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What Is FireWire (and How Best to Use It)
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Optimizing Your Devices

Optimizing your devices is the first step to a trouble-free FireWire experience. FireWire devices rely on some pretty serious firmware to do their work. Often the firmware is upgradable. So it's a good idea to have a look online every once in a while to see whether the manufacturer of your drive or camcorder has released a new version of its internal software. In many cases, the updates will improve performance (transfer rates for example), minor cosmetic issues (such as incorrect blinking lights), or solve a bug with some no-brand card commonly found in low-end PCs. In some other cases, though, these upgrades can fix serious bugs that went unnoticed at release time and could avoid data loss; some will remember the early days of Panther where a bug resurfaced in some firmwares that caused much trouble.

Once you have upgraded your firmwares, let's have a look at the cables. After all, FireWire 800 can operate up to distances of 100 meters, but that doesn't mean just any cable can do it. While the ultrathin, ultraslick cables that ship with iPods and iSights are sufficient in most cases for such devices, they are by no means heavy duty; for one thing, they tend to bend and break slightly more easily. Whenever you have a mission-critical device, invest in a good, thick, well-shielded cable. This will not only improve transfer rates, it will also make them smoother and more reliable. Slight bends and cuts on cables can at times cause Kernel Panics as well, which you definitely want to avoid.

Finally, pay particular attention to your hubs. These little devices do contain some electronics that can get damaged or interfere with the proper operation of your device. Whenever you have the time, unplug all your FireWire peripherals, lay down all the cables, and try to rethink the chaining and organization of your stack.

For example, by chaining a couple of drives together, maybe you could avoid using a hub? Or maybe by placing that older, slower device at the end of the chain and saving data the trouble of passing through it, you could improve performance of that new camera you just bought. Since FireWire is so simple to use, we tend to plug things together, without doing much thinking about the configuration. This can lead to the slow building of suboptimal performance.

When changing Macs, keep in mind that newer Macs tend to provide more power through ports than older ones. Any standard-compliant FireWire device will accept it without issue, but some older or less solidly built ones may overheat or get damaged—and you can't really blame Apple on that one. To avoid surprises, get a look at the specifications pages for your Mac or look it up on specialized hardware sites.

Create a FireWire Network

FireWire can also be used as a networking interface. How do you go about that? Simply use your "Network" preferences pane, in the System Preferences application and check the "Built-In FireWire" port in the "Network Port Configuration" list. Then, link your devices together as you would with regular Ethernet cable and you're free to go; just make sure that both devices are configured to use FireWire as a networking interface, or you won't go very far.

You can use DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) over FireWire, setup your network manually if you are so inclined, and even specify proxies, just like with other interfaces. Bonjour over FireWire is also fully supported. These networks will actually operate at a very high speed, sometimes a lot more than what your other networking interfaces can do, and, in almost all cases, much more smoothly as FireWire has been designed to sustain high-data rates.

figure 1

FireWire networking comes in very handy when sharing Internet access. Let's suppose you have a guest in your hotel room who wishes to borrow your Internet access. Only the hotel locks in the access with a MAC address, and you don't feel like using AirPort for security reasons. Simply enable Internet Sharing and FireWire networking and you're ready to go. What about network administrators that require two network interfaces to perform firewall testing, but only have their iBook on the go? Boom (as someone we know would say), two network interfaces without adding an Ethernet card!

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Whatever you decide to do with FireWire's networking capabilities, the bottom line is that it can be used as a super-fast, very reliable networking interface, just like you already use Ethernet or AirPort. Realistically speaking, you probably won't use FireWire for networking very often (although you could), but it can, at times, be a lifesaver.

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