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FireWire vs. USB: Which Is Faster?

Most modern Macs (s aapl), 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?

32 Responses to “FireWire vs. USB: Which Is Faster?”

  1. Edouard B.

    I was surprised to find, after installing Snow Leopard on a 2006 iMac, that Time Machine suddenly worked badly or not at all on my Freecom FireWire 400 drive. It appears that the driver software was broken during the upgrade – thanks a bunch. It worked on a new Macbook Pro but, most galling, when I connected an NTFS formatted Buffalo drive to the iMac (cheaper), OS-X asked if I wanted to use one of the partitions (it correctly picked the empty one) as a Time Machine backup and then proceeded to outperform the (more recent) Macbook, huffing and puffing on it’s converted Firewire port.

    Perhaps there’s a simple setting that would sort this out – my searches haven’t turned up anything obvious – so this is not to spoil everyone’s enthusiasm for Firewire, but to raise a warning flag.


  2. Allister

    The trouble with Firewire is apparently there is some skill to building the interfaces. I wanted a Firewire drive and had to get a triple-interface one to even get close to plain USB2 prices. But then that drive misbehaved badly. Froze, wouldn’t mount and even suffered corruption. So on a whim I ripped out the Firewire cable and swapped it for USB and it has been fine ever since. (Months.)

    I’ve heard of other similar problems, usually with specific brands. (Mine was Seagate.) I’ve never heard of these sorts of problems with USB interfaces. Slow and steady is better than fast and f***ed any day.

  3. FireWire FireWire FireWire FireWire

    is there any doubt…if you have ever used them FW400 or the King FW800 you know that there is piece of mind that you will not be sitting there all day waiting and waiting…

    USB oh hell NO! it’s ok for charging stuff and for flash drives/mice/keyboards but for hard drives NEVER NEVER NEVER

    USB3 may be great when it finally gets here and I have no experience because macs don’t have them and I wont use a PC so we will see when that day comes

    my favorite thing is Backward compatibility and DAISY CHAIN

    I have a Core Duo Mac Mini in the living room set up with 10 FW drives connected on the floor underneath…pushing 12 TB all Daisychained together using ONE FW400 port on my mini…and most of the drives are FW800/400/USB drives

    nothing better than FireWire enough said

  4. I have had plenty of issues over the years with USB 2 so I prefer Firewire. I even bought the white Macbook about a year ago when they first put the 9400M in it over the Unibody one because it had Firewire.

  5. Charles W. Moore

    A few supplementary notes:

    Steve G. I share your pain, A I type this I have three 4-port USB hubs connected to my MacBook.

    As someone notes, USB 3 will reportedly not be as much a drag on processor resources.

    FireWire iPods were great! I had one of the very first units (manufactured in October, 2001). Alas, the hard drive eventually packed it in. I miss the FireWire slickness with our current nano.

    Peter Tax: Actually, you can create a bootable clone of your hard drive on a USB 2.0 external drive using Carbon Copy Cloner, OS X Disk Utility’s “Restore” function, or other cloning software. I recently cloned my MacBook’s drive to a G-Technology G=Drive using DU Restore, and the laptop boots just fine from it and even yields decent performance, so it is possible.


  6. Peter Tax

    A FireWire drive can be used (in combination with SuperDuper or CarbonCopyCloner) to create a bootable backup.
    I’m using a FireWire backup disk with two partiions: one for a complete and immediately usable bootable backup (made once a week), and the other for Time Machine. Too bad the iMac doesn’t have an eSATA port, which would have been faster, but apart from that this setup works just fine for me.

    • Yep- in fact, the 4th generation iPod (2004) could still use FireWire as a syncing standard. I think the lack of FireWire ports on PCs kept FireWire from really taking off.

      It’s funny- FireWire was on my PowerMac G3 from 1998, yet Dell, Gateway, HP, etc. decided that USB 1.0, a much slower standard, should become the de facto for new machines.


  7. For use with a single disk at a time, ie not a RAID array, firewire 800 is a bit faster than the disk. Ie, with firewire 800, data can be copied to/from a single disk at virtually the same speed as if that disk were internal. A higher bus speed of USB3 or eSATA won’t really make a single disk go faster because the disk itself can’t go any faster.
    For disk storage, where more bandwidth in USB3 or eSATA comes in is when the connection is shared between several disks. Eg copying between disks plugged into the same bus, or accessing a RAID array that is composed of several disks. Two disks in a RAID can go at twice the speed of one disk in some cases, which is when you’d benefit from a faster connection than FW800.
    Its a question of where the bottleneck is

    • >A higher bus speed of USB3 or eSATA won’t really make a single disk go faster because the disk itself can’t go any faster.

      This statement is incorrect. If all you use is very slow hard disks that were built in 2008 or earlier this might be close to true. However, I have performance tested the Samsung 1T F3 as a single disk and seen rates as high as 150MB/s. This is twice as fast as FW800 on its best day. :-) FW800 limits the performance of fast hard disks.

      A single eSATA port on a 4x PCIe eSATA controller can provide performance as high as 250MB/s with a RAID. The best USB 3.0 performance is 120-130MB/s read and 80-99MB/s write.

      eSATA 3G 4x PCIe controllers can beat USB 3.0 transfers speeds by almost double. Fast SSD and 3.5″ hard disk users will still find USB 3.0 limits performance. If you really want speed, you need eSATA.

      If you understand that FireWire 800 is limited to approx. 55-75MB/s it is a good tool. However, it is slower than eSATA. As the speed of hard disks is continually improving FW800 connections are the bottleneck limiting HDD performance.

  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. 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:

    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.

  10. 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?

    • 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.

  11. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

  12. Somebody

    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.

    • 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.

      • 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 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….

  13. 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.