Mac Storage Taps Fast FireWire

Apple's Macworld Expo debut of a laptop with 800-Mbps FireWire sparked new storage products that use the speedy interface.

SAN FRANCISCO—While attendees of the Macworld Expo here may be focused on Apple Computers new PowerBook with its wide, 17-inch LCD screen, storage watchers have their eyes on the models high-speed FireWire 800 port. Concurrent with the notebooks introduction, several storage vendors took the wraps off devices using the new interface.

IEEE 1394b is the next-generation version of the FireWire standard and runs at 800 Mbps (100MB), double the speed of the previous 1394a specification. The change has lead the FireWire Trade Association, the group in charge of the standard, to dub 1394a and 1394b as FireWire 400 and FireWire 800, respectively.

FireWire 800 uses a new connector, which (like the earlier standard) provides data signals and power to connected devices, such as digital video camcorders and small hard drives. Called "bilingual," the 1394b connector is backwards compatible with legacy 1394a devices—both 4-pin and 8-pin versions—although it requires the use of an adaptor cable. The 1394b specification also provides for a "beta" cable option that is incompatible with legacy devices.

Oxford Semiconductor showed several firmware packages using the companys OXUF922 IDE-to-1394 bridge chip. Some modules also support USB 2.0, which is not offered on Apples new PowerBook. The new electronics module, which is used in third-party FireWire hard drives, features optimized traffic-management routines that enable full isochronous and asynchronous input and output, according to James Foster, an Oxford director.

FireWire 800 customers will see faster throughput, even from a single hard drive mechanism, according to Scott Philips, La Cie North American CEO. Some drives will see will achieve data transfer rates between 45 and 55 Mbytes per second, depending on the particular hard disk. "Thats a significant bump in performance," he said.

At the same time, Philips said, the transition to the new interface will come at a cost premium for some time to come. Most vendors have yet to finalize pricing for the FireWire 800 drives, and the faster electronics and even cables are more expensive than the slower, established 1394a parts. For example, cables are currently available from a single vendor.

Here are some of the FireWire 800 products introduced last week:

Drive vendor LaCie this week announced four external drives, each providing both FireWire 800 and USB 2.0 ports. The offerings a pair of LaCie Big Disk models with capacities of 400GB and 500GB, as well as 200GB and 250GB drives in the d2 enclosure. The company said the drives will ship in February.

Maxtor demonstrated a FireWire 800 drive that the company described as a "design concept." The 200GB drive provides a 8MB cache and a spindle speed of 7,200 rpm.

SmartDisk introduced its new FirePower line, which supports both FireWire 800 and USB 2.0. Like the Maxtor drive, the FirePower drive has a capacity of 200MB and an 8MB cache.

Unibrain showed its FireBoard 800, due by the end of the quarter. Currently unpriced, the OHCI-compliant PCI board will offer three 1394b ports.

In addition, Indigita recently announced a variety of PCI host adapter cards with several FireWire 800 ports. The cards will be compatible with Macs and Windows platforms.