Improve digital devices with new USB, FireWire

Once upon a time, the USB port on a personal computer required little, if any, thought.

But as in digital music, photos and video - understanding USB and 1394 ports is a bit more complex.


The open-slot ports - which connect external devices such as digital cameras, external hard drives and mp3 players to the computer - are new and improved both in transfer speeds and physical location on the PC.

And that leads to important things that every consumer should know before buying a new computer.


USB - short for Universal Serial Bus - comes in two versions: USB 1.1 and USB 2.0. IEEE 1394 - the official tech name used by engineers - has aliases. Apple Computer, which invented it, calls its FireWire; Sony calls it iLink.

USB 1.1 transfers data from the external device to the computer at 12 megabits per second, which is fine for documents and other small files. USB 2.0 - sometimes referred to as Hi-Speed USB - transfers data at 480 mbps.

USB 1.1 and USB 2.0 are backward-compatible, which means that a USB 2.0 product plugged into a USB 1.1 port will work but transfer the data only at the slower speed.

IEEE 1394 transfers data at 400 mbps, a nice speed for moving video files. That's why video-friendly Apple made FireWire a Mac standard years ago.

A new version of FireWire - with a transfer speed of 800 mbps - is coming soon.

So how do you know what you need and where you need it?

If you're using a digital camcorder, make sure the machine comes with a FireWire port. FireWire is the preferred method of transferring video, though USB 2.0 can handle it.

If you're thinking about buying a Mac, there's no reason to ask - the FireWire port will be there. If you're looking at a Windows PC, you should probably ask. On many entry-level PCs - including the low-end Dell computers that are offered at rock-bottom prices - the 1394 port won't be there.


USB 2.0 ports are becoming the PC standard, largely because of the compatibility issue. And PC makers are throwing plenty of them on a basic unit.

But in our opinion, the number of ports isn't nearly as important as their location - at least for desktop PCs.

Ideally, each desktop tower should come with at least two USB - and maybe even one FireWire - ports on the front.

No one wants to crawl under a desk with a flashlight, pushing aside all of those cords to find the open ports just to plug in a digital camera or mp3 player.

Whether synching a handheld computer, exporting music tracks to an mp3 player or importing photos from the digital camera, you'll want to understand USB and 1394 technology.