Treat FireWire Cables with Care

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FireWire Technology

USB’s main competition is FireWire, a similar and slightly more upscale method of connecting peripherals (especially fast peripherals) to a PC using a serial data stream. FireWire was developed by Apple Computer in the early 1990s and was established as the IEEE 1394 standard by 1995. For awhile, only Macintosh computers had FireWire ports. Apple tried to get FireWire established in the PC world toward the end of the 1990s, but once again, the folks at Apple assumed that the world would pay a higher price to use its obviously superior technology. Apple’s royalties for using the FireWire patents added a dollar per port to the cost of manufacturing each FireWire-equipped PC (in addition to a $7500 one-time charge to the manufacturer), and in the razor-thin margins of the PC business, that was a cost that many manufacturers chose not to pay, especially with USB available as a royalty-free alternative. This meant that FireWire ports were basically unknown in PCs until Apple caved on the royalty issue in 2000. Starting in 2002, FireWire ports began to be popular on PCs, especially PCs used in connection with digital video.

That is no longer the case anymore. FireWire is a much-superior alternative to USB, and offers lighting-fast data transfer. As with any cable though, you have to treat it properly, if you want it to last. Here are some tips for making the most of your FireWire cable (and thus, device).

· Be careful how you insert a FireWire plug in your PC’s FireWire port. Although it’s theoretically impossible to insert the plug reversed 180º from its proper orientation, a person pressing on the plug with sufficient force will cause it to bend the thin metal sides of the port and enter the port part way. The reversed plug only has to go in a fraction of an inch before the power pin will contact one of the two data pins. This will destroy the FireWire port instantly and may also damage the peripheral on the other end of the cable.

· Do not twist or kink FireWire cables. There are two hazards in doing so: Any high-speed data cable, when kinked, will slow down the passage of data through the cable and cause errors. Worse, if a poorly manufactured cable is twisted hard enough, the conductors in one of the plugs may break or (much worse) bridge power to one of the data pins, destroying the port.

· If you find yourself inserting a FireWire cable into your PC’s FireWire port frequently, consider leaving the cable plugged into the PC and plug the FireWire peripheral (external disk drive, Web cam, camcorder, whatever) into the other end of the cable when needed. The physical portion of a FireWire port, unfortunately, is relatively fragile, and it’s much easier to replace a worn cable than a worn port on the front or back panel of your PC!

· If you discover that a FireWire device isn’t recognized by Windows when you plug it into your PC’s FireWire port, do not plug another device into the port without having the PC port looked at by an experienced technician. If the port has been damaged by physical force (say, by someone attempting to insert a FireWire plug backwards), the damaged port may in turn damage a device subsequently plugged into it. The Web abounds with reports of people plugging a $1000 digital camcorder into a damaged FireWire port only to find that the shorted-out port damaged the port electronics in the camcorder, causing a large (several hundred dollar) repair bill.