The debate over USB versus Firewire is fought long and hard. While you’ll find plenty of perspectives from both camps, you’ll be hard pressed to find a definitive judgment over which is best. But there are some fundamental differences between Firewire and USB that may matter to you as you choose an I/O card for your computer. After discussing these differences, we’ll discuss some top picks for both USB and Firewire interface cards.
The USB Argument
USB (Universal Serial Bus) is, in a word, ubiquitous. A good reason is that the USB format can be used for basically anything from keyboards, which have low data rates, to video cameras, which have extremely high data rates. The USB physical connection is robust and familiar to everyone. USB cards can supply power to the device they are connected to and can, with the proper software, be used to connect to almost any device that can fit the connector. This makes USB a good choice for being able to connect to things that haven’t even been invented yet. Simply put, USB is everywhere, not even close to becoming obsolete, and perfect for most applications.
The Firewire Argument
The keyword is “most”, however. From a technical point of view, Firewire still has its proper place. The speeds of Firewire are comparable to USB 2.0 (though the new USB 3.0 specification outclasses Firewire in raw speed). Firewire is a more “dedicated” form of I/O than USB. USB requires more software interfaces between the I/O card and CPU than Firewire does. This allows Firewire, with a greater amount of circuitry on its card dedicated to processing the information, to have fewer potential problems with the CPU suddenly not being able to handle real-time I/O needs due to other things running on the CPU. This stability gives Firewire an advantage of reliability and makes it the go-to choice for any “must-do” applications, such as video or audio recording, where there is a very low tolerance for “we need to retake because the computer blipped” situations.
The Best of Each
In the end, is USB or Firewire right for you? Let’s consider a prime example from each camp: The Rosewill RC-103 (USB) and the Koutech IO-DBFW210 (Firewire). The Rosewill (even with the standard USB 2.0 specification) has a higher maximum transfer rate (480Mbps vs 400Mbps), but they are fairly similar in that respect as Firewire tends to have a higher sustained transfer rate than USB 2.0. However, that is where the similarity ends. Considering applications, the Rosewill is useful in virtually any kind of I/O connection you might want for your computer, while the Koutech is useful only for professional audio and video applications. The price of the Rosewill is half of the Koutech ($10 versus $20). The biggest clincher, however, is the future utility. Firewire is becoming more and more obsolete as USB manufacturers increase the reliability of their products, taking away the one positive argument for Firewire. As a result, Firewire I/O cards are becoming hard to find and their connection options inside your computer are becoming more limited. The obvious choice, unless Firewire makes an unexpected breakthrough, remains USB.