What is Firewire – and How Can You Use It?


The consumer tech world is difficult enough to navigate as a consumer, without engaging directly with the connectors and data transfer standards that enable devices to communicate. There is a universe of connection standards, that charts a rocky history through international brand competition and hesitance to adopt proprietary tech – but one standard shines bright in its midst. That standard is FireWire; what exactly is it, though?

What is FireWire?

FireWire, simply put, is a proprietary cable interface designed for the transmission and transfer of data between systems. Otherwise known as IEEE 1394, FireWire is a form of interface that was initially developed by Apple in the late 20th century, before becoming and industry standard for around two decades.

FireWire describes a specific connector type, varying between 6- and 9-pin iterations, which is used to interface the vast majority of Apple computers created between 1995 and 2012 – at which point the format was largely phased out in favor of newer iterations in the form of Thunderbolt and USB-C connections.

Firewire’s Features

FireWire is a format analogous to the USB format, in that it is a form of serial bus designed to transmit information between disparate devices and peripherals. Much like any device with USB connectivity, FireWire cables enable hot-swappable connections to supported equipment, with driver support requirements automatically detected by the host computer.

FireWire-compatible devices could also be daisy-chained through FireWire cables, with up to 63 devices able to run through a single cable in simultaneously and without slowdown. This is largely due to the capabilities of the cable to parse disparate devices at different speeds.

Practical Applications for FireWire

While FireWire is, strictly speaking, an obsolete format, it still has a wide variety of uses amongst legacy and evergreen devices. FireWire enjoyed a legacy overseas as a proprietary format used by Sony, with limited functionality and under a different name. Around the world, FireWire was used to activate and enable peripherals from mice and keyboards to iPods and control surfaces.

FireWire’s legacy is perhaps most keenly felt in the music production world, though; FireWire shares much in common with USB, including the innate ability to share complex information provided by audio interfaces. 

Midi information created by digital keyboards and contact pads is easily transmitted by FireWire, as is complex audio information fed from digital-to-analogue audio interfaces – that today exist as a fundamental interface for amateur and professional studios the world over.

FireWire had its heyday in the early-to-mid 2000s, but also paved the way for new proprietary formats that build on its impressive legacy. Newer Thunderbolt connectors enable vastly quicker transmission speeds, as do current industry-leading serial buses in USB-C. But FireWire remains a workhorse, that keeps older iterations of evergreen hardware solutions ticking in studios and offices everywhere.

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