USB 2.0 prepares to battle for your PC
By Martyn Williams
(IDG) -- One of the computing world's newest networking standards, USB 2.0, will be battling for the attention of visitors at the upcoming Comdex Fall show with IEEE 1394, an already established format that is spreading its wings to encompass a greater number of uses and a soon-to-come speed upgrade. The two formats have their roots in what were once very different fields.
IEEE 1394 was popularized by Apple Computer in the mid-nineties as FireWire, an easy and fast way to exchange digital video data with computer systems, while USB debuted in 1997 as a way to connect a growing number of peripherals to PCs. Each standard had its own market and, with a large speed difference between the first versions of each system, didn't really compete with each other until people started talking about convergence.
The arrival of digital video on the typical user's desktop and the advent of home multimedia networks that would include personal computers set the scene for the two formats to go head-to-head.
Compare the current versions of the formats, however, and there is not much competition: IEEE 1394 boasts a top speed of 400 megabits per second against USB 1.1's 12 mbps. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that transferring the large files often associated with multimedia will be much faster on the former of the two formats.
But neither standard is standing still. The USB Implementers Forum, the group that develops the basic specification, has come up with USB 2.0, a much faster version that supports data transfer at speeds of up to 480 mbps giving it, on paper at least, the edge over IEEE 1394.
The two formats began sparring for real, rather than on paper, earlier this year in Asia. The Computex show in Taipei, the home PC show for many of the world's largest peripheral makers, marked the appearance en masse of devices supporting IEEE 1394a, a slightly amended version of the standard voted in 1998 to improve interoperability between different manufacturers' devices.
Then, just over a month ago, Japanese electronics makers used the World PC Expo exhibition in Japan to showcase a number of new devices supporting both formats.
Coming to Comdex
Now that battle is set to move to Las Vegas and the floor of Comdex. The USB camp, in the shape of the 800-member USB Implementers Forum, looks likely to be making the most noise. It will have its own stand in the North Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center where USB 2.0, the latest version of the USB standard, will be in the spotlight.
In the run up to the show, several companies have already announced peripherals to support the standard--most of them storage devices that take advantage of the faster data transfer speed offered by USB 2.0.
QPS is already shipping a number of external hard drives and an 8X/8X/32X CD-RW drive that support the system, and is planning to begin shipping an external DVD-RAM drive, two additional CD-RW drives, and two DVD-R drives shortly. Iomega has unwrapped its Predator USB 2.0 16X/10X/40X CD-RW drive. Plextor is also shipping an external CD-RW drive that supports USB 2.0, the PlexWriter 8/8/24U.
The number of peripherals supporting IEEE 1394 is greater given its much longer history in the market. Like USB 2.0, many of these are centered around storage devices, although a number of products such as digital video cameras or digital still cameras are also offer compatibility with the system.
Unlike USB 2.0, personal computers with IEEE 1394 ports are already on the market. Apple has been putting FireWire sockets in its machines for some time, as has Sony, which has been using the iLink name.
And here also lies one of IEEE 1394's biggest difficulties: It has an identity problem. Its official name is long and unwieldy, but Apple's FireWire and Sony's iLink brands have not been widely adopted by other companies, leading to three names for the same system.
If this all seems too much, Adaptec has an answer for people who don't want to bet on which of the two technologies will become prevalent. The company has just announced Duo Connect, a combination PCI card for desktop PCs that features three USB 2.0 ports and four IEEE 1394a ports. It is available now for $129.
Looking ahead, both camps are already well into the standardization stage of upgrades to their respective formats. The 1394 Trade Association is working on IEEE 1394b, a new version that takes data transfer speeds up to 1.6 gigabits per second initially, with plans for 3.2 gbps in the future, while the USB Implementers Forum is busy finalizing the USB On-the-Go specification. This will allow USB 2.0 equipped devices to interconnect without the need for a controlling PC.
Comdex will be held in Las Vegas, from November 12 to November 16.
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