Mobile Computing Tips: FireWire vs. USB FAQ
Many people use a notebook as their main computer. And if you're like me, you need to connect all sorts of stuff to your notebook: printer, scanner, Zip drive, George Foreman grill, you name it.
Most of the time, those devices (except the grill) connect to one of your notebook's Universal Serial Bus ports or, in some cases, a FireWire high-speed port, also known as IEEE 1394 or I.Link. The beauty of both types of port is their plug-and-play simplicity and the ability to use most USB and FireWire devices on either Windows or Mac computers.
But as with all things technology related, that scenario is getting a bit more complicated with the emergence of new standards. Aside from that, some devices (such as hard drives) now come in both USB and FireWire versions. So how do you know which one is right for you?
Let's start with the main question: What are the differences between FireWire and USB? Then I'll talk about why you should care.
Before FireWire and USB appeared, external devices were typically connected to a computer using serial and parallel ports. But those connections had many limitations: data transfer rates were sluggish, devices couldn't be unplugged without causing your computer to crash, you couldn't easily swap multiple devices on the same port, and so on.
In the mid nineties, the connectivity situation began to improve dramatically with the introduction of FireWire and, a few years later, USB. Both technologies offer faster data transfer rates, true plug-and-play connectivity, the ability to unplug one device and plug another into the same port without rebooting, and more.
A serial input/output technology invented by Apple Computer,
A FireWire upgrade is in the works. IEEE 1394b will offer transfer rates of up to 800 mbps, reportedly fast enough to copy an entire CD in seconds. Currently, no notebook or desktop computers comply with this new standard; the first models will most likely desktops and are expected at year's end.
This competing serial input/output technology was introduced in 1997. USB ports are found on most desktop PCs, notebooks, and peripherals today. There are far more USB devices than there are FireWire peripherals, and they usually cost $20 to $40 less. But the current
It's important to note that USB 2.0 devices are backwards-compatible with USB 1.1 ports. While you won't get the increased speeds, you can use a USB 2.0 device with your current notebook's USB 1.1 port.
One advantage that FireWire devices have over USB devices is the ability to draw power from the computer. Standard FireWire cables have six-prong connectors on either end and consist of six wires, two of which can carry power to external devices. That means an external FireWire hard drive could run without AC power when connected to a notebook's six-pin FireWire port. In theory, that's a big benefit for travelers. You'd be able to back up your notebook's hard drive to an external drive while on a plane, for instance.
But it's not that simple, unfortunately. To save space and conserve power, many notebooks come with four-pin FireWire ports. External devices must connect to them with a four-pin cable or six-to-four-pin adapter, which means you lose the two power wires of the six-wire FireWire cables. These devices must use an AC adapter in order to operate on a notebook with a four-pin FireWire port, meaning that notebook owners with four-pin FireWire ports have to forget about backing up to an external hard drive while flying over the Rockies.
Many FireWire devices ship with the standard six-pin cables, so those with four-pin FireWire ports will need a four-to-six-pin adapter (about $5 to $15) or a FireWire cable with a six-pin connector on one end and a four-pin connector on the other (about $20). Check out
On average, FireWire devices are more expensive than their USB counterparts--but usually not by much. For example, Iomega's 80GB external FireWire hard drive was selling recently at
The bottom line? If you're in the market for a new notebook, consider one with USB ports as well as a six-pin FireWire port for the greatest speed and flexibility when traveling. That's easier said than done, however, as many computer makers don't differentiate in their product literature between four- and six-pin ports. If the FireWire specs are unclear or unstated, call the manufacturer for details.
If the peripheral you need is USB-only, hold out for a USB 2.0-compatible device, if possible. Even if your current notebook has a USB 1.1 port, you might be upgrading at some point to a computer with a USB 2.0 port, so the faster peripheral may be a better investment in the long run.
Of course, you could also consider waiting until notebooks with USB 2.0 ports are available. Some vendors may even offer models with both USB 2.0 and FireWire ports, though which manufacturers and when isn't clear at the moment. Keep in mind that new technologies usually appear in desktop computers first, so it could be six months or so before there's much of a selection for notebooks with USB 2.0 ports.
The 15-inch screen's native resolution of 1400 by 1050 produces detailed photos with rich color. Two robust speakers on the front are complemented by a set of dedicated, front-mounted audio buttons and a status display that shows music track information, making the notebook a good stand-alone CD player.
Other slick features include built-in wireless antennas for hopping onto Wi-Fi (802.11b) services and an on/off button that controls wireless scanning--a big plus, given the way that wireless networking can drain batteries. Speaking of batteries, the power charge lasted 2 hours, 20 minutes, a bit shy of other Pentium 4-M notebooks.
The model we tested included a 1.9-GHz/1.2-GHz Pentium 4-M, 512MB of DDR266 SDRAM, 512KB of L2 cache, Windows XP Home, a 40GB hard drive, an 8X DVD-ROM and 8X/8X/24X CD-RW combination drive, and more for $2499.
We found the
Our review unit included a 1.6-GHz/1.2-GHz Pentium 4-M chip, 256MB of DDR266 SDRAM, 512KB of L2 cache, Windows XP Professional, a 14.1-inch active matrix screen, a 20GB hard drive, an 8X DVD-ROM and 8X/8X/24X CD-RW combination drive, a built-in V.90 modem and a network interface, and more for $1499.
The latest version of DataViz's Documents To Go allows you to edit PowerPoint presentations on Palm OS handhelds for the first time, according to the company. (Documents To Go 4.0 Professional Edition lets you view but not edit PowerPoint files.) Documents To Go 5.0 also supports embedded graphics, paragraph formatting, and tables in Word documents and is compatible with the upcoming Palm OS 5 operating system.
There are now three versions of Documents To Go: Standard ($50), which lets you open and view Word and Excel files on a handheld; Professional (included on some Palm handhelds and not for individual sale), which lets you create, synchronize, and edit word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation files; and Premium ($70), the same as Professional but with the added capabilities of synchronizing e-mail attachments, PDF files, pictures, and charts. Go to the
Palm M130 owners may be seeing red after Palm confirmed that its $249 handheld displays a
The 300 is available for $500 through Sprint PCS sales channels and on Handspring's Web site. Pricing for phone and data service on Sprint's network ranges from $45 to $120 a month, depending on usage.
Starbucks offers more ways to get wired than ever before. The gourmet coffee purveyor recently announced the availability of
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