It’s time to simplify and demystify the dark art of connecting legacy film scanners and other hardware to modern computers. If you don’t know your USB-C from your Thunderbolt 3, this guide is guaranteed here to help.

If you, like me, have a film/photo scanner made at any time during the late 20th to the early 21st century and are struggling to get it to work with modern computer hardware, I’ve done my very best to give you a definitive solution. This includes but isn’t limited to devices from the following manufacturers/families:

  • Canon Canoscan
  • Kodak i250/i260/i280
  • Microtek ArtixScan
  • Nikon Coolscan
  • Minolta Dimage
  • Pacific Image PrimeFilm
  • SmartDisk SmartScan
  • Sony
  • …and more

I’ll first be covering background information on legacy and current connectors/standards and how to identify them. Next, I’ll be describing the combinations you’ll need to get your device plugged in and (hopefully) working.

As with all legacy hardware, the physical connection with your computer is only a third of the battle. You’ll still potentially have driver support and software support issues to deal with. For scanners specifically, this can largely be handled by third-party software such as Vuescan or Silverfast. Your mileage may vary.

This is not a short guide. Here’s how it breaks down:

Why am I doing this?

Still and motion picture film formats are positively glacial in their rate of change when compared to the innumerable options that have come and gone for connecting scanners, printers and other devices to computers over the past four decades.

There’s a new “gold standard” connector to contend with every few years or so, from SCSI to FireWire to USB, DisplayPort and Thunderbolt…and there are no signs of it stopping. All this adds up to headaches for users who are not locked into yearly/bi-yearly upgrade cycles; and when connectors go from simply being superseded to eventually being labelled “legacy”, well…God help you.

For some context, I recently decided to take the leap and get a dedicated scanner for 35mm film: a Nikon SUPER COOLSCAN 4000 ED to be exact. Like any reasonably sane person, I had done my research, however, the question if the daisy chain of up to four cables and adapters would actually work remained.

New laptop on the left with Thunderbolt 3 and 18 year old Nikon 4000 ED scanner on the right with FireWire 400...
New laptop on the left with Thunderbolt 3 and 18 year old Nikon 4000 ED scanner on the right with FireWire 400…

To further complicate issues, I wanted the flexibility of being able to use the scanner with anywhere up to five computers with connectors introduced some 20 years apart (ranging from 1996’s USB A to 2015’s Thunderbolt 3).

I should say that none of these natively provide the FireWire 400 connection I need:

  • 2012 13″ MacBook Air (USB-A and Thunderbolt 2 ports)
  • 2016 Dell Optiplex 3000 series desktop (USB-A, Mini DisplayPort ports)
  • 2016 27″ iMac (USB-A and Thunderbolt 2 ports)
  • 2017 Asus ROC laptop (USB-A, USB-C and Mini DisplayPort ports)
  • 2018 15″ MacBook Pro (Thunderbolt 3 ports)

In a haze of half-baked-knowledge with the prize of successful multi-device connectivity ahead of me, I reached out to a friend in the know for final-final-final clarification.

Everything you see here is a direct result of this my question and Mike’s simple answer. If you want to blame anyone, blame Mike. I do.


I’ll admit to some frustration once I jumped down the rabbit hole of standards, terminology and connector brand names. When I posted the photo above on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, many of the questions I received were from people asking exactly how I was going to connect it up – more than one person mentioned via DM that they worked for a lab which had the exact model just sitting around because they couldn’t figure out how to get it connected.

It struck me then that as a single collection of every rational connection option for legacy scanners and other devices was missing, I might as well write it out of sheer frustration.

Here we are.

Connector types

Naming conventions, cross-platform connectivity, needing to ensure adapters and cables support appropriate data transmission and power…what a mess. But it is totally doable and with less pain than one might think.

I’m going to quickly dive into the different connector types your scanner/peripheral might use. Use the photos here to identify the connector your device has and what you’re connecting to, then jump down to the combinations in the next section.

I have linked to a couple of Google searches and product pages for some of the cables/adapters below but you have my assurances that they are not affiliate links and do not earn me money. I’ve provided credit for appropriate images but if something’s out of whack, please let me know.

FireWire 400 (6-pin)

FireWire 400 to FireWire 400 cable (Credit: Ali Express)
FireWire 400 to FireWire 400 cable (Credit: Ali Express)

Created by Apple and also known by the designations IEEE 1394 / IEEE 1394-1995 / IEEE 1394a-2002 and i.LINK, FireWire 400 was released by Apple as a built-to-order option in 1997. It was a HUGE deal and many scanners, as well as other audio/video gear, used this connection type. There is a smaller 4-pin version but I’m not aware of any scanners using it. Shout if I’m wrong.

FireWire 400 provides a maximum of 400 Mbps of throughput (speed) and if you have an expandable PC on hand, you can pretty much skip this entire article and just go out and buy a FireWire PCI card and hook up your device.

If you’re daisy-chaining connections to something newer, it makes sense to either get a FireWire 400 to 800 adapter or a FireWire 400 to 800 cable to act as an intermediary.

Further reading about FireWire 400 on Wikipedia.

FireWire 800

FireWire 800 to FireWire 800 cable (Credit: Ali Express)
FireWire 800 to FireWire 800 cable (Credit: Ali Express)

Released as an update to FireWire 400 in around 2003, FireWire 800 bumped the theoretical maximum data transmission speed to 800 Mbps and changed the connector type.

Further reading about FireWire 800 on Wikipedia.

Parallel port

Parallel port cable (Credit: Ali Express)
Parallel port cable (Credit: Ali Express)

This is generic 25-pin (DB-25) connector used primarily to connect printers, old video capture devices, ZIP drives (remember those?) and other weird and wonderful archaic devices to pre-USB computers. The connector is was pretty much killed by USB upon its arrival although some devices are still made for legacy devices if you REALLY need them.

Further reading about Parallel ports on Wikipedia.

Thunderbolt 1 and 2, Mini DisplayPort

Thunderbolt 2 cable (Credit: Apple)
Thunderbolt 2 cable (Credit: Apple)

Developed by Intel in collaboration with Apple, Thunderbolt 1 and 2 share an identical physical connector with Mini DisplayPort.

Do not be fooled into thinking that you can connect a Thunderbolt device into a Mini DisplayPort port and have your scanner work, it probably won’t. If you happen to have a PC with Thunderbolt 2 support (not just a Mini DisplayPort), the odds begin to stack in your favor but it’s still a crap shoot.

I won’t be covering the full-size DisplayPort here unless a suitably large portion of commenters make me.

Further reading about Thunderbolt / Mini DisplayPort on Wikipedia.

Thunderbolt 3

Thunderbolt 3 cable (Credit: Apple)
Thunderbolt 3 cable (Credit: Apple)

It looks like USB-C, it smells like USB-C but it is anything but USB-C.

As with Thunderbolt 2, unless your computer has a dedicated Thunderbolt 3 port – that is, a port that looks like USB-C and explicitly supports Thunderbolt 3 – the device you’re trying to daisy chain to your computer will likely not work.

At the time of writing, Apple produce the least expensive Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter. At $50, it’s not cheap but is cheaper than other options right now.

Further reading about Thunderbolt 3 on Wikipedia.

SCSI (aka “scuzzy” not “sexy”)

SCSI cable (Credit: Ali Express)
SCSI cable (Credit: Ali Express)

So, so old…but a few very high-quality scanners used this interface, abbreviated from “Small Computer System Interface”.

Generically called “scuzzy” by those who have to know what it is, Larry Boucher, the inventor of the interface really wanted people to pronounce it “sexy”. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t stick and computer engineers were saved a life of awkwardly telling customers they had “a problem with a defective sexy port…”

This interface was around from around the 1990s to the turn of the 21st century and supported both internal and externally connected devices – mostly data storage and high-throughput (for the time).

Further reading about SCSI on Wikipedia.

USB Type A

USB A to USB B cable (Credit: Belkin)
USB A to USB B cable (Credit: Belkin)

Ah, ubiquitous “try three times and it’s in” connector. Love it or hate it, this wonderful little cable is probably the most easily recognisable of all those listed here. While it doesn’t offer the high-speed connectivity of some of today’s newer options, things would be much more confusing right now without it.

“Type-A” refers to the physical connector shown above and for the purposes of this article, I’ll be ignoring Mini, Micro and all the other versions out there. Cables to convert those to Type-A exist.

Your device might have a squarish USB connection on it. This is called USB B and is normally found on printers, scanners, etc. Pictures of that follow in the next section.

Further reading About USB Type A on Wikipedia and a little more about the history of USB.

USB-C

USB-C cable (Credit: Ali Express)
USB-C cable (Credit: Ali Express)

Looks like Thunderbolt 3 but isn’t. Think of it as a slightly less capable identical twin. A super-fast update to USB with a brand new universal connector. Not to be confused with USB 3, USB-C (also known as USB 3.1) is hopefully going to become the new defacto connector standard…until it’s updated again.

If you have a computer made from around late 2016 onwards, odds are you have one or more of these on it. The good news is that if you have a USB scanner, you’ll either be able to use a single cable, or cable-plus-simple-adapter to get it to work.

Further reading about USB-C on Wikipedia.

How to connect your gear

This section is going to be as device-agnostic as possible. I’ll be focusing only on the physical connections between the devices you want to use, any intermediate connectors and the computer you want to use it with. Specific examples with the Nikon 4000 ED scanner and computers noted above to follow in the next section.

There’s a lot of information below, so please make sure you have identified the type of connection on your scanner or other device and on the computer you want to connect it to before you dive in.

You can use the links below to jump to the section most appropriate to you. When you see an image, click/tap to expand to full screen. For the sake of continuity, I’ve used smaller versions of the connectors you’ve already seen above.

FireWire 400 and FireWire 800 devices

SCSI / Parallel devices

Thunderbolt devices

USB Type-A devices

FireWire 400 devices

FireWire is/was brilliant and ample support is still out there for converting it to work with other connectors. If you have a device with a FireWire connection you’ll need as many as four cables and connectors before you can plug it into your computer if you take the long way round.

FireWire 400 device to FireWire 800 port

Very simple: either use a FireWire 400 to FireWire 800 cable (top image) or attach a FireWire 400 to FireWire 800 adapter to an existing FireWire 400 cable (bottom image).

FireWire 400 device to Thunderbolt 1 or Thunderbolt 2 port

Either use a cable (top image below) or adapter (bottom image) to give yourself a FireWire 800 connection. Next, connect your new FireWire 800 connector to an Apple Thunderbolt 2 to FireWire adapter.

I am using the FireWire 400 to 800 cable (two-step) method below to connect my Nikon SUPER COOLSCAN 4000 ED to both a Thunderbolt 2-equipped 13″ MacBook Air and 21″ iMac.

FireWire 400 device to Thunderbolt 3 port

As with the FireWire 800 to Thunderbolt 1 or 2 example, either use a cable or adapter to give you a FireWire 800 connection and connect your new FireWire 800 connector to a Thunderbolt 2 to FireWire adapter.

You now really only have one option: use Apple’s Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter. It’s currently ~$50 but it substantially cheaper than others out there, which I’ve seen going for as much as ~$70.

I am using this method to connect my Nikon SUPER COOLSCAN 4000 ED to my 2018 15″ MacBook Pro.

FireWire 400 device to USB Type-A port

FireWire and USB are technically incompatible technologies and as such, there is no guarantee that a simple FireWire to USB adapter will work for every device you wish to connect. Still, they’re cheap, so you could try.


Interestingly, FireWire 400, although technically slower than USB 2 provides better performance when writing larger files to disc.

FireWire 400 device to USB-C port

Remember, FireWire and USB are not technically compatible but if you managed to convert yours to read off a USB port, you can probably have a crack at USB-C. I wasn’t particularly successful with the Nikon (see below).

My convoluted story: having converted my Firewire 400 cable to 800, then to Thunderbolt 2, I tried a “Mini DisplayPort to USB-C adapter” to connect it two of my computers. The dongle technically uses the same physical connectors as Thunderbolt 2 and 3.

I can confirm that I am unable to get the scanner recognised on Windows 10, although macOS 10.14 (Mojave) did pick up the scanner as a wireless mouse…useful.

Bottom line, if you want to go from FireWire 400 to USB-C, try converting to USB Type-A first and then to C (as above). You could, like me, try the FireWire 400 device to Thunderbolt 3 solutions above, although there’s still no guarantee there.

FireWire 800 device to Thunderbolt 1 or Thunderbolt 2 port

Simplicity itself: plug your FireWire 800 cable to an Apple Thunderbolt 2 to FireWire adapter.

FireWire 800 device to Thunderbolt 3 port

Connect your FireWire 800 cable to an Apple Thunderbolt 2 to FireWire adapter, then use Apple’s Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter.

SCSI / Parallel devices

Converting these connectors to straightforward USB Type-A is relatively simple but ensuring driver support is going to be tough. If you absolutely must connect these devices to a new computer, the simplest method is a USB adapter, as described below.

Parallel device to USB Type-A port

Use a specialist dongle to convert your parallel port connection to USB Type-A.

Parallel device to USB-C port

First use a specialist dongle to convert your parallel connection to USB Type-A and then use a USB A to USB-C connector.

SCSI device to USB Type-A port

Use a specialist dongle to convert your SCSI connection to USB Type-A.

SCSI device to USB-C port

First use a specialist dongle to convert from SCSI to USB Type-A and then use a USB A to USB-C connector.


Thunderbolt devices

Thunderbolt 1 or Thunderbolt 2 device to Thunderbolt 3 port

Apple’s Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter is currently the most cost-effective way to do this and ensures 100% compatibility.

USB devices

USB Type-A device to USB-C port

Very simple: all you need is a USB Type-A to USB-C adapter or cable (adapter shown below).

Real world examples

The Nikon SUPER COOLSCAN 4000 ED (LS-4000) that started all this has a 6-pin FireWire 400 port. As previously mentioned, I have five possible devices I need to connect the scanner to, none of which natively have FireWire ports. They are:

  • 2012 13″ MacBook Air (USB-A and Thunderbolt 2 ports)
  • 2016 Dell Optiplex 3000 series desktop (USB-A, Mini DisplayPort ports
  • 2017 27″ iMac (USB-A and Thunderbolt 2 ports)
  • 2017 Asus ROC laptop (USB-A, USB-C and Mini DisplayPort ports)
  • 2018 15″ MacBook Pro (Thunderbolt 3 ports)

The adapters/cables I’m using to connect the scanner to the above are as follows:

  • FireWire 400 to 800 cable – ~$10
  • FireWire 800 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter – ~$30
  • FireWire PCI card – ~$20
  • Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter ~$50

A total investment of $110. That said, if you only need to connect to one computer, you might only need to spend $10 …or $80 for the newest devices (hello Apple). The examples below should give you a better idea for your set up.

With the Nikon connected to the devices above, I’m using VueScan to drive it. Although I have the ability to run the scanner using NikonScan software and some OS tweaks, it’s unnecessary for me. VueScan gives me the results I want.

Nikon LS-4000 (FireWire 400 to FireWire 800)

The simplest solution for the Dell desktop PC: a FireWire PCI card. $20, two ports, clean and simple. Add a new ~$10 FireWire 400 to 800 cable and it’s a solid $30 solution.

Nikon LS-4000 (FireWire 400 to Mini DisplayPort)

To connect with the two Windows PCs, I also tried the solution described below for Thunderbolt 2. both machines have Mini DisplayPort connectors, so I figured I’d give it a try. It didn’t work (for me). The scanner was not even being picked up when turned on. Total fail.

Nikon LS-4000 (FireWire 400 to Thunderbolt 2)

My optimal $40 solution to connect to all computers with dedicated Thunderbolt 2 ports: a FireWire 400 to 800 cable connected to an Apple Thunderbolt 2 to FireWire 800 adapter.

The solution originally involved using an existing FireWire 400 cable and an adapter to convert it to FireWire 800 (bottom image below). This just added another link in the chain and was excess to requirements and I now use a FireWire 400 to 800 cable instead.

The solutions described work on both my 2012 MacBook Air and 2017 iMac.

Nikon LS-4000 (FireWire 400 to Thunderbolt 3)

This is the same solution as the Thunderbolt 2 chain above with the addition of an Apple’s Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 to the mix. I’m using the chain shown in the top image below for my 2018 15″ MacBook Pro. It works perfectly.

Nikon LS-4000 (FireWire 400 to USB-C)

At the time of writing, I have not yet completed this test. To date, I have used the FireWire 400 to Thunderbolt 2 solution described above, to which I added a Mini DisplayPort to USB-C adapter. When plugged into the Asus laptop, the scanner would only be recognised as an “unknown device” and no amount of loading and reloading stock or custom drivers worked.

If it was a desktop PC, I would have used the expansion card solution (per the Dell) and damned the rest. As is, I cannot and thus cannot yet use the Nikon 4000ED with this laptop.

Furthermore, using the same daisy chain to connect the scanner to my 2018 MacBook Pro using USB-C caused the Mac to display its “mouse connected” icon on the screen. The device was not visible in System Report.

Shout if you need help

That’s it for now. I know this is a lot to take in, it was a lot to get down onto paper! Even with double and triple checking, there are bound to be a few slip-ups here and there and of course, your devices and results my vary. Please share your experiences in the comments below so I can update this article accordingly.

Thanks for reading.

~ EM

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16 COMMENTS

  1. I had no problem connecting my Nikon Coolscan LS-5000ED to Windows 10 64-bit. I use the Nikon software, it installs fine with some tricks that you can find online.
    I am aware that VueScan does that with a straight install. I tried the demo (it’s fully functional with a watermark) but didn’t like it.

  2. What a fantastic article! Having started in audio visual post production in 1998 and latterly IT based roles I’ve had my tussles with most if not all of the above.

    If there are people with issues where a device, driver or software really doesn’t want to use a modern operating system I’d be happy to investigate virtualising an older OS and templating builds for a device. The only issue would be where a PCI / PCIe card is required as ‘pass through’ – these are a little more complex with a feature not available on the free hyper-visors under Windows 10 (Hyper-V) or Virtual Box (Win 7-10, Mac, Linux), or paid VMWare Workstation. It is available under VMWare ESXi (paid) and OpenStack, Libvert/Virsh (free), so if desperate could investigate that route too?

  3. I still use a Powermac G5 for scanning which has firewire so you’ve semi-convinced me to be on the look out for a good deal on a coolscan!

  4. I have an Nikon Coolscan 5000ED that runs under Windows 10. I have it run on my desktop and notebook. It’s a bit tricky to install it, but possible. Whole procedure takes a few Minutes. I do use the original Nikon Coolscan software (forgot the version but you need the latest one that can run under Windows 7, I think 4.03?). Viewscan works too (even easier, modern software), however I like to ol’ Nikon software more.

  5. This is the first comprehensive review that I know of with regards the cables needed to run a legacy scanner to a modern PC. Kudos on the superb graphics.

    Over the years I’ve managed to migrate my trusty Nikon 4000ED from a Windows XP platform to both a 2013 iMac and 2018 MacBook Pro, thanks to Vuescan. More to the point of this article, I use the very same cabling solutions that are mentioned for FW 400 to Thunderbolt 2 and FW 400 to Thunderbolt 3. They work.

    With regards to the next great Mac 0S, Vuescan 9.6 is 64 bit.

  6. Getting a SCSI scanner to work on anything later than Windows XP is a non starter, the same goes for Apple. SCSI to usb adaptors are not that great, and do not get round the software problems. I tried a few of them on a PC and a pre Intel MAC, and have gone back to a PC running Windows XP

  7. While the physical connection may be an issue, running these legacy scanners on Windows 10 is a real problem. Somebody needs to break the code on that.

  8. Comment on the USB Type a connector and the USB-C. My Canon 9000 has the older Type A and I have learned with the MacBook Pro, that instead of adapters (micro-B et al) there are sometimes cables. For a lot of devices (Nikon camera, card reader, hard disks, etc) I have USB-microB to USB-C cables saving a load of space (and relatively cheap – Belkin et al). I also found a USB Type A to USB-C cable, again quite cheap and avoids the use of adapters. What I have found, however, these are rarely in the shops and I had to buy all of these online.

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