Two Ports in a Storm: FireWire and USB

SAN FRANCISCO (03/06/2000) - The speedy port technology known as IEEE 1394 or FireWire is not exactly a household name: Digital video camera vendors quickly adopted the standard, but mainstream PC peripherals (such as scanners) that incorporate it are only now shipping. The impending release of USB 2 products-which will work faster than today's USB peripherals-pits the two technologies against each other. Which is right for you? We examined two new 1394 scanners from Epson and Umax Technologies Inc., and checked in on the standards battle.

As expected, the 1394 scanners we tested outran SCSI models. If you're a graphics pro or if you edit video, 1394 devices make sense. They're plug-and-play but offer more speed than USB. However, USB devices cost less.

Perhaps as soon as March, the USB 2 specification will be final; products will ship by the year's end. This spec brings transfer speeds up from the current 12 mbps to a whopping 480 mbps. The spec for an improved version of 1394, called 1394b, will be ready at about the same time as USB 2; it raises transfer rates to 800 mbps--double the rate of current 1394 devices.

Different Strengths

Which technology will PC and peripherals makers prefer? USB enjoys an advantage because it's already ubiquitous in new desktop and mobile PCs. The greater cost and complexity of 1394 limit its appeal to use with peripherals that need speed desperately, such as external hard drives, scanners, digital camcorders, and digital cameras. (And the cost of the technology isn't likely to drop soon.) Business peripherals like printers and speakers simply don't require 1394's speed. Given USB 2's improved power and USB's installed base, camcorder makers and others may be swayed to offer USB 2 versions of their products.

But 1394 has its advantages. First, 1394 transfers don't have to pass through a PC. You can directly connect 1394 devices--say, hook up a stereo to a DVD player to a TV and a set-top box. The consumer electronics market is taking note, and such devices are a natural fit with camcorders that already use 1394.

Some vendors showed new FireWire products such as high-end speakers and audio receivers at January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The 1394 Test

The $1399 Epson Expression 1600 Pro FireWire and $999 Umax PowerLook 1100 scanners we tested aren't for casual home use. We compared both with Umax's $799 PowerLook III, a SCSI-2 model. (SCSI, an interface that works at 5 MBps, is the current standard for high-end scanners.)Using a system equipped with 128MB of RAM and Windows 2000, we scanned four images with each scanner's bundled software, at resolutions ranging from 75 dpi to 1200 dpi. The 1394 models took 4 or 5 minutes to scan a high-resolution, 8.5-by-11-inch color page with text and graphics; the SCSI model took about 7 minutes. The 1394s finished a few seconds faster than the SCSI on a 75-dpi, 5-by-7-inch color photograph--the kind you might put on a Web site. On two other scans, the SCSI model completed the job more quickly; that result may be related to software and driver optimization.

Your Best Strategy

USB 2 will show up in desktop computers no later than December. Since the technology costs approximately the same as USB 1.1, printer and scanner vendors will quickly upgrade. USB 2 is backward compatible with today's USB peripherals.

As for 1394, a few more home PC vendors are using it. Compaq, Sony, and Apple already do. Look for 1394 ports in Dell Dimensions and HP Pavilions within the next few months. People anticipating connecting PCs to audio and video consumer electronics products should look for a PC with a 1394 port ($100-range 1394 add-in cards are also available). The rest of us can simply look forward to USB 2, which many machines (including Dell's and HP's) will sport as soon as it's ready.

--Anush Yegyazarian

Epson Expression 1600 Pro FireWire

Street price: $1399; Epson; 800/463-7766; PowerLook 1100Street price: $999; Umax Technologies Inc.; 800/562-0311;

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