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USB-FireWire Combo Cards

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At a Glance
  • StarTech CB2U2F

  • Orange Micro OrangeCombo (H)

  • Koutech Systems 7004

  • Iogear GUF202

Last year's introduction of the Power Mac G5 made USB 2.0 ports standard issue. These ports complement FireWire for the connection of DV cameras, hard drives, scanners, and a variety of input devices. A number of CardBus cards now available -- called combo cards -- can add this new port type, along with additional FireWire ports, to older PowerBooks. We put four combo cards through their paces and got some unexpected results.

The first surprise was that all four devices -- Iogear's GUF202, Koutech Systems' 7004, Orange Micro's OrangeCombo, and StarTech's CB2U2F -- are physically identical: they all feature a power port, two USB 2.0 ports, and both a four-pin and a six-pin FireWire 400 (IEEE 1394a) port.

While you can't use FireWire 800 devices with either of the FireWire 400 ports on these cards, the two USB 2.0 ports are backward compatible with all USB 1.1 devices. (If you have adapters or the right cables, you can use FireWire 800 devices with FireWire 400 ports, but you'll get only 400-Mbps throughput.) You can use devices attached to all the cards' ports and all built-in ports simultaneously.

Easy Installation

Hardware installation is as easy as slipping a 2-ounce card into the 32-bit Type II CardBus slot of any PowerBook G4 or G3 (except those with M-3553 serial numbers).

When you insert any of the cards, an icon immediately appears in the menu bar, indicating that your Mac has recognized the card. Connecting power is supposedly optional, but in our tests, relying on bus power was so problematic that we'd never recommend it. Sometimes the device would mount but not operate. Sometimes it wouldn't mount at all. And sometimes it would appear to operate at first but would hang upon access. Koutech provides a cable that siphons power from the PowerBook's built-in USB port, whereas the other vendors provide an AC adapter. Unfortunately, there's no power LED on any of the units, and the power cords obstruct access to the card eject button.

Although Orange Micro opted for a PDF user guide instead of a printed manual, its documentation is far superior to that of the other vendors. For example, only Orange Micro warns of the potential damage that can result from ejecting the card without first choosing Power Off Card (you'll find this in the menu extra that appears in the menu bar and indicates that your Mac has recognized the card). Apart from omitting this information, the Iogear manual is respectable. The other two manuals fail to even mention the Mac.

Drivers Needed

FireWire support is built into all versions of Mac OS X, but if you're not running version 10.2.8 or later, you have to install the USB 2.0 drivers, which all the vendors except Koutech provide. Orange Micro even bundles Ben Software's BTV Pro 5.4.3 (   ; " Mac Software Bargains," July 2002) video-editing software, although most users will probably prefer iMovie.

Although USB 2.0 is theoretically faster than FireWire 400, we got the opposite results in our real-world tests. Initially, the identical throughput of the cards surprised us, until we determined that they all use the same chip set. On average, in copying a 335MB folder from a Macally PHR-250cc FireWire and USB 2.0 external hard drive attached to a 400MHz PowerBook G4, FireWire proved to be 27 percent faster than USB 2.0 (and 340 percent faster than USB 1.1).

Given the cards' similar specifications, we were surprised to discover that they are not equally easy to use. The OrangeCombo card proved to be the most reliable. The others had difficulty mounting our test drive and would hang if both the card and the drive weren't supplied with the supposedly optional external AC power. We never got the drive to work successfully using the FireWire port on the StarTech CB2U2F.

Macworld's Buying Advice

Though all the cards have identical specifications and physical appearance, the Orange Micro OrangeCombo card gets our vote. It performed most reliably, comes with the best manual, and includes the most generous bundle of accessories.

At a Glance
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