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FireWire or USB: And the winner is?

The two primary technologies for connecting external devices to PCs are getting turbocharged, and consumers and peripherals makers stand to reap the rewards.

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Ready, set, go: Which USB version is faster?
Jason Ziller, technology manager, Intel Labs
Sales of peripherals could get a boost this year as the two primary technologies for connecting external devices to PCs get turbocharged.

PC makers in recent months have begun installing a high-speed version of the Universal Serial Bus, dubbed USB 2.0 High-Speed, across their product lines. By the crucial holiday sales season, the major PC makers will have incorporated USB 2.0, with at least one maker installing six USB 2.0 ports in a PC to replace the crowded array of differing ports.

USB 2.0 "is the one technology that finally meets all the requirements we've had up until now," said Brian Zucker, a technology evangelist at Dell Computer.

USB 2.0, which can move data up to 480mbps, compared with the pokey 12mbps handled by USB 1.1, provides stiff competition for FireWire, a technology invented by Apple Computer that transports data at 400mbps.

Partly due to delays in launching USB 2.0, FireWire has gained in popularity in the past two years. But with USB 2.0 on the market, FireWire temporarily loses its title as the speed king. Perhaps most importantly, FireWire also represents a more costly option for PC makers than USB 2.0, which could undermine its acceptance.

"USB 2.0 is more cost-effective," said Roger Kay, an analyst at market researcher IDC. FireWire "will still be around, but over the longer term it does begin to fade."

FireWire backers are not resting on their early speed lead; a new version of the technology is on the horizon that will transmit data at 800mbps--enough to transfer the contents of an entire CD in just seconds.

"By the end of the year, you will see it on at least one computer with 1394b and on consumer electronics products from a major manufacturer in Japan," said James Snider, executive director of the 1394 Trade Association. (1394 and 1394b are the technical names of the standards, while FireWire is the retail name. Sony, however, brands the standard as iLink.)

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The new FireWire will likely be shown off at MacWorld in July, according to sources close to the company.

Regardless of which technology becomes more widely used, the bottom line is that consumers and peripherals makers stand to reap the rewards.

Analysts believe the rapid adoption of USB 2.0, in particular, will boost sales of external CD-RW drives and digital cameras.

"USB 2.0 will have a big impact on external optical drives and hard drives, which have a need for the extra speed," said Brian O'Rourke, an analyst with In-Stat/MDR. "It'll have a significant impact on digital cameras" because the trend there is in producing larger photo sizes.

The new push for USB 2.0 can be traced to Intel, which added support into its latest desktop chipset for the same cost as its previous chipsets. In addition, Microsoft has built in native support to Windows XP.

Chipset integration and software support essentially make USB 2.0 free. Before this, PC makers had to add an extra chip, which increased costs.

By comparison, adding FireWire to a PC requires using an additional chip. But it was a price PC makers were willing to pay, especially on high-end consumer machines because of a lack of alternatives.

FireWire add-in cards typically sell for between $40 and $50. PC makers spend about $10 to build it into a PC. A $10 increase in manufacturing costs typically translates into a $50 boost in retail prices.

"They are both high-speed serial interfaces. Even though they have been positioned as consumer and corporate, it doesn't matter at all," said Kay, who said that some camera makers have already started including USB 2.0 ports rather than FireWire.

USB first began to appear as a way to connect peripherals in 1997, but it didn't really take off until the introduction of Windows 98 in June 1998.

PC makers have widely adopted it, but they often include only one or two USB ports to connect mice or printers because of its comparatively slow speed.

Still, USB simplified PCs for consumers because several devices could be plugged in to the same port. Before that, every device had its own specifically designed port on a PC. A technology called SCSI allowed for multiple devices to be added by "daisy chaining" them, but it was notoriously unstable, and installing it could be difficult because there were multiple connectors with differing pin configurations.

Dell, for one, will make USB 2.0 High-Speed its standard method for connecting devices to its desktops PCs. Over time, it plans to eliminate a number of specialized ports--such as those used specifically to connect a PC's keyboard, mouse and printer--replacing them with six or so USB 2.0 ports, Zucker said.

Gateway plans to move over completely by the end of the year, a representative said. Emachines, a major player in retail sales, particularly at the lower end, has begun selling USB 2.0 models.

Because of the faster data rates, more consumers could be enticed to burn CDs and DVDs--downloading pictures or video from digital cameras--and back up data to external hard drives. Dell, in one example, was able to download about 200 songs to an MP3 player in 53 seconds using USB 2.0. The company found the same process took 10 minutes with USB 1.1.

"By the end of this year, 80 percent to 90 percent of Intel desktop platforms shipping will have integrated USB 2.0," said Jason Ziller, chairman of the USB Implementer's Forum and Intel's technology initiatives manager. "We are also expecting to see a pretty good ramp in laptops this year."

While most brand name desktop PC makers will offer USB 2.0 by the end of the year, "white box" manufacturers and third-tier makers won't fully convert until late 2003 or early 2004, said Brian O'Rourke, an analyst with In-Stat/MDR.

Most chipset makers, including Nvidia and Via Technologies, will begin shipping products that add USB 2.0 support this year. Via, for one, has already started offering some USB 2.0 products

USB vs. FireWire
USB was expected to get a push from Intel after the chipmaker's decision in 1998 to exclude FireWire in its chipsets. The company uses FireWire in its home-networking product line, for example, but it chose not to pay royalties for FireWire for each chipset.

But sluggish adoption, including a lack of initial support in Microsoft's Windows XP operating system delayed USB 2.0's widespread use. Microsoft has included support for FireWire in Windows for some time.

With the lead that FireWire has established, the two will likely live side by side for some time. FireWire is also more engrained in some markets.

FireWire "is really well entrenched, particularly in areas like video editing," O'Rourke said. "I think (it) is going to maintain its niche."

Many PCs and many digital video cameras, he pointed out, include both USB and FireWire ports. Almost all digital video recorders use FireWire to download videos to a PC and USB to send still photos or lower-quality, compressed videos.

FireWire has a built-in power supply that can charge batteries in cameras and other devices. USB can power devices such as mice, but it can't recharge batteries.

News.com's Joe Wilcox contributed to this report.