USB 2.0 vs. FireWire: The Debate Heats Up

SAN FRANCISCO (07/05/2000) - Politics and technology shouldn't mix -- but in Silicon Valley, they often do. Take Intel Corp.'s quest to establish its own standard for plug-and-play peripheral connectivity. It created USB (Universal Serial Bus), a reliable if somewhat poky port for keyboards, mice, printers, and scanners. Then along came FireWire, an Apple Computer Inc.-developed standard for high-speed peripherals and media devices such as hard drives, printers, and digital video cameras.

Call it connector envy or a sincere effort to improve its existing standard, but Intel is now developing USB 2.0, a high-speed version of its widely used serial connector.

Who Wants to Go Faster?: Intel claims that the increased speed will spur development of high-performance peripherals -- everything from high-resolution videoconferencing cameras to more-advanced printers and scanners. Of course, FireWire already does that. What's more, FireWire -- also known as iLink in Sony products or IEEE 1394 on Windows-based computers -- offers those connections in a variety of devices.

FireWire can reach theoretical speeds of 400 Mbps, even though there are no peripherals capable of testing that limit. And the specification will go up to 800 Mbps and 1,600 Mbps in the future. It offers the possibility of peer-to-peer connections, meaning that your DV camera can talk directly to your TV, stereo, and external hard drive without a computer.

USB Set Free?: Despite the fact that FireWire is fast and is here now, Intel is pushing USB 2.0 as the real connection standard for both low- and high-speed devices on consumer PCs. The company promises speeds as fast as 480 Mbps from a flood of USB 2.0 peripherals that should hit the market in the next year or so.

Why is Intel pushing USB 2.0? It all comes down to the issue of cost.

"Intel in general is very supportive of [FireWire] as a connection to consumer electronics," says Jason Ziller, the company's technology initiatives manager.

"But today the additional cost of adding FireWire to the chip set has not been worth it."

According to Intel, USB 2.0 will be less expensive to include on computer logic boards than FireWire, which comes with a hefty licensing fee. But avoiding the Apple tariff may not be enough to make USB 2.0 cheaper. To support older USB 1.1 devices on a new 2.0 system, the cards and hubs must support both speeds, which will result in a more complicated chip set. The same obstacles that make high-speed signals expensive in FireWire may also apply to USB 2.0. Still, if USB 2.0 is built into many PCs -- and with Intel involved, that seems likely -- its cost should drop quickly.

Then there's another small matter to consider: Intel, simply because it makes most of the computer logic boards in the world, can force the adoption of USB 2.0 by including it on all reference designs and by leaving out FireWire.

Publicly, Apple has been tight-lipped about the USB-FireWire debate. But privately, company executives are not impressed with USB 2.0. That makes Apple's public silence even more curious: if FireWire is a better choice for high-performance peripherals than even a souped-up version of USB, why not come out and say so?

The hype surrounding USB 2.0 may also be about Intel's pride. "Intel doesn't want to do it the FireWire way because it didn't invent FireWire," says Mike Mihalik, vice president of engineering at storage-device and peripherals maker LaCie. "What they're trying to do is control the technology. Intel can't do anything to alter the 1394 interface . . . [FireWire] was designed so that one day you could forget the computer altogether."

Intel says there's a place for both technologies, with USB dominating the consumer computer market while FireWire thrives in consumer electronics.

"[FireWire] is far from seeing its doomsday," observes Intel spokesman David Dickstein.

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