Most modern Macs—except for the MacBook Air and some MacBook models—offer both FireWire and USB connections. When shopping for an external hard drive, then, you have many options for something that will work with your Mac. Today, USB hard drives are more common and less expensive than FireWire or even FireWire/USB combo drives.
But ubiquity doesn’t necessarily equate to superiority. All other areas of comparison aside, what many people want to know is how the two technologies match up in terms of speed. USB 2.0 has a maximum theoretical bandwidth of 480 Mbps, versus 400 Mbps for FireWire 400 and 800 Mbps for FireWire 800. To get a sense of real-world performance, however, we ran drive tests on both a 2.4GHz 17-inch MacBook Pro with a 160GB, 5400RPM internal hard drive and a Mac Pro 3GHz 8-core system with a 250GB, 7200RPM internal drive (each with OS X 10.6.2 and 2GB of RAM installed).
Western Digital My Book Studio
When we connected the MacBook Pro to a 2TB Western Digital My Book Studio drive and copied a 1GB file to it from the internal hard drive, we found that it took 23 percent less time over FireWire 400 than over USB 2.0. Duplicating that file using FireWire 400 on the WD drive took 10 percent less time than when run over USB 2.0. To see how the different connections performed in more typical backup tasks, we copied over a 2.5GB folder containing 5000 individual files and folders. In that test, we found the FireWire 400 transfer to be 26 percent faster than USB 2.0. Using AJA’s System Test application, we found the MacBook Pro’s FireWire 400 connection to be 46 percent faster than USB in the writing tests. In the reading tests, however, the edge went to USB, which was nine percent faster than FireWire 400.
Using the same hard drive, but connected to our Mac Pro, we found the FireWire 400 connection to be 19 percent faster than the USB on the copy to the external drive, 21 percent faster on both the duplication test and the copy 5000 files test, and exactly the same in terms of performance difference on the AJA read and write tests as with the MacBook Pro.
Comparing the FireWire 800 and USB 2.0 results on the MacBook Pro with the My Book Studio showed the FireWire 800 connection to be 35 percent faster at copying the file to the external drive, 51 percent faster duplicating that file on the external drive, and 37 percent faster copying over the 5000 files and folders. The AJA write test showed the FireWire 800 connection’s throughput at almost three times faster than the USB connected WD, with 58 percent faster read scores.
The My Book tested on the Mac Pro showed the FireWire 800 connection to be 48 percent faster than USB at copying the file to the external drive, 54 percent faster duplicating the file, and 49 percent faster copying over our 5000 files and folders. The AJA write tests showed the 800 connection writing twice as many megabytes per second as the USB connection, and 49 percent faster reading.
We also tested a zippy little Verbatim portable drive, which was 23 percent faster than USB in the copy to external test on the MacBook Pro, 21 percent faster at the duplication test, 14 percent faster on the 5000 file copy test, 42 percent faster on the AJA write throughput, and 8 percent faster on the AJA read throughput.
Connected via FireWire 800, we saw FireWire speeds 42 percent faster than USB at our copy to external test, 55 percent faster on our duplication test, 32 percent faster in the 5000 files test, and two times faster in the AJA read and write scores.
On the Mac Pro, the Verbatim with a FireWire 400 connection was 13 percent faster than USB at our copy to test, 10 percent faster at our duplication test, 12 percent faster in our 5000 file copy test, 18 percent faster in AJA’s write tests and five percent faster than USB in the AJA read tests.
Connected to the FireWire 800 port, the Verbatim was 47 percent faster at our copy to test than when connected over USB. It was 49 percent faster than USB in our duplication tests, 44 percent faster in our 5000 file copy test and again, twice as fast as USB in both the read and write tests we ran using AJA’s System Test software.
USB Versus FireWire Speeds
|Copy 1GB file
to ext drive
|Copy 5000 items
to external drive
|Duplicate 1GB file
on external drive
|WD, MBP, USB||0:40||1:50||1:11||24||36|
|WD, MBP, FireWire 400||0:31||1:21||1:04||35||33|
|WD, MBP, FireWire 800||0:26||1:09||0:35||71||57|
|WD, Mac Pro, USB||0:42||1:41||1:10||28||37|
|WD, Mac Pro, FireWire 400||0:34||1:20||0:55||28||34|
|WD, Mac Pro, FireWire 800||0:22||0:52||0:32||60||55|
|Verbatim, MBP, USB||0:43||1:40||1:16||24||36|
|Verbatim, MBP, FireWire 400||0:33||1:26||1:00||34||39|
|Verbatim, MBP, FireWire 800||0:25||1:08||0:34||57||73|
|Verbatim, Mac Pro, USB||0:38||1:34||1:08||28||37|
|Verbatim, Mac Pro, FireWire 400||0:33||1:23||1:01||33||39|
|Verbatim, Mac Pro, FireWire 800||0:20||0:53||0:35||60||73|
Copy and Duplicate scores are in minutes:seconds (lower is better). AJA System Test scores are in MBps (higher is better).
And the winner is…
From our speed tests, it's safe to say that Apple made the right choice switching to FireWire 800 from FireWire 400 on many Mac models. Although FireWire 400 is faster at most tasks than USB 2.0 (even though FireWire 400's theoretical bandwidth is lower than USB 2.0's) it isn’t always, or by much. If you’re looking for speed, FireWire 800 crushes USB on both systems in all four tests we ran. FireWire 400 is a pretty good choice too in most cases, but it's modest speed advantage might not be enough to warrant paying extra for.
Looking forward, much of this is bound to change. The release of USB 3.0 products in early 2010 promises speeds greater than FireWire 800 and even eSATA, with a theoretical maximum bandwidth of 4.8 Gbps. Of course, it may be some time before Apple begins supporting USB 3.0 and including such ports on the Mac. In the meantime, be sure to check out our hard drive buying guides to help you pick out the right hard drive.
And for more USB vs FireWire data, check out Macworld's hard drive reviews. We test every available port on each drive. Do you have suggestions for more tests to include? Time Machine backups, multiple small file transfers? Let us know in the comments and we'll consider adding them.