If you are thinking of transferring video from your Digital8 or MiniDV tapes to your computer you might have heard the term “firewire card” and been confused as to what it is and why you should use it.
A Firewire card is an add-on card for desktop or laptops pcs that enables communication with firewire-capable devices like hard drives and digital camcorders. The high speed of data transfer allows for loss-less video transfer from digital camcorders to computers.
But firewire is a less popular technology now and it may be harder to know if you can add a firewire card to your computer.
What is Firewire and Does My Computer Already Have It?
Firewire, or IEEE-1394, was popular technology back in the 1990’s and 2000s developed by Apple to replace older high-speed technologies like SCSI. The original version of firewire called Firewire 400 allowed transfer speeds up to 400 mps, as well as audio and video transfer (Wikipedia).
Most Mac computers developed from 2000-2010 came integrated with firewire, but most PCs did not have integrated firewire thus the need for firewire cards.
When digital camcorders were developed they needed a way to transfer the digital signal they were recording onto tapes into a computer without any quality loss, including meta info like date and time of recording.
Firewire was the solution for all digital camcorders at the time, they virtually all came equipped with a 4-pin firewire connection. Sony called it their i.LINK connector, but it was essentially firewire.
Firewire was also popular with external devices like hard drives, where you could daisy-chain several drives together yet only use 1 port on your computer.
Firewire has changed over the years with Firewire 400 that used 4 and 6 pin connectors, and the newer and faster Firewire 800 that uses 8 pin connectors.
Firewire has 4 main benefits over a USB video converter when transferring digital video over firewire:
- Uncompressed Video: The video transfers uncompressed from the camcorder to your computer, meaning the video that gets stored on your computer is the exact same quality of the video that is on the digital tape.
- Meta Info: The video retains its meta information like the date and time the clip was shot
- Scene Detection: Because the computer can detect when a clip changes from one scene to the next based on the timecode of the digital video, it can automatically split each clip into its own file as it transfers to the computer.
- Control: Since firewire is a bi-directional communication, your computer can control your camcorder, so you can forward/rewind/stop your camcorder from your computers editing software
By far the most important benefit it getting that digital video off the tape into your computer with in the best quality format, which firewire is a clear winner.
How Do I Know If My Computer has FireWire?
Apple Products: as stated earlier, most Macbook (Laptop) and iMac (Desktop) models built in the 1990s to 2000 were built with integrated firewire ports. Since then Apple and Intel have developed iterations of a technology called Thunderbolt, which does have an adapter to firewire allowing it to connect to firewire devices. If purchasing one I recommend making sure it is the right type of thunderbolt that fits your Mac, and it is a genuine Apple product.
A quick an easy way to check if you have firewire installed on your windows computer is to type “device manager” in the search box next to the Windows icon on the tasks bar.
A window will pop-up showing all devices installed on your computer. If you see a section like below that says IEEE-1394 host controller then you already have firewire installed.
Windows Laptops: this is a ballpark/rule of thumb but if your laptop is old enough that it has a DVD drive still built it, there’s a good chance it has firewire as well as it was still popular enough at the time. Or if it came installed with Windows XP or Windows 7.
Below is a 4-pin firewire port on an older Windows laptop.
Windows Desktops: Most desktop computers never came with firewire unless you bought a custom built tower or bought it from someone that edits video.
The good news is most desktop PCs today should have at least 1 expansion slot on the motherboard of the computer that is cable of adding a firewire card to, and its not that difficult if you find the right card.
What Type Of Firewire Card Is Compatible With A Desktop Computer?
If you’ve never added an expansion card to a desktop computer, don’t worry its not hard and desktops were meant to be expanded. In fact I almost exclusively use my desktop computer over a laptop simply because I can easily add improved graphics cards, additional hard drives, and firewire card.
But the question is what type of firewire card will fit your computer. It really depends on the motherboard inside the computer, which is the main circuit panel that everything connects to.
If you know your exact model of computer you can look up the specs for it online to find out what type of motherboard you have and what expansion slots should be available.
Whatever brand of desktop computer you have there’s generally 1 panel or side to the desktop that is easy to remove with a large screw in order to access the inside of the computer – that’s the one you are going to want to remove.
What you are going to look for is an open slot that is similar to the one below. The most common expansion slot on modern desktops is the PCI Express x1 which is a smaller slot, older desktops have additional PCI express slots which are longer like x4, x8, or x16 slots. The higher the number PCI slot the more pin connections incase you were wondering..
On older 32-bit PCs they probably have what was called a standard PCI slot that was commonly used for expansion. The picture below is one from on old Dell desktop I had that came installed with Windows XP measuring about 3 1/4 inches.
And the picture below is of the most common type of PCI port called PCI Express x1 that should be on the motherboard of most desktop computers built in the last 10 or even 15 years.
All you need is 1 open PCI slot on your motherboard in order to add a firewire card, then find the appropriate firewire card that fits it. Ideally its PCI Express x1 port because again its the most common and should exist for any desktop built in the last 10 years or even more.
Choosing the Right Firewire Card for your Desktop PC
Once you’ve identified an open PCI slot on your motherboard its time to shop for a Firewire card that will fit that slot.
Things to keep in mind while shopping for firewire cards:
- Firewire has different versions, you may see them referred to as 1394a or 1394b cards, some have a combination of both versions.
- For maximum compatibility and so it will be recognized and work with your version of Windows look for a firewire card that uses the Texas Instrument chipset – these are generally instantly recognized by Windows and need no additional drivers.
- If you are using a “slim” type of desktop look for a card that comes with a what is called a “low profile bracket”, which means you can make it fit a slim desktop once you remount it to the low profile bracket.
- Be careful to keep your expansion slots matching the card you choose as you may see various options when shopping on sites like Amazon
Below is the card I am using that I purchased from Amazon for my PCI x1 Express port that works great and is compatible back to Windows 98, and comes with a low-profile bracket.
What Type Of Firewire Card Is Compatible With A Laptop?
If your laptop does not natively have a firewire port installed (and most newer laptops do not), then another option that may work for you is if your laptop has an express slot available.
Adding any new type of interface to a laptop is generally done through some sort of expansion slot on the side of the laptop, no opening up the laptop to install anything.
A laptop ExpressCard slot is an expansion slot for laptops that allow add-on cards to add new interfaces like additional usb ports, firewire ports, or modems to their laptop.
There are 2 sizes of express cards that have evolved over the years: ExpressCard34 and ExpressCard54
How Can I Tell If My Laptop Has An ExpressCard Slot?
If you know the model of the your laptop then research it online to find if you do have an express slot and what type it is.
If you are unsure then look at your laptop for something port that when you push it in it will eject. If its just over 2 inches wide then its an ExpressCard 54, if its about 1.3 inches wide its an ExpressCard34.
The good news is you can buy a firewire ExpressCard like the one below that fits both ExpressCard34 and ExpressCard54 slots as the long and narrow section of an ExpressCard54 is the exact with of an ExpressCard34.
The bad news is many of the new laptops do not have an ExpressCard slot as most new peripheral devices that connect to a laptop will use USB-C.
The good news is that newer PCs with a USB-C port there is a way to convert it to firewire with the use of a few adaptors which I will explain below
NOTE: do not confuse an ExpressCard slot with a SmartCard slot. A SmartCard slot is used in business level laptops that use two-party authentication to log into their devices. These are thin slots that about about the size of a credit card but do not eject. These are not expansion slots for your laptop.
Is There a USB to Firewire Adaptor or Conversion Cable?
Wouldn’t it be so much easier if there was simply a USB to Firewire Adaptor? Forget about installing all of these card and simply buy an adaptor?
Sadly its impossible due to the difference in type of data that can transferred using these 2 technologies.
There are some USB to Firewire adaptors that are sold, but these adaptors only work with data transfer and do not correctly transfer audio or video signals. They will not work with trying to transfer digital video to your computer, so do not waste your time or money on one of these adaptors.
Is Firewire Compatible with Windows 10?
Firewire cards are compatible with Windows 10 for the most part. There has been rumblings that Windows is dropping support for firewire, but I can tell you I have a firewire card installed in my desktop running just fine right now.
If your firewire card isn’t working with the drivers that come installed with Windows 10 then I recommend download the drivers from the manufacturers website and trying those.
The Best Places to Buy Firewire Cards:
Firewire cards aren’t going to be in stock at your local Best Buy or Walmart, but finding them online is easy at:
- Search Amazon.com for Firewire Cards
- Search NewEgg.com for Firewire Cards
- Search TigerDirect.com for Firewire Cards
If you have any kind of old digital video to convert do yourself a favor and get a firewire card. Once you do the transfer process will be so much simpler and your video will transfer loss-less.