FireWire's demise: Here's how to cope

This past summer Apple announced its 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro with a surprising omission: no FireWire port. In its place is Apple's latest peripheral connector, USB 3.0, which provides equivalent performance and is widely used in recent Windows PCs. Then in October, Apple revealed a 13-inch MacBook Pro and new iMacs, all with the same limitation. If two points comprise a line, then the line made by these announcements indicates the end of FireWire on future Macs.

Alas, FireWire is widely used in the Mac world to attach external hard drives, cameras and camcorders, and music processing gear. USB 2.0 is too slow for these purposes; USB 3.0 is too new to have been supported by still useful (and expensive) legacy gear; and the Thunderbolt technology introduced 18 months ago in almost all new Mac models is still too rare and expensive. (At 10 Gbps, Thunderbolt is more than 10 times faster than FireWire 800 [800 Mbps] and about seven times as fast as USB 3.0.) What can the many users with significant investments in FireWire devices do when upgrading to new Macs? There are solutions, but all have drawbacks, which you must carefully weigh before buying.

There's an adapter for that

The seemingly obvious solution to a FireWire ouster is the one Apple released this fall: its $29 Thunderbolt to FireWire Adapter. This one-way adapter (you can't use it to convert a Mac FireWire interface to Thunderbolt) supports a FireWire 800 attachment; you can then use a FireWire 800-to-FireWire 400 conversion cable to attach FireWire 400 devices.

The adapter works well when it works, providing full FireWire 800 performance. But users of the adapter have encountered a frustrating limitation: Only 7 watts of bus power is supplied to an attached device. The FireWire standard supports up to 45 watts, although most computers, including Macs, deliver 10 to 20 watts. Some bus-powered FireWire devices have an optional DC power port, even if they don't include an AC power adapter. If you can externally power your device, you can bypass the 7-watt limitation. Otherwise you'll need to explore other solutions.

Even if you can run within the 7-watt budget or bypass it, another limitation may stop you. Apple's adapter still looks like Thunderbolt to the Mac, so if your application won't work with Thunderbolt, the adapter may be useless to you.

One documented failure mode is running Microsoft Windows under Boot Camp interfacing to non-hard-disk FireWire devices. Windows works fine under Boot Camp with external FireWire disk attached via Apple's adapter, but it does not have Thunderbolt drivers compatible with Apple's adapter for non-hard-disk FireWire devices. A workaround is to run your Windows application in a Mac OS X-resident hypervisor, such as Parallels or VMware Fusion, both of which work with Apple's adapter.

There may be similar compatibility issues with non-disk FireWire devices such as scanners, cameras, and music processing gear. If the controlling application doesn't support Thunderbolt, it may not work with the adapter.

Device-specific solutions: Enclosures and intermediaries

If you determine that Apple's "universal" adapter solution won't work for you, you'll have to move on to device-specific solutions.

An easy, although somewhat labor-intensive, workaround for external hard drives is to change to a new enclosure that supports either Thunderbolt or USB 3.0, such as New Technology's $99 MiniStack enclosure, which has both USB 3.0 and FireWire interfaces. For hard drive transfer speeds, USB 3.0 and FireWire 800 have equivalent performance. You can purchase the enclosure now to future-proof your drive investment.

What if you have a bevy of external FireWire hard drives? That situation is not uncommon with video professionals. If you don't need portability, you may be able to use a gigabit ethernet NAS device, assuming the device supports JBOD (just a bunch of disk) RAID technology, such as Synology's $429 four-bay DS413j. Depending on the NAS device's firmware, you may be able to just insert your drives and access them individually over ethernet. Alternatively, you may have to buy one initial hard drive to migrate your existing drives one at a time into the NAS, adding your drives to the NAS array as you go.

For other FireWire devices, you will have to get more creative. One approach could be to use an intermediary device, such as a powered FireWire hard drive, to bridge between Apple's underpowered adapter and your FireWire device. A working configuration is Other World Computing's $160 Mercury Elite-AL Pro 500GB hard drive, connecting via FireWire both the Mac and a bus-powered device such as Digidesign's Digi 002 FireWire audio mixer. You may already have such a device in your inventory, but getting 500GB storage in the bargain with your adapter solution makes the $160 price tag a little easier to swallow.

ExpressCard: Legacy ace in the hole

An often forgotten interface standard is ExpressCard, a PCMCIA slot interface supported on legacy Macs. You can purchase a Thunderbolt-to-ExpressCard external adapter box, such as Sonnet Technology's $199 Echo Pro ExpressCard/34 Thunderbolt Adapter, and add to that a $50 Thunderbolt cable and generic $50 PCMCIA FireWire 800 adapter; you're good to go for most any non-hard-drive bus-powered FireWire device. The adapter supports full FireWire 800 performance.

One downside with this approach is the number of interconnects and the need to carry and manage multiple devices and cables. One loose connection can break the setup, making the solution workable but less than desirable.

Out of options: Thunderbolt or USB 3.0 refresh

If none of these solutions works for you, you may have to bite the bullet and upgrade your beloved FireWire external devices to those using Thunderbolt or USB 3.0.

For hard disks this isn't so painful, because drive prices have plummeted over the past few years. You'll still have the labor of transferring your data to the new drive, too.

Other devices may be harder to replace given the expense and the time and effort to work a new product into your production environment. Snapping in a new hard drive is much simpler than learning to use a new camera, audio mixer, or video production console.

It's hard to blame Apple for moving on from FireWire, given that port space and power budgets, particularly on MacBooks, are limited. Hopefully one of the above remedies will see you through making your own move to Thunderbolt and USB 3.0.

This story, "FireWire's demise: Here's how to cope" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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