Apple embraces two new fast standards

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During Tuesday's keynote address, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced two new technologies on the new 17-inch PowerBook that should give users more bandwidth for wireless networking and FireWire than ever before.

FireWire 800 doubles the bandwidth of the Mac's FireWire ports while preserving compatibility with existing FireWire products. This added speed allows users to use external FireWire drives at speeds equivalent to their internal hard disk drives. Moreover, developers are already exploring other ways to tap the bandwidth promised by FireWire 800, such as inexpensive FireWire 800 uncompressed video editing and fast RAID arrays.

While FireWire is in many professional level digital camcorders and other products, Apple sees the high-speed technology moving more to the consumer market, partly through its own product innovations.

"A lot of the professional products in the video and digital film space have already adopted FireWire due to its advantages of power, speed and throughput." Richard Kerris, Apple's senior director of Worldwide Developer Relations, told MacCentral. "Now we're starting to see FireWire come into the consumer space lead by our own iPod."

FireWire 800 and 802.11g are two more technologies that Apple has helped pioneer in the computer market over the last several years. From the introduction of the first iMac Apple has included technologies and standards, making popular USB, 802.11b and most recently Bluetooth.

"Apple has become the leader in adopting and driving open standards in the industry," said Jon Rubinstein, Apple's senior vice president of Hardware Engineering. "We've been very successful at getting behind and driving adoption of the right industry standards at the right time. And, Apple kicked off the wireless revolution in 1999 with 802.11b, and now we're the first major manufacturer to adopt 802.11g with the new AirPort Extreme."

Jobs also announced Airport Extreme, Apple's implementation of the 802.11g wireless networking standard. Airport Extreme promises 54Mbps wireless transmission with backward compatibility for existing Airport products used by Mac users worldwide.

Airport Extreme

Airport Extreme is almost five times faster than Airport. To get the added bandwidth that Airport Extreme offers, interested Mac users will need to purchase an Airport Extreme Base Station and Airport Extreme cards for their Airport Extreme enabled PowerBooks.

Airport Extreme base stations can handle as many as fifty users up to 150 feet away from the base station and the signals can be protected using 128-bit encryption.

Those using Airport cards can still log on to the Airport Extreme network, as the base station ramps down to 11Mbps to ensure compatibility. Going the other way, Macs equipped with Airport Extreme cards will be able to log onto existing Airport networks, just at the slower, 11Mbps speed.

"We chose 802.11g for compatibility," Apple's director of PowerMac product marketing Tom Boger told MacCentral. "Most of our users are using 802.11b right now, and the other standards don't follow b. We didn't want to all of our b users left out there. 802.11g preserves compatibility with 802.11b, but allows you to go forward."

In addition to maintaining backwards compatibility with Airport, Airport Extreme is also backward compatible with all 802.11b Wi-Fi devices. Boger said that this feature was important to Apple because many Mac users log onto area "Hot Spots" which can be Airport or other Windows wireless network nodes.

Airport Extreme cards began selling this week at the Apple Store for $99. The basic Airport Extreme base station has a USB port for USB printer sharing and two 10/100BASE-T Ethernet ports. The base station is available this week for $199 at the Apple Store.

Apple is also providing a larger Airport Extreme base station that includes a 56K V.90 modem and a port for an additional antenna. The antenna can be directional, ensuring that only users in a specified area can take advantage of the base station, or it can be omni-directional, extending the 150 foot Airport Extreme range in all directions. The larger base station began selling yesterday at the Apple store for $249.

Boger said that other developers were working on 802.11g products for older Macs, but none had been announced yet.

FireWire 800

"Speed, speed, speed," was the answer that Boger gave as to why Apple decided to move to FireWire 800. Boger said that Apple also decided to implement FireWire 800 because of the added distance and speed that the high-end of the specification provides.

However, the 1394b, or FireWire 800, specification provides for transfer rates of up to 3,200Mbps over specialized fiber optic cabling. Additionally, FireWire 800 can be used over both standard Cat-5 Ethernet cabling or optical fiber at distances of up to 100 meters.

Consumers will most likely only see FireWire 800, with later increases to FireWire 1,600 or even 3,200 over copper cabling up to 4.5 meters away as FireWire evolves.

Apple's implementation of FireWire 800 uses what is called a bilingual connector, meaning that it can connect at top speed to other FireWire 800 devices and also connect to FireWire 400 devices.

James Foster, a director at Oxford Semiconductor, explained that FireWire 800 uses a nine-pin connector that is a different shape from a six-pin FireWire 400 connector. To go back and forth between FireWire 400 devices and FireWire 800 devices, you need a cable with a FireWire 800 connector at one end, and either a smaller four-pin or regular six-pin FireWire 400 connector at the other.

Belkin is planning to ship all three of the new cables, nine-pin to nine-pin, nine-pin to six-pin and nine-pin to four-pin, within the next two weeks at the Apple Store. Century Global Inc. is also planning to ship a set of cables within the next few months in addition to a set of FireWire 800 hard drive enclosures.

Ez Quest, LaCie and Smart Disk were all showing FireWire 800 hard drives that they expected to ship within the first quarter of this year.

"I see it [FireWire 800] mainly driven by digital video users," LaCie U.S. CEO Scott Phillips said. "One of the things that's going to be difficult is that it's not going to be a linear transition. FireWire 400 and FireWire 800 will coexist."

Maxtor was demonstrating two daisy chained 200GB FireWire 800 drives striped into one RAID array on a Mac OS X desktop. Paul Striet, a marketing manager at Maxtor, said that they were not making any FireWire 800 announcements at Macworld other than the "demo car" array he was demonstrating.

Streit said that the major benefit for FireWire 800 is the increased bandwidth. "Current drives are faster than FireWire 400," Streit said. "So even with one drive, users can have a portable drive that is just as fast as an internal drive with FireWire 800."

Frank Gabrielli, President of Granite Digital, believes that RAID arrays are probably one of the best uses for FireWire 800.

"If you stripe drives together you get the 100MB per second throughput which is enough for editing uncompressed video," Gabrielli said, "and you get this without having to spend a whole bunch of money on SCSI or fibre."

Oxford Semiconductor provides the chip that drove most, if not all, of the vendor's FireWire 800 products at Macworld. Foster said that his company's FireWire bridge chip costs approximately 35 percent more than a standard FireWire 400 bridge.

"It's safe to say that it's going to come down," Foster said. "This is launch time."

Phillips said that LaCie likes the Oxford part because it is the only part that provides both USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 on a single chip.

Apple has yet to commit to including USB 2.0 on any of its machines, but Rubinstein said the company is watching the technology. All of Apple's current CPUs are come with the slower USB 1.1 technology, which is mainly used to attach keyboards, a mouse or other peripherals to the computer.

"We think FireWire is a fundamentally better technology," said Rubinstein.

Numerous vendors said that they were not looking into FireWire 800 CD-RWs or DVD products, because the added bandwidth from FireWire 800 would not be necessary on these slower devices.

Foster believes that developers have only scratched the surface of what can be done with FireWire 800. In addition to increased speed, Foster said that FireWire 800 also provides vendors with the necessary logic to be able to control devices without a Mac. For example, a consumer could simply connect their DV camcorder to a FireWire 800 hard disk to download their movie.

Foster said that this layer of FireWire 800 will be expanded this year, giving developers plenty of opportunity to allow communication between different digital devices.

While many companies have plans to develop FireWire 800 PCI and PC cards for older Macs, Unibrain plans to ship a three-port FireWire 800 PCI card by the end of February. Marketing Director Errikos Tzavaras said that a price had not yet been determined for the upgrade, but that the device was primarily being developed to take advantage of the company's FireNet FireWire networking. Tzavaras said that a FireNet network using FireWire 800 would potentially be faster than gigabit Ethernet at a fraction of the cost.

"We're really happy with how aggressively developers are jumping on FireWire 800 with innovative new products," Boger said.

While cables are a big issue, Apple ships no FireWire 800 cables with the 17-inch PowerBook. An apple Spokesman said that instead of Apple supplying a host of different cables, individual device vendors would simply supply the cable necessary for their product.

This week also brought together developers for the annual PlugFest, an event to show-off the latest technology. Companies attending the event included Maxtor showing a prototype FireWire 800 hard drive; LaCie showing a prototype FireWire 800 hard drive; Oxford Semiconductor showing a FireWire audio chip that they used to create a 5.1 speaker system; SmartDisk showing FireWire hard drives; Texas Instruments had their PHY Chip which is used in each of these products. Additionally, FireWire prototypes of cameras, recorders and even a coffee mug warmer were shown.

Developers attending the event joked that the coffee mug warmer would never have made it if it were USB 2 since it would take a week to warm it up.

Continuing on the lighthearted theme, Oxford Semiconductor passed out T-shirts that said, "Got FireWire?" on the front and "It's like Viagra for your hard drive" on the back.

"This year's PlugFest was the best ever," said Apple's Kerris. "With over 200 developers showcasing new and prototype products, the excitement for FireWire 800 is over the top. We're soon going to see a lot of amazing peripherals, both professional and consumer, and the Mac is right at the center of it all. "

This story, "Apple embraces two new fast standards" was originally published by PCWorld.

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