How FireWire Works

By: Jeff Tyson & Julia Layton
A wrapped grey FireWire cable
A FireWire connection lets you send data to and from high-bandwidth digital devices such as digital camcorders, and it's faster than USB. Ross M. Horowitz / Getty Images

­You have probably heard the term FireWire if you have any interest in digital video -- or maybe you know it as Sony i.Link or as IEEE 1394, the offical name for the standard. FireWire is a way to connect different pieces of equipment so they can easily and quickly share information.

­Originally created by Apple and standardized in 1995 as the specification IEEE 1394 High Performance Serial Bus, FireWire is very similar to Universal Serial Bus (USB). The designers of FireWire had several particular goals in mind when they created the standard:


  • Fast transfer of data
  • Ability to put lots of devices on the bus
  • Ease of use
  • Hot-pluggable ability
  • Provision of power through the cable
  • Plug-and-play performance
  • Low cabling cost
  • Low implementation cost

In this article, you will learn exactly what FireWire is, how it works and why you might want to use it.


What is FireWire?

FireWire 400 sockets

FireWire is a method of transferring information between digital devices, especially audio and video equipment. Also known as IEEE 1394, FireWire is fast -- the latest version achieves speeds up to 800 Mbps. At some time in the future, that number is expected to jump to an unbelievable 3.2 Gbps when manufacturers overhaul the current FireWire cables.

You can connect up to 63 devices to a FireWire bus. Windows operating systems (98 and later) and Mac OS (8.6 and later) both support it.


Let's say you have your digital camcorder connected to your home computer. When your computer powers up, it queries all of the devices connected to the bus and assigns each one an address, a process called enumeration. FireWire is plug-and-play, so if you connect a new FireWire device to your computer, the operating system auto-detects it and asks for the driver disc. If you've already installed the device, the computer activates it and starts talking to it. FireWire devices are hot pluggable, which means they can be connected and disconnected at any time, even with the power on.

Now let's take a look at FireWire's specifications.


FireWire Specifications

The original FireWire specification, FireWire 400 (1394a), was faster than USB when it came out. FireWire 400 is still in use today and features:

  • Transfer rates of up to 400 Mbps
  • Maximum distance between devices of 4.5 meters (cable length)

The release of USB 2.0 -- featuring transfer speeds up to 480 Mbps and up to 5 meters between devices -- closed the gap between these competing standards. But in 2002, FireWire 800 (1394b) started showing up in consumer devices, and USB 2.0 was left in the dust. FireWire 800 is capable of:


  • Transfer rates up to 800 Mbps
  • Maximum distance between devices of 100 meters (cable length)

The faster 1394b standard is backward-compatible with 1394a.

In the next section, we'll get deeper into the FireWire vs. USB debate.


FireWire vs. USB

The key difference between FireWire and USB is that FireWire is intended for devices working with a lot more data -- things like camcorders, DVD players and digital audio equipment. FireWire and USB share a number of characteristics but differ in some important ways.

Implementing FireWire costs a little more than USB, which led to the adoption of USB as the standard for connecting most peripherals that do not require a high-speed bus.


Speed aside, the big difference between FireWire and USB 2.0 is that USB 2.0 is host-based, meaning that devices must connect to a computer in order to communicate. FireWire is peer-to-peer, meaning that two FireWire cameras can talk to each other without going through a computer.

Now let's get back to the implementation of FireWire. How do you connect?


FireWire Cables and Connectors

FireWire devices can be powered or unpowered. FireWire allows devices to draw their power from their connection. Two power conductors in the cable can supply power (8 to 30 volts, 1.5 amps maximum) from the computer to an unpowered device. Two twisted pair sets carry the data in a FireWire 400 cable using a 6-pin configuration.

FireWire adapter cable (9-pin configuration on left)
Photo courtesy HSW Shopper

Some smaller FireWire-enabled devices use 4-pin connectors to save space, omitting the two pins used to supply power.


­FireWire 800 cables use a 9-pin configuration. Six of those pins are the same as the six pins in the 1394a connector (shown above). Two of the added pins provide a "grounded shield" to protect the other wires from interference, and the third added pin does nothing at this time [ref].

Because FireWire 800 is backward-compatible with FireWire 400, there are a variety of adapters available to facilitate the combination of both standards on the same bus. There are also two types of FireWire 800 ports available: a "bilingual" port accomodates both FireWire standards, while a b-only port accepts only a FireWire 800 connector.


Sending Data via FireWire

FireWire uses 64-bit fixed addressing, based on the IEEE 1212 standard. There are three parts to each packet of information sent by a device over FireWire:

  • A 10-bit bus ID that is used to determine which FireWire bus the data came from
  • A 6-bit physical ID that identifies which device on the bus sent the data
  • A 48-bit storage area that is capable of addressing 256 terabytes of information for each node

­The bus ID and physical ID together comprise the 16-bit node ID, which allows for 64,000 nodes on a system. Data can be sent through up to 16 hops (device to device). Hops occur when devices are daisy-chained together. Look at the example below. The camcorder is connected to the external hard drive connected to Computer A. Computer A is connected to Computer B, which in turn is connected to Computer C. It takes four hops for Computer C to access the camera.


Assuming all of the devices in this setup are equipped with FireWire 800, the camcorder can be up to 400 meters from Computer C.

Now that we've seen how FireWire works, let's take a closer look at one of its most popular applications: streaming digital video.


FireWire and Digital Video

FireWire really shines when it comes to digital video applications. Most digital video cameras or camcorders now have a FireWire plug. When you attach a camcorder to a computer using FireWire, the connection is amazing.

An important element of FireWire is the support of isochronous devices. In isochronous mode, data streams between the device and the host in real-time with guaranteed bandwidth and no error correction. Essentially, this means that a device like a digital camcorder can request that the host computer allocate enough bandwidth for the camcorder to send uncompressed video in real-time to the computer. When the computer-to-camera FireWire connection enters isochronous mode, the camera can send the video in a steady flow to the computer without anything disrupting the process.


You can easily edit and create custom video projects using fast hard drives, a digital camcorder and a computer. With the right software, the computer and the camera communicate, and the computer can download all of the video automatically and with perfect digital clarity. Since the content is digital from start to finish, there is no loss of quality as you work on successive generations.

For more information on FireWire and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

Who invented FireWire?
Apple invented FireWire in the mid-90s.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • "More wires, more fire: FireWire 800."
  • "1394 Technology - About." 1394 Trade Association.
  • "Do you need FireWire 800?"