Buyer's Guide: FireWire hard drives

Question 1: Which connectors?

The main connectors you’ll find on external drives are FireWire (also called FireWire 400), FireWire 800, and USB 2.0, and many drives include two or more of these interfaces. FireWire 400 is a Mac user’s best bet. It’s fast and it’s on all Macs that are less than about seven years old, and FireWire upgrades are available for many earlier systems. You can also boot your Mac from most FireWire drives in a pinch.

Apple introduced another, faster version of FireWire, FireWire 800, almost three years ago. It, too, can boot a Mac using OS X, but its speed and performance benefits are questionable. Although it’s theoretically faster than FireWire 400, FireWire 800 is far from twice as fast. In fact, a portable FireWire 400 drive with a rotational speed of 7,200 rpm may outperform a FireWire 800 drive spinning at 4,200 rpm. FireWire 800 is also not as common as FireWire 400—only Power Mac G5s and 15- and 17-inch PowerBooks ship with FireWire 800 ports.

FireWire 800 compatibility may also be an issue if you don’t have one of the Macs with a FireWire 800 port. FireWire 800 ports are compatible with FireWire 400 devices via a special FireWire 400-to-800 cable, but if you plug a FireWire 400 device into a FireWire 800 port, it will operate only at FireWire 400 speeds. If you’re a video or audio pro, FireWire 800 is nice to have, but you’ll want to make sure that the drive also has a FireWire 400 port, for maximum compatibility.

If you work across platforms, consider a drive that has a USB 2.0 port, because Windows PCs often don’t have FireWire ports. USB 2.0 is also gaining popularity on the Mac side; more and more Macs include USB 2.0 ports. USB 2.0 is backward-compatible with USB 1.1 ports (no adapter needed), which have been included on every Mac sold since the introduction of the original iMac seven years ago. But USB 1.1 can be mind-numbingly slow for anything but the smallest file transfers, and you can’t boot your Mac from a USB drive.

If you can’t decide between drives that have one or more of these interfaces, then don’t decide at all. Just buy a drive that has all three connectors—there are many to choose from. They’re called triple-interface drives, and they offer the ultimate in compatibility. Some hard drives include more than one of the same type of FireWire port. This makes it possible to connect another FireWire peripheral—a second drive, say—to the first drive instead of taking up another port on your Mac. This is often referred to as daisy chaining.

Desktop FireWire Hard Drives

Company Product Rating Price¹ Pros Cons
Edge Tech DiskGo 3.5-inch Portable Hard Drive, 400GB 2.5 mice $375 Low price per gigabyte; can boot OS X using FireWire. Very slow at booting OS X via FireWire; inconsistent speed performance.
EZQuest Monsoon FW/USB2 HD, 250GB 4.0 mice $185 Can boot OS X using FireWire; inexpensive. No FireWire 800 ports.
G-Technology G-Drive FW 800 & FW 400, 400GB 4.0 mice $429 Fast; can boot OS X using FireWire; unique case design; FireWire 400 and 800 ports. No USB 2.0 ports; expensive.
Iomega Black Series Triple Interface, 250GB * 4.5 mice $240 Fast; can boot OS X using FireWire; triple interface; includes Retrospect Express. None significant.
Kanguru 3.5-inch Combo Quicksilver FireWire/USB 2.0, 80GB 3.0 mice $130 Carrying case; stand; cool design. Can’t boot OS X using FireWire; slow; low capacity, though larger drives are available; high cost per gigabyte.
LaCie Hard Drive, Design by F.A. Porsche FireWire 400, 160GB 4.0 mice $139 Low price per gigabyte; can boot OS X using FireWire. No USB 2.0 ports.
Maxtor OneTouch II FireWire 800 & USB Drive, 300GB 4.0 mice $320 Can boot OS X using FireWire; triple interface; one-button backup via Retrospect Express (included). Slow performance when copying and duplicating files.
Maxtor OneTouch II FireWire/USB Drive, 300GB 3.5 mice $280 Can boot OS X using FireWire; one-button backup with Retrospect Express (included); low cost per gigabyte. Very slow performance, except for Photoshop test.
MicroNet Platinum FireWire + USB 2.0 Hard Drive 7,200 rpm, 300GB 4.0 mice $246 Two FireWire 400 ports; can boot OS X using FireWire. No FireWire 800 port.
Other World Computing Neptune 7,200 rpm FireWire Solution, 320GB 4.0 mice $230 Can boot OS X via FireWire; includes Retrospect Express; includes stand. Limited connection options.
Other World Computing Mercury Elite- AL Pro 7,200 rpm FireWire 800/400+ USB2, 250GB 4.5 mice $230 Fast; can boot OS X using FireWire; triple interface; includes Retrospect Express. None significant.
Other World Computing Mercury Elite FireWire 800 Pro, 400GB 4.5 mice $390 Fast; can boot OS X using FireWire; large capacity; FireWire 400 and 800 ports. No USB 2.0 ports.
SmartDisk CrossFire Desktop, 160GB 4.0 mice $170 Can boot OS X using FireWire; USB 2.0 and FireWire connectors; distinctive design; good FireWire 400 speeds. No FireWire 800 ports.
Western Digital Extreme Lighted Combo Drive, 320GB 4.0 mice $300 Can boot OS X using FireWire; unique lighted design. Takes up more desktop space than most drives; no FireWire 800 ports.
Western Digital Dual-Option Combo, 250GB 4.0 mice $215 Can boot OS X using FireWire; programmable buttons for backup; Retrospect Express (included); USB and FireWire connectors. Sluggish performance; no FireWire 800 connectors.
WiebeTech ToughTech 800, 250GB 4.0 mice $300 Can boot OS X using FireWire; rugged; fast; USB and FireWire connectors. Expensive; no FireWire 400 connectors.
WiebeTech UltraGB+ 800, 160GB 4.0 mice $380 Can boot OS X using FireWire; bus-powered. High cost per gigabyte.

* = Top Product. All Drives in this table have a rotation speed of 7,200 rpm. ¹All prices shown are the manufacturers’ suggested retail prices.

How We Tested —All speeds are in minutes:seconds. We ran all tests with the FireWire drives connected to a dual-2.5GHz Power Mac G5 with Mac OS X 10.3.7 installed and 512MB of RAM. All drives were tested using FireWire 800, unless it was unavailable; in those cases, we used FireWire 400. We copied a folder containing 1GB of data from our Mac’s hard drive to the external hard drive to test the drive’s read speed. We then duplicated that file on the external drive to test both read and write speeds. We also used the drive as a scratch disk when running our low-memory Adobe Photoshop CS Suite test. This test is a set of four tasks performed on a 150MB file, with Photoshop’s memory set to 50 percent.—Macworld Lab Testing by James Galbraith and Jerry Jung

•  Complete desktop drive specifications

Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter

Comments