The Advantage of a FireWire Connection for Your MacBook - dummies

The Advantage of a FireWire Connection for Your MacBook

By Mark L. Chambers

What’s so special about FireWire? Why does Apple stuff at least one FireWire port in almost all of its current Macintosh models? (The exceptions are the MacBook Air and base MacBook models.) Heck, even the iPod originally used only a FireWire connection.

First things first. As countless racing fans will tell you, it’s all about the speed. The original FireWire 400 port delivers 400 Mbps (megabits per second), which is fast enough for all sorts of peripherals to communicate with your MacBook. The following list includes a number of hardware toys that are well known for transferring prodigious file sizes:

  • Digital video (DV) camcorders

  • High-resolution digital cameras

  • Scanners and some printers

  • External hard drives and CD/DVD recorders

  • Networking between computers

For example, consider the sheer size of a typical digital video clip captured by one of today’s mini-DV camcorders. DV buffs commonly transfer several hundred megabytes of footage to their computers at one time. Check out the relative speeds of the different types of ports, and you’ll see a big attraction of FireWire 800 and Thunderbolt connections.

Transfer Speeds for Ports through the Ages
Port Appeared on Personal Computer When Transfer Speed (in Megabits)
PC Serial 1981 Less than 1 Mbps
PC Parallel 1981 1 Mbps
USB (version 1.1) 1996 12 Mbps
FireWire 400 1996 400 Mbps (version 1)
USB (version 2.0) 2001 480 Mbps
FireWire 800 2002 800 Mbps
USB (version 3.0) 2010 5 Gbps (5,000 Mbps)
Thunderbolt 2011 10 Gbps (10,000 Mbps)

Ouch! Not too hard to figure that one out. Here are three other important benefits to FireWire:

  • Control over connection: This is a ten-cent term that engineers use, meaning that you can control whatever gadget you’ve connected using FireWire from your laptop. This is pretty neat when you think about it; for example, you can control your mini-DV camcorder from the comfort of your computer keyboard, just as though you were pressing the buttons on the camcorder.

  • Hot-swapped: You don’t have to reboot your MacBook Pro or restart Mac OS X every time that you plug (or unplug) a FireWire device. Instead, the FireWire peripheral is automatically recognized (as long as the operating system has the correct driver) and ready to transfer.

  • Power through the port: FireWire can provide power to a device through the same wire — typically, enough power is available for an external drive or recorder — so you don’t need an external AC power cord for some FireWire devices.

The cleverly named IEEE 1394 B (called FireWire 800 by anyone with any sense, including the folks at Apple) delivers a whopping 800 Mbps. Although nowhere near as fast as a Thunderbolt connection, FireWire 800 peripherals are much easier to find than Thunderbolt devices — and FireWire 800 ports appear on most of the top-of-the-line Apple desktop and laptop models at the time of this writing.

Oh, and as you would expect from Apple, FireWire 800 ports are backward-compatible with older FireWire 400 hardware. However, the ports aren’t exactly the same, so you’ll need a 9-pin to 6-pin port converter to connect FireWire 400 devices to a FireWire 800 port. (Such important little conversion fixtures are commonly called dongles.)