Firewire increases from 400 to 3200 Mbps. But why?

I am an event videographer who has long used DV and silently given thanks many times to those engineers who jackpanel.jpgreplaced 12+ cables between my Betacam deck and my capture system (Y in, Y out, R-Y in, R-Y out, B-Y in, B-Y out, Aud-L in, Aud-L out, Aud-R in, Aud-R out, Genlock, RS-422) with one, small wire. FireWire (as apple calls it) and iLink (as Sony calls it) are the IEEE-1394 specification. (Bonus points for the first person who can identify the black AV IO box pictured here in the comments)

First it was FW400 (400 Mbps) and then FW800. But many years have passed since FW800 shipped and the normal rate of development that had us expecting FW1600, etc, left us grossly disappointed for years.

Well, now the 1394 Trade Association has ratified a FW3200 speed.
But will anyone care? …

firewirelogo.gifFirst the problem was that Apple (the inventor of the FireWire technology that was ratified as the IEEE-1394 specification) was reportedly charging $1 per port. This hindered immediate and widespread adoption on budget computers whereas Intel built its USB onto the motherboards by the millions.

Secondly, USB upped its speed to 480 Mbps with USB 2.0. Then it changed the naming scheme so anything could be called USB 2.0 and this necessitated the additional “High Speed” labeling to indicate those devices that were designed for the faster speeds. For most consumers, this was the end of the story.
USB was built in, and it was faster.
There’s no need for FireWire.

But the reality is that FireWire consistently and resoundly performs better than USB 2.0 High Speed because it is designed to go faster. Moreover it is designed to do more- including TCP/IP over Firewire at FireWire speeds.fw800plugs.gif

As time has passed, and FW800 was left to stagnate, other interconnects provided dramatically faster speeds to external drives. A single external SATA device can easily top 60 MBps. There’s one enclosure with SATA, FW800, FW400 and USB2.0 on it. SATA and FW800 were on par with each other, but even in 2006, SATA was pulling away. Here’s one from 2007.

vstfirewirehd.gifAnother complex issue with FireWire is that one controller chip often handles multiple FireWire ports. This means that, instead of 3 ports x FW400 equaling 1200 Mbps of total throughput, it actually is still just 400 Mbps, or less, because now more devices are trying to pass data through the one chip. As BareFeats tests repeatedly prove, the few companies actually building FW800 onto the motherboard still only use one controller, effectively hobbling the entire system if a single FW400 (or slower) device is connected.

Even if a single FW800 cable is connected to the speediest multi-disk system, it still can’t compare to a multi-lane SATA system. Why not? Because 800 Mbps ÷ 8 bits in a byte = 100 MBps – “overhead” ≈ 70 MBps. Here’s an example.

Though LaCie claims up to 82MB/s, we didn’t see that speed when we tested with QuickBench 3.0 using 100MB block transfers. You might get that speed for smaller size file transfers that fit within the cache of the dual drives.

A single multilane SATA cable can easily blow that away:

PM or Port Multiplication enables one SATA 3G port to transfer data to/from all five drives in the enclosure. Though the “empty” write speed (in our tests) peaked at 213MB/s, the fact that we had five drives capable of a combined speed of over 300MB/s, we were still cranking along at that same speed when we “filled” the volume.

What does that mean? It means you can capture and playback uncompressed HD video beyond the typical 167MB/s target speed no matter how much data you have stored on the RAID volume.

Another feature that FireWire lacks is device assignability. By this, I mean you can’t fwport.jpgconnect multiple DV devices to one computer even though the 25 Mbps data rate ought to mean you could connect 400 ÷ 25 ≈ about 16 cameras. I’ve tested it and as soon as I connect the third device, nothing works reliably. Moreover, each camcorder or deck is trying to negotiate with the other cameras and decks as to who is playing and who is recording. It’s like trying to herd cats.

If you are using TCP/IP over FireWire and have two computers connected and then daisy a hard drive off of this, FireWire has no way to lock the hard drive to computer A and not computer B. A video deck will not work reliably on either computer if both computers are running video software which is trying to communicate with the deck. Both computers will fight for it.

Because Firewire is designed to be used in AV equipment (cable boxes, D-VHS decks, etc), and because it is designed to handle TCP/IP they ought to extend the Transmission Control Protocol to control the transmission of data from a specific device and to a specific device– and deny requests from other devices once a pairing is made and is in use. This would require computer A to “release” control of the deck so that computer B could then acquire it.

Despite all this, Firewire has distinct advantages that SATA does not have:

  • imacwdrives.jpgBus power. So 2.5″ drives need one, and only one cable to the host computer for both power and data. This also works for several 2.5″ drives in a row!
  • Daisy-chaining capability. So you can connect several drives in a row to your computer. You do not have to set any device numbers, the devices auto-negotiate.
  • Multi-device compatibility. While not generally recommended, you can connect your computer to a hard drive to a second hard drive to an optical drive to a DV deck and use all of them without having to lift a single configuration finger.


getting back to the point of the article here…

Why update the FireWire protocol to 3200 Mbps (or ≈ 350 MBps)?

  • It would put it within spitting distance of the current 3G SATA hardware. (and about time if you ask me)
  • It would leverage the existing auto-negotiation, bus power, and muti-periphrial capability capabilities. All capabilities that SATA lacks.
  • It is leaps and bounds above Gigabit Ethernet, even with “jumbo frames” which some have been using to leverage NAS boxes to handle video.

The bigger question really is if anyone in the industry will actually put FW3200 capability into something. Aside from Apple, almost no one makes use of FW800. The reason you may see it on hard drive enclosures is because Apple has significant market share in enough industries to create enough demand for those products. However, by and large, the number of USB-only enclosures is greater than all other interfaces combined.

The other factor weighing in against FW3200 is that the drive companies make SATA drives. You can put a SATA drive in an enclosure offering FW3200, but it is so much easier to just pass on that SATA connection directly to an external cable that connects to an external port on your PC.

Aside from hard drive throughput, there’s little need for the massive throughout of FW3200 for anything else. And hard drive throughput already has a solution that is that fast, or faster.* It’s called SATA and it’s already built into the fast majority of hard drives and computers shipping today.

So will anyone actually bother with FW3200?
I really don’t think so.

The only company that would is Apple and they would be so much better off if they just put a dedicated external SATA port on their machines- including laptops. It’s already here. External drives and enclosures already have it. Add external SATA ports and you’ll make pro users everywhere very, very happy campers.


* more on “faster” next time.

3 thoughts on “Firewire increases from 400 to 3200 Mbps. But why?

Add yours

  1. I think the importance of this is completely lost unless you’re trying to be as mobile as possible. The bus-powered advantage of firewire makes this a very welcome announcement. With the advancement of laptops into the performance realm of desktop systems mobile editing has reached a level of proficiency that is revolutionary, especially for event videographers exploring same-day edit services. Couple those services with more demanding formats and this new firewire protocol becomes a godsend. eSATA’s need for power completely negates its performance benefits. Not being tethered to a power source offers more options. Current eSATA enclosures can be powered by an additional cable from a USB port, but that adds an additional layer of complexity and also increases the chance that the data stream will become interrupted because of a cable-related accident. My one misgiving about the specs are the connector. A locking connector is clearly called for.

  2. Again, the extra power drain of SATAe would totally negate it for laptop use. And what about our DV/HD camcorders? We already have plenty of FW hard drive recording units such as FireStores out there. To switch the whole industry to a totally new transport system would be a tough sell, make them more expensive (FW is cheaper to make than SATA), and the port would drain your camera’s battery faster than you can blink. Not to mention SATA’s much higher heat generation factor, which would burn up most current camera bodies in a flash. Not many video devices have SATA, but do have FW400/800. Upgrading them to a faster FW controller would be cheaper than changing/adding a whole new data transfer protocol. Nice article, but I feel it’s short sighted and done with blinders on.

  3. A locking connector, which is clearly called for in the video industry, costs extra- which the computer industry abhors. One of the advantage of external SATA drives is direct connectability to a computer without any sort of “bridge” chips in between. i.e. less computing hardware = cheaper cost.

    And please understand, I’m not suggesting we change the camcorders to have SATA ports, but either build the hard drives into the camcorders, or make the external hard drive systems with removable hard drives (like the FFV or even FireStore’s own FS-3).

    The hard drives going into the new, bigger systems will likely have SATA interfaces. It is simply where the industry is going. It’s simpler, faster and, with mass manufacturing, cheaper.

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