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What FireWire Means to the Average User:
Part one in the "What FireWire Means" Series

Read other stories in the series: Part 1 | Part 2

When engineers at Apple developed FireWire, they had larger plans for the technology than just developing a new hard drive interface. If you have ever used external SCSI devices on your Mac prior to the release of this technology you will appreciate it for what it is at its core: simple. No turmoil searching for a unique SCSI ID on your Daisy Chain and no more bulky cables that have a tendency to spontaneously develop problems of their own. At the same time, it no longer takes days of arduous testing to locate the cause of a problem on your SCSI bus.

FireWire drives use a thin cable that typically carries both data and power. Though most hard drives require a power cord to supply them with enough energy to drive their internal power supplies and fans, some of the portable drives actually draw their power over the FireWire bus and operate without a separate power cord. And, given the fact that FireWire drives are hot swappable, there is no need to shutdown your system every time you need to add or remove a drive. And since you can chain FireWire devices together, you could potentially attach up to 63 devices to just one FireWire port.

Apple developed a technology that is simple, fast, expandable, and easy to manage. But that isn’t why this innovation won Apple an Emmy award. FireWire is as versatile as it is powerful. Industry names such as Sony, Cannon, JVC, and Kodak quickly adopted the bus technology and added it to their digital video cameras. This made it possible for amateur and professional video editors alike to work with production quality, full screen video right on their Mac desktops.

In part two of this article, we will take a closer look at what FireWire has done for Digital Video. We will look at the options available to editors as well as data transfer speeds, frame rates, video formats, and take a look at ways to use external FireWire drives when working with digital video.

For now, we will take a look at the practical side of FireWire as it pertains to hard drives. We know that we can move data at an incredible 400Mbps, but what does that mean to us in terms of disk access and transfer speed?

First, we need to take a look at what comprises a FireWire hard drive. Inside of each external case is actually an IDE hard drive that uses a FireWire bridge card to convert the drives IDE interface into the FireWire ports you see on the back of the drive.

Surprised? It will make more sense if you look at the advantages and disadvantages of this particular solution. First of all, IDE drives are fast and inexpensive. Their performance has grown over the years to rival that of some of the fastest SCSI mechanisms. Secondly, why should drive manufacturers go through the trouble and the expense of creating an entirely new breed of hard drive if it will only mean a higher cost to the consumer? By using the FireWire bridge card in the external drive case; consumers get a fast, affordable external solution that still offers the same powerful features around which FireWire was designed.

A solution like this does have its disadvantages. But before we take a look at them, keep in mind one thing; no drive manufacturer has released a truly native FireWire drive. At this point in time, the built-in bridge card is the industry standard and the only solution when it comes to FireWire hard drives.

The disadvantages really hinge around two things. The first is the fact that the drives are based off of IDE drive mechanisms. The second is the choice of FireWire bridge cards available to drive manufacturers.

Because the drives are based on IDE mechanisms, consumers face the same problems faced when they add an internal hard drive. All hard drives are not created equal. Aside from being based on 4200rpm, 5400rpm, and 7200rpm mechanisms, some drives are simply better performers than others. Below, we will take a look at the performance of several different mechanisms.

The second problem area for FireWire performance lies in the choice of bridge cards. Like the IDE drives, not all bridge cards are created equal. Also found below, we will take a look at what the bridge card means to FireWire performance and what it will mean to amateur and power users alike.

Background on the Test:

Before OS X came out, testing was very easy. Just use a benchmarking program to establish how much data per second the drive could transfer (read and write speed). We did that testing using ATTO ExpressPro-Tools under OS 8 and 9. But since OS X came out, there is no test that will correctly report performance (it's not exactly fair to test with software being run in Classic mode emulation). So, break out the high tech stopwatch!

With this test, we are showing real world performance. The folder of files coped in this test is comprised of the following items:

Information Graphed in Each Comparision:

  • Graph #1: 4- 50 MB contiguous files (200 MB)
  • Graph #2: 1- 1 GB contiguous file (1024 MB)
  • Graph #3*: One 2 GB folder (16,285 items) comprised of the following items:
    • 1- 1 GB contiguous file (1024 MB)
    • 1- 200 MB contiguous file (200MB)
    • 2- 100 MB contiguous files (200 MB)
    • 4- 50 MB contiguous files (200 MB)
    • 8- 25 MB contiguous files (100 MB)
    • 10- 10MB contiguous files (100 MB)
    • 50- 2MB contiguous files (100 MB)
    • 1 Folder w/ 16,207 items ranging in size from 2k to 48k - HTML files, GIFs, and JPEGs. This filled up the remaining amount to equal exactly 2 GB (2048 MB).

The reference benchmark score: a Power Macintosh G4/733 QuickSilver in a stock configuration with 128MB of PC-133 CL3 memory. This machine uses a 40GB IBM Deskstar 5400rpm drive as its standard internal mechanism. For each test, the information copied was transfered from the stock 40 GB 5400rpm drive to each of the FireWire drives being tested.

*For a baseline comparison, the 3rd graph on each page shows the time it took to transfer the test folder from the internal 5400rpm drive to an ATA/100 IBM 60GXP located on the same IDE bus.