Burney's Legal Tech Reviews – Flaming FireWire and Ultra-Speedy USB

Brett Burney is the Legal Technology Support Coordinator at Thompson Hine in Cleveland, Ohio. He regularly reviews products for Law.com’s Automated Lawyer and Law Office Computing Magazine. Feel free to e-mail Brett with your legal-technology questions at [email protected].


A brief look at the technology behind FireWire and USB 2.0 and a few products that utilize the standards.

If you’re interested in learning about FireWire and the newer USB 2.0, then I invite you to continue reading. This column started out as a personal quest to find an efficient method of external storage. It turned into a wonderful opportunity to explore how the promises and possibilities of FireWire and USB 2.0 can be used in today’s office environments. I’ll examine the two technologies briefly and then review a few relevant products.

From Whence They Came …

Before this column, I had only heard the term FireWire used in discussions about digital video, and how FireWire is the technology that allows amateur and professional videographers to efficiently edit their work. I didn’t see what application the technology could have in the legal world, unless an endearing soul wanted to edit videos of the company picnic.

But I really got interested in FireWire when I found several “external hard drives” that connected to a computer via the technology with the flaming moniker. The technology looked and sounded similar to the popular Universal Serial Bus (USB) but FireWire promised data transfer rates of up to 30 times what you get with USB.

I’ve been a fan of USB since it appeared. Instead of hooking up products to my computer via serial or parallel ports and having to reboot or make painstaking configuration changes, the USB standard allowed me to plug and unplug my products at will and supported up to 127 devices on one port (with USB hubs, of course). Now, the USB standard is set to become even more popular thanks to the new USB 2.0.

The biggest difference between the two generations of USB is speed. With USB 1.1, the maximum data transfer rate between the computer and the external USB device was 12 million bits per second (Mbps). With USB 2.0, the speed leaps to a whopping 480 Mbps! That’s something worth writing about … fortunately for me.

The Battle of the Wires

FireWire technology was developed in 1995 by Apple. The standard was subsequently adopted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, otherwise know as IEEE, and dubbed with the number 1394. That’s why you’ll sometimes see FireWire and “IEEE 1394” used interchangeably.

FireWire immediately started to establish itself as a standard for moving digital video on and off computers. It even won an Emmy Award because of the impact the technology had on the television industry. Just about any digital video camera on the market today includes a FireWire connection and the technology can achieve data transfer rates of up to 400 Mbps, just slightly under the maximum speed of USB 2.0.

Partly due to the fact that USB 2.0 was slow to arrive on the computing scene, entrepreneurial spirits began developing the FireWire technology for uses other than digital video such as external hard drives. The idea was to have a small portable hard drive that you could plug into your computer via a FireWire connection and transfer data at blazing fast speeds.

It wasn’t long, however, before USB 2.0 showed up to engage in a head-to-head battle with FireWire. First off, USB 2.0 does offer a slightly faster transfer speed although it would only be fair to mention that the future IEEE 1394b standard will supposedly offer up to 800 Mbps.

Second, USB 2.0 offers backwards compatibility with older USB 1.1 devices. This is important for people like me that have computer mice, printers, and other devices that work on the old USB 1.1 standard.

On the other hand, FireWire does have a couple of aces up its sleeve. The FireWire technology has the ability to recharge devices while they are connected to the computer at the same time that they are transferring data. This would only be applicable for certain devices like the slick iPod, but it is a tremendous advantage over USB. Also, as it stands right now, FireWire has more market penetration than USB 2.0, although that could change in the blink of the digital eye.

Got It? Then Go Get It!

I’m sure all of this sounds great, but you may be wondering how in the world you can use FireWire or USB 2.0 if you don’t have those plugs already on your computer. That’s a great question and because you asked, I’d like to introduce you to the Adaptec DuoConnect.

First, unless you have an Apple or a Sony computer, there’s a good bet you probably don’t have a FireWire connection already. Second, if your computer currently has a USB port there’s a very high probability that it’s only the 1.1 standard and not the newer USB 2.0. So in order to gain FireWire or USB 2.0 functionality, you will have to upgrade your hardware – that’s just the facts. Fortunately, I’ve got a simple solution for your desktop PC. (I won’t be discussing laptop computers, but there are PCMCIA solutions for getting USB 2.0 and FireWire functionality.

The Adaptec DuoConnect PCI card is perfect to fill the FireWire or USB 2.0 gap in your computer, plus its backed by a great company. Before I found the DuoConnect card, I was excited to receive an external hard drive from CMS Peripherals but my enthusiasm faded after I realized it required a FireWire connection – which I didn’t have. So like any good techie, I pounced on the opportunity to upgrade my hardware.

The DuoConnect is actually different from many other USB 2.0 or FireWire upgrade cards because it offers both technologies on one card. The obvious advantage to this is that you only need to take up one PCI slot inside your computer, rather than two for each technology.

Obviously, if you don’t feel comfortable poking around inside your computer, than ask for some help with installing a card like the DuoConnect. However, if you’ve installed extra memory into your computer before, you won’t have a problem inserting the DuoConnect inside your box.

On the outside, the Adaptec DuoConnect offers three USB 2.0 ports and two FireWire ports. On the inside of the card, there are two extra ports – one for each technology – that will allow you to hook up to ports on the front of your computer case if you have that ability. The DuoConnect also has an internal power connecter which you can hook up if your devices might need a little extra juice to run properly (or you can elect not to plug this in if you plan to power your devices with their own AC adapters).

After installing the hardware, I powered up my computer to see if Windows XP Professional would recognize the card. It did without a problem and Windows even prompted me to install the proper drivers for USB 2.0 (Windows XP apparently didn’t ship with USB 2.0 drivers but it’s not a problem to install them through Windows Update). If you are using Windows 2000 on down, Adaptec included its own set of USB 2.0 drivers that you can install from the CD-ROM.

I believe the Adaptec DuoConnect is one of the best choices that you can make when you want to upgrade your computer to handle USB 2.0 and/or FireWire. Not only do you get to put some “new life” into a slightly older computer by adding these newer ports, you also kill two technology birds with one stone – you gain the ability to use both technologies with only adding one PCI card. In addition, the DuoConnect will accept your USB 1.1 devices without a problem. Lastly, Adaptec was even gracious enough to include a 6 foot FireWire cable in the box – that may not sound like much but those cables can run up to $30.

Hard Drive Space Deluxe

After I installed the Adaptec DuoConnect card, I was finally able to try out my FireWire external hard drive from CMS Peripherals. The product I received is actually called the Automatic Backup System (or the ABSplus for short) because CMS Peripherals bundles some great software with the drive that will back up your entire hard drive. I reviewed the 10 Gigabyte (GB) model but you can purchase the 20, 30, 40, or 60 GB versions. While I received the FireWire drive, CMS Peripherals also offers the same product with USB 2.0 connectors.

Since I was using Windows XP Professional, I wanted to see if it would recognize the ABSplus if I just simply plugged it in. Sure enough, Windows immediately found the ABSplus and registered it as an external drive – it was mapped as E: since C: was my hard drive and D: was my CD drive. (If you’re using Windows 2000,you should experience the same result, but you’ll have to manually install drivers if you are using Windows 98, 95, or Me.) I was immediately able to save data to the ABSplus on E: or I could simply drag files to that location. CMS Peripherals calls this the “External Storage Only” option.

Next I decided to install the software that came with the ABSplus. During installation, the software gave me the option to format the drive with the NT File System (NTFS) so that it would match my computer’s hard drive. When installation was complete, I was asked if I wanted to perform my first backup of the C: drive. I accepted the offer and then watched in slight unbelief as all my files copied over to the ABSplus at an incredible speed. I timed a 600 MB file at around 30 seconds!

With the backup complete, I literally had an exact replica of my C: hard drive. I don’t think I need to convince anyone of the benefits of having a total backup like this. The ABSplus is only 3 by 5.75 inches so it can easily fit inside your briefcase or even your shirt pocket. Imagine the good feeling of having a total backup of your hard drive in your pocket. The software installs a small icon in the taskbar that allows you to basically update the backup at the click of a button. On top of that, the ABSplus can be even be configured to be bootable in the case you really have a total shutdown of your system.

An External Hard Drive Solution to Make You Smile

After I started to realize the beautiful possibilities of having external hard drive space that I could access at tremendous speeds, I wanted to test out the USB 2.0 functionality with a similar product. I was very happy to find the ION Hi-Speed USB 2.0 3.5” Hard Drive Enclosure from IOGEAR (I’ll just call it the “ION Drive” for short).

The first curious thing I noticed about the ION Drive was the word “enclosure.” As it turns out, that is basically all that I received – an enclosure that was waiting for an actual hard drive. Actually, just about every external hard drive that you will find on the market today is basically just a regular hard drive enclosed in some plastic and a few electronics, including the one from CMS Peripherals that I looked at above. In fact, I just recently read an editorial that played down the importance of purchasing a commercial external hard drive and suggested to just buy a regular hard drive and a separate enclosure.

That’s basically what I did with the ION Drive. I received the 3.5” model as opposed to the 2.5” model. Most desktop PC hard drives conform to the 3.5” standard and 2.5” drives are the standard size used in many laptop computers.

The ION Drive comes with a very nice set of instructions on how to open the case and install a 3.5” hard drive. I had an extra hard drive that I retrieved from an older Pentium computer. Installing the hard drive is simply a matter of connecting two plugs and screwing the casing back together. It really could not be any easier.

Using the included power supply and USB 2.0 cable, I plugged up the ION Drive to the wall and computer respectively. There is an on-off switch on the front of the drive and as soon as I hit that, a bright blue LED lit up on the unit and Windows XP Professional recognized the drive immediately. (If you use Windows 98 or 95, you’ll have to use the included CD-ROM to install the proper drivers.) The ION Drive appeared as another drive letter in My Computer and I had instant access to all of my files on that old hard drive. I copied several large files to the ION Drive and was amazed at the speed of USB 2.0.

I then decided to get really daring. My wife has been bugging me for quite a while to somehow power up her old 486 computer so she could access her old poetry and documents from several years ago. Admittedly, I had been putting her off for a while since I didn’t really relish the thought of having to navigate again in Windows 3.1. After finding the 486 down in the dark, deep recesses of our basement, I opened the case and popped out the 3.5” hard drive. I plugged it into the ION Drive enclosure and I had a very happy wife that day. I found it amazing that I could literally take a hard drive out of an old computer (that ran Windows 3.1) and access the information in Windows XP. Since it was so old (only 210 MB), the data transfer rate wasn’t full power but I’m quite sure the drive had never worked so fast before in its life.

The ION Drive USB 2.0 3.5” Hard Drive Enclosure is a very handy invention. If you want to purchase something more than just an enclosure, IOGEAR sells models with 40 to 120 GB drives already installed. If you prefer to have a 2.5” hard drive enclosure or external hard drive, they sell those as well. I am extremely happy with the ION Drive and it looks great on the desk.

Fire Away!

The conclusion of the story is that I am very excited about the future of FireWire and USB 2.0. While I know that FireWire has been the king technology in the world of digital video, I am convinced that it can hold at least a princely title in the world of storage. And now with USB 2.0, users have the option of an even faster data transfer rate.

And don’t think that this is all the FireWire and USB 2.0 can do. Many companies these days are offering CD burners that work on both technologies: USB 2.0. The future is bright for these two standards and they certainly won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

Posted in: Burney's Legal Tech Reviews, Computer Hardware, Product Reviews