Shopping for an external hard drive, if you own a MAC, is hard. If you are looking for FireWire and USB connections, note that except for the MacBook Air and some models, most modern MAC units offer this. Just keep in mind that compared to FireWire or FireWire/USB combo drives in the market, USB hard drives tend to be more affordable and simply easier to find.

Of course, understand that ubiquity does not automatically translate to superiority.

You do not make a choice simply because it is easier to find. As a matter of fact, when people look at FireWire and USB connections, they are always after speed.

A typical USB 2.0 has a theoretical bandwidth at the maximum of 480 Mbps; while a FireWire 400 and a FireWire 800, boast of 400 and 800 Mbps, respectively.

usb 2.0 vs firewire

How do these data translate to practical use? To obtain a better picture, test drives were ran on the following units:

  1. MacBook Pro with specs 160GB, 5400RPM internal hard drive
  2. Mac Pro 3GHz 8-core system (250GB, 7200RPM internal hard drive)

Both ran on OS x 10.6.2 and 2GB of RAM.

USB 2.0 Storage Box

usb-box

A test was run to compare file transfer rates between a FireWire 400 and a USB 2.0. The MacBook Pro was connected to a 2TB Western Digital My Studio Book and files of the size of 1GB were transferred. It was found that the FireWire 400 transferred the files in 23% less time compared to the USB 2.0. Similarly, the FireWire 400 performed superiorly over the USB 2.0 when the same file was duplicated. It took 10% less time for FireWire 400 to do this.

usb-ins

Even more backup tasks were subjected on the two connections. A 2.56GB folder that contained 5000 folders and files were copied and the FireWire 400 was able to perfect 26% faster than the USB 2.0. With the AJA’s System Test Application, FireWire 400 showed speed of 46% faster in writing tests; but the USB 2.0 showed speed of about 9% faster in reading tests.

usb-chip

The same tests were carried out using the Mac Pro and the same hard drive. The FireWire 400 was 19% faster to copy contents of the external drive, 21% to duplicate the same file, and also 21% faster when copying about 5000 files and folders, compared to the USB 2.0.  When the AJA reading and writing tests were carried out, it yielded the same results.

3.5″ Mult-iBay FireWire.

fw-box

The same tests were carried out using the same hard drive, but this time using the FireWire 800. On the My Book Studio and the MacBook Pro, the FireWire 800 performed 35% faster at copying files, compared to the USB 2.0. Further testing showed that it performed 51% faster in duplicating the same files and 37% faster in copying 5000 files and folders. For the AJA writing test, the FireWire 800 performed three times faster than the USB 2.0 and in the reading test, it was 58% faster.

fw-ins

On the Mac Pro, the FireWire 800 was 48% faster at copying and 54% faster at duplicating the same file, compared to the USB 2.0. When it was tasked to copy about 5000 files and folders, it performed 49% faster. Finally, the FireWire 800 scored impressively in both AJA writing and reading tests. Writing scores for the FireWire 800 was two times faster than the USB 2.0 and 49% faster in reading.

fw-chip

Tests

When the Verbatim portable drive was tested with the MacBook Pro, the FireWire 400 was found to perform 23% faster than the USB 2.0 at copying files and 21% faster at duplicating the same files. When it was tasked to copy 5000 files and folders, it scored 14% faster and boasted of a 42% and 8% for the AJA writing and reading tests, respectively.

Windows98 SE

When the Verbatim portable drive was connected to the FireWire 800, it was 42% faster at copying, 55% faster at duplicating and 32% faster at copying 5000 files and folders, compared to the USB 2.0. It also showed very impressive AJA reading and writing scores.

Winbench 99

Direct connection

98-direct

Via USB 2.0

98-usb2

Via FireWire

98-fw

Connection Direct USB 2.0 FireWire
Business Disk Winmark 6510 4870 6040
Hi-End Winmark 21300 13900 18500
Transfer Begin 41700 12400 27400
Transfer End 25600 12300 25400
CPU usage 17% 15,7% 12%
Access time, ms. 12.5 13.3 12.8

File copying

Connection Direct USB 2.0 FireWire
1 GBytes – 1 file 58.7 sec 1m 54.6 sec 1m 09.6 sec
1GB- in 9226 files 1m 24.1 sec 1m 59.4 sec 1m 30.1 sec

When the Verbatim portable was connected to the Mac Pro, the FireWire 400 was 13% faster at the copy test compared to the USB 2.0. It was also 10% faster at the duplication test, 12% faster at copying 5000 files and folders, 18% faster in the AJA writing tests and 5% faster in reading tests.

Windows 2000

When the Verbatim portable was connected to the FireWire 800, test scores showed that it was 47% faster at copying, 49% faster at duplicating and 44% faster at copying 5000 files and folders. Its AJA reading and writing scores were also twice as fast as that of the USB 2.0.

Winbench 99

Direct connection

w2k-direct

Via USB 2.0

w2kusb2

Via FireWire

w2k-fw

Connection Direct USB 2.0 FireWire
Business Disk Winmark 7870 8250 9650
Hi-End Winmark 26400 17500 18500
Transfer Begin 41900 14200 36100
Transfer End 25600 14200 25500
CPU usage 11.2% 5.93% 9.25%
Access time, ms. 13 12.9 12.6

File copying

Connection Direct USB 2.0 FireWire
1 GBytes – 1 file 43.8 sec 1m 20 sec 48.9 sec
1 GBytes – in 9226 files 1m 15.4 sec 1m 30 sec 1m 18.4 sec

Interpretation of Scores

Note well that both copy and duplicate scores are recorded in minutes:seconds—and for such, a lower score is better. In the AJA System Test scores, scoring higher MBP rates is more satisfactory.

Other details are as follows:

  • The test systems utilized were a 3GHZ 8-Core Mac Pro and a 17-inch MacBook Pro. They both had OS x 10.6.2 and 2GB of RAM.
  • 1GB worth of files was copied to the external hard drive from the internal hard drive.
  • The same file was then duplicated on the external hard drive.
  • Increasing the file size, 5000 individual files and folders worth 2.5GB was copied to the external hard drive from the internal hard drive.
  • The AJA System Tests were run with a video frame size of 1920 x 1080 at 10-bit—all amounting to a file size total of 2GB. (Macworld Lab testing by James Galbrath and Lynn La)
Connection Direct USB 2.0 FireWire
DVD 1 GBytes 1 file 2m 51 sec 2m 58 sec 2m 43 sec
CD 725 MBytes 6425 files 4m 40 sec 4m 38 sec 4m 43 sec

Conclusion

Based on the speed tests ran on the FireWire 400, FireWire 800 and USB 2.0, it is easy to deduce that Apple made a smart decision to switch to FireWire 800 on their various Mac models. The FireWire 400 may have performed better than USB 2.0, but in terms of theoretical bandwidth, the difference is not significant. At least, in terms of speed, the FireWire 800 will not disappoint. On all the tests ran, it convincingly crushed the competition. The FireWire 400 is suitable for those with modest speed requirements, but if you really want to get your money’s worth, then the FireWire 800 is truly the upgrade you need.

 

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