When we tested the first Macs with
FireWire 800 ports
(Reviews, May 2003), we were hard put to find any peripherals to plug in to them. That’s not the case now: the number of available FireWire 800-equipped products has increased steadily, and there are several FireWire 800 external drives out there for the testing.
The difference between FireWire 800 (also known as 1394b) and FireWire 400 (1394a) comes down to the theoretical transfer rate: FireWire 800 has a theoretical transfer rate of 800 Mbps (twice as fast as FireWire 400). In reality, anyone moving files between a G4 and an external FireWire 800 drive will probably never reach that transfer rate.
Macworld Lab tested four of the new 250GB FireWire 800 hard drives to see just how fast they moved data: the EZQuest Cobra FireWire 800/USBII, the LaCie D2 U&I, the Other World Computing Mercury Elite Pro FireWire 800, and the WiebeTech 250GB Fire800. Although they performed similarly, the OWC Mercury Elite Pro FireWire 800 was our favorite. It has the best price and a full complement of USB and FireWire ports for connecting to different hard drives.
Speed isn’t the only difference between FireWire 400 and FireWire 800: FireWire 800 also allows longer cables, which can dramatically increase the distance between FireWire devices. Cables aren’t cheap, so their inclusion in a FireWire 800 commercial package is one reason FireWire 800 drives are more expensive than FireWire 400 drives. (Another reason is component costs — but over time, the cost of the constituent parts should come down).
All the drives except the OWC ship with a FireWire 400-to-FireWire 800 cable, and all ship with a FireWire 800-to-FireWire 800 cable and USB 2.0 cables. Since relatively few Mac models have FireWire 800 capabilities (the 17-inch PowerBook G4 and the most recent group of G4 and G5 towers), more Mac users will want to connect the drives to their Macs’ FireWire 400 ports.
Each drive shipped with software that extends the drive’s usefulness. The OWC and EZQuest include InTech’s SpeedTools, an OS 9-only drive-formatting and benchmarking utility. EZQuest also includes a copy of Dantz’s Retrospect Express for backing up data locally. LaCie includes its own SilverKeeper backup software for OS X and its SilverLining Pro disk-formatting software for OS 9. WiebeTech includes a copy of MacDrive 5 for Windows, a utility that lets Windows users mount and use Mac-formatted drives. The WiebeTech drive was the only unit to show up formatted as a DOS volume; it would not mount in OS X 10.2.6. We used Apple’s Disk Utility software to reformat the drive as a Mac volume, and we were off.
The four drives all have silver or gray cases. The EZQuest has an internal power supply and uses a standard power cable, which is handy for folks who plan on shuttling their drives from location to location. Of course, putting the power supply inside the case increases the case’s size, and with the EZQuest’s slightly bulky appearance, this drive could easily be mistaken for a CD-RW drive. If we had to pick a drive on looks alone, we’d choose the LaCie, for its sturdy and sleek appearance.
The OWC, WiebeTech, and LaCie drives are thin, and each ships with a stand that lets you position it vertically. But they also require that you cart around an external power supply and power cable.
All the drives have at least two FireWire 800 ports and one USB 2.0 port. The LaCie and EZQuest have a third FireWire 800 port, while the OWC and WiebeTech include a FireWire 400 port instead.
To see what you might experience when you actually use one of these drives, we hooked up each to the FireWire 800 port on the back of a dual-1GHz G4 tower with OS X 10.2.5 installed and 512MB of RAM. Then we moved some files and folders around the way we figured you would — by reading and writing between the internal and external drives, and performing some file-duplication operations that never hit the internal drive. We also tested the WiebeTech as a FireWire 400 drive and an internal drive so we could compare the results against the FireWire 800 drives and see how well one drive worked in three scenarios.
We found that, as anticipated, the FireWire 800 drives performed almost identically to one another when operating in the same mode. We also found that the drives were faster across the board when connected via FireWire 800 ports than when connected via FireWire 400 ports, but the difference in connection speed depended heavily on the type of operation we performed.
The test that showed the greatest difference between FireWire 800 and FireWire 400 involved simultaneously reading and writing a large file to the same drive, which is what happens during file duplication. When duplicating a 1GB file, the FireWire 800 drives completed the task 38 percent faster than the FireWire 400 drive. When duplicating a folder filled with 1GB of files and subfolders, the FireWire 800 drives were 23 percent faster. When copying a file from the internal boot drive to the external FireWire drive, the FireWire 800 drives were 30 percent faster than the FireWire 400 drive. Other tests didn’t show as much of a difference. The FireWire 800 drives copied a 1GB folder of files to the internal boot drive 17 percent faster than the FireWire 400 drive. Backing up the same 1GB folder from the internal drive to the FireWire 800 drives with Retrospect was a bit more than 9 percent faster than with a FireWire 400 drive.
Although the beauty of FireWire is its plug-and-play connectivity and its easy portability, you might wonder (as we did) how an external FireWire 800 drive’s performance compares with that of the same drive installed internally. Interestingly, the tests where the FireWire 800 external drives showed the least benefit were where the internal drives excelled. When duplicating the test file and test folder, the internal drive’s speed fell right between the FireWire 800 and FireWire 400 results. The internal drive was nearly 11 percent faster in performing the 1GB Retrospect backup than FireWire 800 and more than 30 percent faster than FireWire 800 when copying the same 1GB folder to the boot drive.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
These FireWire 800 drives were faster in every test, but they’re definitely not twice as fast as FireWire 400 drives. Time will tell whether Apple’s G5 machines, which feature faster buses, will translate into better performance from external FireWire 800 drives.
If you’re moving large files between your systems and external drives, a FireWire 800 drive may be a smart choice. We recommend the $519 OWC Mercury Elite Pro FireWire 800. It has the lowest price of the bunch and includes a variety of ports that make it compatible with a wide range of machines.