Review: Unibrain FireWire 800 4-port Repeater/Hub

Unibrain was founded in 1990 in Athens, Greece. It established Unibrain Inc. in California in 2000. Unibrain is a global leader in the development of FireWire hardware and software solutions, and offers a complete line of FireWire products for a wide range of applications. We tested and reviewed their 4-port FireRepeater-800 PRO, a FireWire “hub” in black metal with video and sound equipment.

The purpose of the FireRepeater-800 PRO review is to evaluate whether a professional FireWire repeater/hub is capable of support for more than one streaming device using only one FireWire 800 host port on the computer.

Power adapter connector and the first FW800 port next to the red power LED.

If anyone can manufacture a unit that can, it must be Unibrain. The company has been an active member of the 1394 Trade Association since 1997 and continues to play a vital role in the advancement of FireWire technology. It invented iZAK, a multimedia storage device capable of playing recorded TV shows, downloaded films, home movies, music and photo galleries directly on any TV set, while simultaneously being an external hard disk. In 2004 iZAK was awarded with “The Best of Retail Vision Awards” and since then Unibrain has proceeded in major commercial OEM agreements with leading international companies.

The FireRepeater-800 PRO is a compact metal hub, the size of a small pack of cigarettes. It has one input port and three output ports. The unit incorporates locking 9 pin bilingual ports, multiple mounting points and an included metal bracket to ensure a secure physical connection.

The FireRepeater powered up and connected to the Mac.

The 4-port FireRepeater-800 PRO is based on two TSB81BA3D Texas Instruments 1394b PHY chips. The unit comes without power supply — any Walkman-type 2.0 mm DC power adapter outputting 8V to 30V, and a max. of 1.35A will do. The company sells a power adapter separately, but I managed just fine using one of my old network switch adapters which fell within the Unibrain criteria.

The FireRepeater-800 PRO is actually quite heavy made. It’s not the typical China made plastic rubbish USB and FireWire hubs typically represent these days, but it’s made in the EU and the finish is perfect. The wall mounting plate is only necessary if you plan to place the unit on the edge of a table with heavy (long) FireWire cables hanging from it.

The 3 output ports. Notice the chip arrangement diagram on top.

Unlike any other FireWire device I have ever seen, the FireRepeater-800 PRO actually has holes with screw thread on each side of the connector interface so you can screw-lock a cable that supports it. As far as I know, only professional-grade FireWire cables have these screw-locking mechanism (which we all know from non-Apple VGA interfaces).

When the FireRepeater-800 PRO is powered — either bus-powered or using the adapter — a small, unobtrusive red LED glows up at the input side of the unit. I tested the unit using an iSight, a powered direct-attached RAID system, a bus-powered 2″5 disk, and the Apogee Duet, to see how the Unibrain repeater/hub performed.

It turned out it performed flawlessly with each of these devices connected serially, i.e. not all simultaneously. However, in my opinion, a professional device should be capable of handling more strain, so I decided to try hook up all four of these device simultaneously. The FireRepeater-800 PRO was then connected to the LaCie 4Big RAID via one of its ports and connected through the three other devices. For this test, I had to power the unit using the adapter.

Detail of the FireRepeater-800 Pro

The FireRepeater-800 PRO passed the test with flying colours. I wouldn’t be surprised its two chips are what makes the unit shine. Even the Apogee Duet sounded just fine, except during file transfers to the bus-powered disk; but I expected that much, because the bandwidth requirements were quite hefty during that test — more than what one FireWire bus can deliver.

The Unibrain FireRepeater-800 PRO did better than any other FireWire 800 hub/repeater I have reviewed up to date. It has a better quality of build, is more robust, and clearly is targeted squarely at a professional users’ market. Its price, however, is not exaggerated at all, costing only 79.00 Euros. It’s true that, for that money, you don’t get a FireWire cable or a power adapter. It’s also true that I am sure most of us can live without the ultra-short or flimsy FireWire cables usually delivered with these devices or a power adapter you can buy for a couple of Euros in any electrical tools store.

In contrast to its competitors, Unibrain’s FireRepeater-800 PRO has a wall mounting bracket to secure the unit in place, and the ability to screw-lock your FireWire cables in place. I would recommend the Unibrain FireRepeater-800 PRO to anyone wanting to connect more devices to his computer than he can daisy-chain, and up to a longer distance than is possible without a repeater device.

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