Most modern Macs, except for the MacBook Air and some MacBook models (such as my late 2008 unibody, alas), offer both FireWire and USB connections, so when shopping for an external hard drive you have plenty of options for something that will work with your Mac, […]


Most modern Macs, except for the MacBook Air and some MacBook models (such as my late 2008 unibody, alas), offer both FireWire and USB connections, so when shopping for an external hard drive you have plenty of options for something that will work with your Mac, notes Macworld’s James Galbraith. And these days, he adds, USB hard drives are more common and less expensive than FireWire or even FireWire/USB combo drives.

True, but even though USB 2.0 has a maximum theoretical bandwidth of 480 Mbps, vs. a nominal 400 Mbps for FireWire 400, via real-world experience I can attest that USB 2.0 lags well behind FireWire 400 — to say nothing of the FireWire 800 used on all Macs still sold today with FireWire support. And adding insult to injury, USB 2.0 doesn’t support incredibly useful Target Disk Mode. I’ve also found that while booting a Mac from a USB 2.0 drive is possible, it’s not nearly as satisfactory and low-hassle (or speedy) as booting from FireWire drives.

My gut-level impressions are borne out by Macworld’s lab testing, which found, for instance, that with a Western Digital My Book Studio 2TB Western Digital My Book Studio drive connected to a MacBook Pro, copying a 1GB file took 23 percent less time over FireWire 400 than over USB 2.0, while duplicating that file using FireWire 400 on the WD drive took 10 percent less time than when run over USB 2.0, and that FireWire 800 proved 35-58 percent faster than USB 2.0 in various tests on the MacBook Pro with the My Book Studio. Similar comparative results were noted using a compact Verbatim portable drive with the MacBook Pro.

However, the report also notes that the imminent release of USB 3.0 products in early 2010 promises speeds greater than FireWire 800 or even eSATA, but suggests that it may be some time before Apple begins supporting USB 3.0 with compatible ports (which will be backwards-compatible for USB 1.1 and 2.0 devices on Mac systems).

In the meantime, even a USB 2.0 only external hard drive is the best choice for a backup medium for most of us, especially using Time Machine in OS X 10.5 and 10.6 But my recommendation is to spend a few more dollars if necessary and get an external drive with multiple I/O interface support. Quad interface drives are becoming quite popular, able to handle USB 2.0 (and hopefully soon USB 3.0) plus FireWire 400, FireWire 800, and eSATA interfaces.

What’s your favorite backup medium and I/O interface?

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  1. One reason I’ve used FireWire drives (amongst other reasons mentioned above) is that it’s one less thing to cram into an already crowded USB hub. In fact, I have 2 USB hubs supporting multiple printers and scanners, but my FireWire drives can connect directly to the computer itself.

  2. I think USB uses the processor while firewire does not. Not sure on that though

    1. CPU usage with FireWire is indeed much lower than USB.

  3. The greatest benefit is, that most FW external disc really don’t need external power to operate, while USB drives require external power!
    Therefore USB drives disqualify for me for portable machines. At home for the desktop things might look different, but for my MacBookPro, nothing is as great as FireWire. But also at the desktop, the connectivity with a hub, versus a chained cabling is another disadvantage of USB.
    I don’t know how USB 3.0 might change this.

    1. What about a Western Digital 500GB My Passport for Mac?

      Their spec sheet reads: USB 2.0 interface. Powered directly from the USB port on your Mac. No separate power supply is needed.

    2. Other way around I’d say, most USB devices dont use external power but use the USB port.

      Firewire devices seem to always need an external power adapter.

      I’ve heard lots of problems with FW/USB combo devices that dont use external power to operate, tend to stay away from those.

      Saying that, I prefer the fact USB is tidier without power cables and stuff anyway to power the device.

      1. It’s both ways. A lot of 2.5″ portable hard drives in external cases can run off bus powered USB. Some require 2 USB plugs tho, one that has data and power, the other just additional power. You could power a full size HD off the power available on a single firewire port, but you never see this. You can pump up to 45 Watts over a firewire cable along with data. USB maxes out with like 9 watts in “Charging mode” which has no data, and 500 mA over a cable with data. Micro USB will be the universal standard for cell phones moving ahead, which is great since proprietary cell phone chargers were a PITA. Too bad there never was a small firewire plug standard with power….
        Mini Firewire (aka 4 pin, aka i.link) doesn’t have power.
        Normal FW400 is a 6 pin, with power.
        FW800 I believe has 9 pins, and is backwards compatible with older FW ports using adaptors.
        FW3200 (3.2 gigabit) is finalized, uses the same connector as FW800, but probably won’t ever see the light of day in a shipping product. Lightpeak is the future….

  4. I sincerely hope that when Apple refreshes the MacBook (Pro) line this year they include USB 3 ports. HP & co have already started updating certains lines (I think the Envy is one of them) to sport USB 3 ports.
    This would be a great reason to upgrade.

    USB3 will rock the crap out of the USB2 external hard drives. The bus itself will no longer be the speed bottleneck, but rather the HDD itself will. Also USB 3 is supposed to have a much better behavior around power consumption especially for idle devices.

    1. erm… performance on USB 2 devices will be identical. It is more a matter of protocol design and hardware design. The driver running on the CPU will still be doing most of the work. The same dual channel problem with acks will still be there… etc. Now USB 3 devices… those will be fast. Nowhere near as fast as say… 6 gbits sata, or this theoretical light peak, but faster than any fire wire implementation in use today.

      1. Not to burst your bubble, but firewire is MUCH faster then USB2. The CPU overhead of USB isn’t nearly the factor it was 10 years ago, but it still exists. From Wiki:
        “Firewire allows peer-to-peer device communication — such as communication between a scanner and a printer — to take place without using system memory or the CPU.”
        So basically each port knows what’s up when plugged into another, they talk to each other directly without involving the CPU.
        Also the amount of power you can send over Firewire compared to USB is huge for bus powered devices. 1.8 amps, 5.25 Volts, 9 Watts for dedicated charging (no data transfer) max over USB, while firewire can handle up to 30v, 45 watts.

  5. FireWire for the win! I love the fact that it’s easy to know which way to plug it in from the shape. There’s no “oops, flip it around” problems with FW, as it doesn’t even look like it will fit the other way.

    Chained drives are another fabulous FW feature, as Somebody said above.

    I have *never* had a USB device move at 480mbs. It’s normally more like, 100mbs. Big difference there. FireWire has been fast since it was intro-ed years ago.

    Will Steve give a eulogy over FireWire like he did for OS 9?

    1. Don’t forget it’s also very easy to create a high speed network over firewire, which you can’t do on USB. For whatever reason they pulled this OUT of windows, even though it used to be supported. Still works fine on Mac’s though. Back before 100BT or faster ethernet was common, we would create FW networks at school in the late 90’s to move video around to different computers in the edit bays since it was so much faster then 10BT.

  6. Charles Martin Tuesday, January 12, 2010

    Firewire 400: faster than USB2.

    Firewire 800: waaaaay faster than USB2

    eSATA (1.5GB): double the speed of FW800

    USB3 (whenever it finally gets here, it’s only about six years late): Overall, about the same as eSATA (chart supporting this contention: http://www.pcpro.co.uk/blogs/2009/11/04/usb-3-0-its-here-and-it-goes-whoosh/)

    FW3200S (no idea if it will ever appear, but it has been developed): about 1.5x faster than either eSATA or USB3

    and, just for grins, Intel’s “LightPeak” cabling (which would eliminate differences between internal and external cabling and set a standard speed for everything): 3x faster than FW3200S

    At least in this particular arena, the future is looking good.

  7. A partitioned Newertech V3 which I use for firewire backups to and from 2 computers, utilizing Superduper. Awesome this Mac stuff…. :-)

  8. I prefer the FireWire Method, all my audio interface devices are mutli compatible, but I never get the latency over the 800 input on my G5, nor my 400 input on my macbook. I used the USB interface once or twice before I upgraded, it just was latent accross the board. Video editing I used USB once while I was out an about with a friend because his camera only had a usb, and my god was it a pain.

    FireWire is the way to go, and this LightPeak looks promising for the future.

  9. Waiting for 3Gbs Firewire to start shipping.

  10. My biggest gripe about the new iMac. No eSATA port. All of my drives are quad-port (USB, FW400, FW800, eSATA) and I wish Apple sold the iMac w/ eSATA.

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