FireWire and USB are the two main protocols for connecting your computer to peripherals. While very closely matched, there are some key differences between these two connectivity solutions, while the other key issue is support. For high end Mac users, you’ll likely have both FireWire and USB ports, but most low- to mid- Windows-based computers only come with USB ports. You can certainly invest in an expansion card that allows you to connect FireWire devices to your PC, but is it worth it?
Speed: FireWire 400/800 vs. USB 2.0
USB 3.0 is on the horizon, but it’s not quite hit the same saturation point as FireWire 800 and USB 2.0, the latter of which is practically ubiquitous. In terms of speed, the rated data transfer rate for FireWire 400 and FireWire 800 are 400 Mbps and 800 Mbps respectively. Meanwhile, USB 2.0 is rated at 480 Mbps. Based on the numbers, it appears that USB 2.0 is the second fastest, led by FireWire 800. But in practice, many report that FireWire 400 is actually a bit faster than USB 2.0, especially in terms of transferring data to external hard drives, while FireWire 800 blows it out of the water. There are, of course, many other factors that affect data transfer rate. But overall, FireWire and USB 2.0 are pretty evenly matched.
Networkability: FireWire vs. USB
USB devices are host-based, which means that in order to communicate with a USB device, you msut connect to it directly via a computer. But FireWire is peer-based, meaning that two FireWire devices can actually communicate with each other without a computer serving as an intermediary. This allows you to “daisy chain” FireWire drives, by connecting them one to another and then connecting the entire chain to the computer. You can also use FireWire drives to boot into target disk mod on a Mac, something that can’t be accomplished with a USB drive.
Cost: FireWire vs. USB
Overall, you’ll pay more for FireWire devices than you would for USB devices. That’s because USB is much more common, and most FireWire devices are leveled at pro audiences, such as video and audio producers and other types of users who need the top level of performance.
USB/FireWire Devices: The Best of Both Worlds?
If you have both FireWire and USB ports on your computer, you might want to consider looking into a hard drive or peripheral that has multiple input/output ports. That way, you can use the best one for your system when you’re at home, but still be able to transfer it to a computer that does not have a FireWire port. In this way, you don’t have to sacrifice the benefits of one to capitalize on the advantages of the other. Of course, USB/FireWire hard drives tend to be more expensive than USB-only hard drives, but depending on your needs, it may be worth it.
What about USB 3.0?
USB 3.0 promises faster transfer speeds, increased maximum bus power, full duplex data transfers and backwards compatibility with earlier versions of USB. In some reports, USB 3.0 is rated at up to 4.8 Gbps, which represents a massive increase even over FireWire 800. But we’ll have to wait and see how it matches up in the real world in terms of price, availability and performance.