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May 22, 2009

Is IEEE 1394 dead?

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

About the same time, several years back, two competing standards were created for attaching external gizmos to computers. They were USB and IEEE 1394. One of them is about to die.

Both USB and IEEE 1394 are similar standards. Here’s what they have in common:

  • Easily plug in and remove external devices.
  • Ability to daisy-chain devices, one to another.
  • Ability to expand the system using hubs.
  • High-speed, so they can handle external storage devices and high-speed input like video.
  • Common.

Well, that last point is a gimme. Even back in its heyday, IEEE 1394 wasn’t as common as USB, especially on a PC.

IEEE 1394 is also known as IEEE, 1394, iLink, or its Apple name Firewire. I prefer to call it IEEE, though that term is easily confused with the IEEE Computer Society, where IEEE stands for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Originally, IEEE 1394 was supposed to be the high-speed port and USB was designed more for mundane peripherals like the keyboard, mouse, speakers, and so on. So IEEE 1394 had kind of a hoity-toity air about it.

For example, you’d use IEEE 1394 to attach an external disk drive or high-speed scanner, which USB couldn’t handle.

Then came alone the USB 2.0 standard, which was just as fast (if not faster) than IEEE 1394. Because most PCs didn’t come with IEEE 1394 ports standard, the question then became, why bother with IEEE 1394 at all. Indeed, it’s truly rare these days to find IEEE 1394 ports on many external devices.

Looking around my office, I see a few of my external hard drives (I seem to be collecting them) sport both a USB and IEEE 1394 connection. One even has the superdooper eSATA connection.

My high-end video camera uses IEEE 1394, but the standard video camera is USB only.

Historically speaking, I’ve not had good luck with IEEE 1394 devices. One of my first external hard drives was an IEEE 1394 model. It failed. Hard. I lost a lot of data, which was disappointing. A replacement external drive, also IEEE 1394 also failed. And the IEEE 1394 hub I purchased never seemed to work right. So speaking from personal experience, if IEEE 1394 were to vanish, I would get by just fine.

Rumor now has it that the next generation Macintosh computers will no longer come with IEEE 1394 ports. That’s a shock! Apple seemed to be the original IEEE 1394 champion, even coming up with the cool name Firewire.

Apple’s move is understandable: if USB 2.0 is just as good as IEEE 1394, and if the upcoming USB 3.0 standard is even better, then IEEE 1394 can join the ranks of SCSI and other standards in the dustbin of computer history. I wouldn’t be too broken up over the move.


  1. Perhaps the reason IEEE 1394/FireWire is dying out is simply because Apple charges a license fee for each unit on which it is installed… as opposed to USB, which is an open standard.

    USB is also generally quite a bit faster… and the USB 3.0 standard, which is slowly beginning to trickle out, is capable of in excess of 400 megabytes (not megabits) per second. Of course, this does leave me, left with an iMac that only has USB 1.1 and FW400, feeling slightly left behind 🙁

    Comment by Jonathan Rothwell — May 22, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

  2. Hubs, my friend! Hubs!

    Comment by admin — May 22, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

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