireWire 400 can handle truckloads of discrete channels at extremely high
    sample/bit rates.

    The lack of a FireWire cable does not signal defeat at all…it merely caters to
    the less fortunate and keeps the deer in headlights look from crossing the
    faces of new iPod owners when they look at a FireWire cable….

    Reply

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