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FireWire woes

by Eliot Hochberg (eliot@high-mountain.com), March 5, 2002

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In past articles, I’ve mentioned a problem that occurs with the FireWire connection on my Power Mac G4/450. It seems that from time to time if I connected my Canon camcorder through FireWire, in both iMovie and Final Cut Pro, the system would not recognize the camera connection. What’s worse is that upon shutting down, when I restarted the system it would either take forever to boot or not boot at all. This eventually led to discovering I had to disconnect the power from my system and then clear the PRAM before finally being able to use my system again. All very frustrating.

At one point, an Apple rep suggested that the problem was with my camcorder or FireWire cable. However, these both work fine with my G3 portable. In fact, on one project I had to do my digitizing with that system and transfer the files to my G4 to complete the work. I was working on a DVD at the time, so the work had to be done on the G4.

Later, I thought I had solved the problem. It seemed that most of the time the issue happened when I tried to turn on the camera while iMovie was starting up. This seemed pretty consistent, and so I went merrily on my way, feeling that I had defeated yet another quirk along the road of “getting a computer to work.™”

Well, over the next few months, I didn’t have much call to do video. I was finally swamped again with design and development work, and in this economy I took everything I could grab. Imagine my surprise, then, when I finally wanted to do a little capturing, and found that even though I followed my procedure of not plugging the camera in during or after iMovie startup, the system still didn’t recognize that the camera was connected.

Now I was really frustrated. I noticed a few things. First, when I connected my camera to my PowerBook, the “DV IN” indicator on the camera came up solid. However, on the G4, it would blink on and off. The second thing I noticed was that the Apple System Profiler did not recognize anything connected to the FireWire bus.

I called Apple, and spoke with a very helpful rep who told me that I should try connecting another FireWire device. He even suggested that if I didn’t have one that I could take my system into an Apple Store and they might help me out. If the other device worked, we could eliminate the possibility that the problem was hardware; then I could call back and pay $50 to have assistance going through my extensions and preferences to see if there was a conflict.

Fortunately, I did have another FireWire device, a MOTU (Mark of the Unicorn) 828 which, by the way, when combined with the excellent AudioDesk software, is the easiest system I have found to date for recording music. I hooked this system up to my G4 and, lo and behold ... it didn’t work. Rats.

So, now it appeared that my FireWire bus was fried. But as it turned out, all was not lost.

I tried both ports to see if there was any difference, but neither worked, which made me begin to believe that yes, the bus was fried and I was in for an out-of-warranty repair. However, it hadn’t been that long ago that the whole thing still worked. So I persisted in trying to find a solution. That persistence may have paid off.

While searching the G4 discussion boards on Apple’s site, I happened upon a listing which suggested that this issue (which is pretty common) was caused by static discharge. Apparently when a FireWire device was hooked up to the G3 in question (I don’t know why G3s were being discussed on a G4 discussion board), there had apparently been a surge caused by static discharge that had fried the FireWire bus. Hmmm. This was very interesting. Could it be that static discharge was the cause of my woes? Was I doomed to spend either $250 to repair my system or else $100 for a FireWire card which would take up a PCI slot?

After reading the discussion posting, and knowing that this problem had been inconsistent, a thought struck me. There are more than two FireWire ports on a G4. There are three! If you look inside a G4, there is an additional FireWire port, presumably for adding internal drives. I hadn’t messed with this port at all. So, after resetting the system, I hooked up my camera through this port and ... success! The camera was recognized and I was able to capture my video. I am resolved now to leaving that cable connected, since it’s likely that having to go down underneath my desk to hook up the cable is what caused the static in the first place. I will have to find a better way to thread it in; right now it’s going through an open PCI slot and around all of the cards I have. I’ll thread it through the hole for the modem port since I didn’t get a modem with my G4.

At this point, I am not willing to say that my analysis of this issue is 100 percent correct. For all I know, the next time I shut down and restart, the FireWire bus will not work, even on the internal connector. But no matter what happens, it is clear that FireWire is not the foolproof connection system everyone was led to believe it would be. I remember the first demonstration of FireWire. Steve Jobs had a small hard drive in hand along with a camcorder and a Power Mac. The Mac was transferring files to the drive. Then he unplugged it. Nothing bad happened. He then plugged it back in. The transfer continued where it left off. If this doesn’t suggest that FireWire is immune to the kinds of problems SCSI had, I don’t know what would. But this demo (like many by Steve) did not completely reflect reality.

I have encountered many issues with FireWire that approach the type of issues SCSI always had. For example, Canon camcorders can’t digitize to certain FireWire hard drives. These issues are made worse when considering that FireWire was supposed to be an invincible plug-and-play solution. I think that Apple should address these issues before its next rev of FireWire, or else come clean and say that users have to be careful with these connections. FireWire is fast, it can deal with all sorts of devices and it can even power them. Maybe those features are enough.

Eliot Hochberg (eliot@high-mountain.com) is a Web developer with over 6 years experience and the author of MacEdition’s regular DVD feature articles.

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