FireWire vs Hi-Speed USB

We explain the pros and cons.
 
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  • Updated:8 Mar 2006
 

01 .Introduction

Firewire-vs-USB

In brief

  • FireWire is officially known as IEEE 1394. It transfers data at up to 400 megabits per second (Mbps) or 800 Mbps.
  • Hi-Speed USB transmits data at up to 480Mbps. It's part of the USB 2.0 specification that can hande data transfer at three speeds: low (1.5Mbps), full (12Mbps) and high (480Mbps).
  • You can find FireWire and USB models of almost all types of major peripherals.

Please note: this information was current as of March 2006 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


Connecting peripheral devices to your computer used to be a drag. Not only would you need extra cables and power cords but sometimes you'd also need to reboot your system and wait for it to respond each time you plugged in a new gadget. And, once connected, the transfer of data could be painfully slow. Thankfully, along came FireWire and Universal Serial Bus (USB): faster and easier to use replacements for serial and parallel ports.

We don't recommend one technology over the other, but if you're having trouble deciding which one is best for you, consider:

  • What your computer supports without the need for upgrading.
  • What you want from your peripheral. Generally speaking, FireWire is better suited to digital video tasks.
  • Cost - there may be a significant price difference, depending on the gadget.

FireWire

FireWire is the older of the two technologies. It began life in the mid-1980s as proprietary Apple technology designed to handle the transfer of large amounts of data. In 1995 it was adopted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) as an official industry standard for use in all types of computers and devices.

Officially named IEEE 1394, FireWire can transfer data at three different rates: 100, 200 and 400 megabits per second (Mbps).

Sony's version is known as i.LINK.

The next generation of FireWire, dubbed 1394b or FireWire 800, has already hit the market. It supports speeds up to 800Mbps.

Hi-speed USB

USB was developed by IT companies including Compaq, DEC, Microsoft, Intel, NEC and Nortel in the early 90s. In 1995, the USB Implementers Forum was created and USB ports began appearing in computers a year later. Originally developed for lower-bandwidth gadgets such as keyboards and mouses, the first versions of USB are only slightly faster than serial and parallel ports. It wasn't until the USB 2.0 specification was introduced in 2000 that the technology became a viable competitor to FireWire.

USB 1.0 (low-speed) and USB 1.1 (full-speed) transfer data at up to 1.5Mpbs and 12Mbps respectively. USB 2.0 has a maximum transfer rate of 480Mbps, but it also supports the slower speeds.

Hi-Speed USB refers only to products that can handle data transmission at the maximum rate.

A new specification of USB is also in the pipeline: USB On-The-Go. It's an extension of USB 2.0 that includes peer-to-peer support. This means you'll be able to connect devices directly without the need for a computer. USB On-The-Go is expected to be popular for portable devices.

In addition to their fast speeds, FireWire and Hi-Speed USB share some other common characteristics:

  • Plug and play connectivity: both standards allow you to plug and unplug devices without turning off or rebooting your computer.
  • Both are compatible with Mac and Windows.
  • Both guarantee a certain minimum data transfer rate. This is beneficial for time-sensitive data such as digital video, which can result in annoying gaps and pauses when it's transferred at low or inconsistent speeds.
 
 

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02.FireWire and Hi-Speed USB compared

 
FIREWIRE HI-SPEED USB
Speed
  • 400Mbps (FireWire 400)
  • 800Mbps (FireWire 800)
  • In practice, however, it comes out ahead of USB most of the time.
  • Theoretically, faster than FireWire 400 (but not 800)
  • Designed to handle up to 480Mbps
  • But USB uses more of your computer's CPU resources than FireWire so once you start using your computer for other tasks, fewer resources are available to run your USB device, and the slower it works
Architecture
  • Peer-to-peer technology
  • A FireWire digital camcorder can transfer video and audio data to another FireWire device - such as a digital VCR - without the need of a computer
  • Multiple computers can be networked or share a peripheral without special support - such as software drivers - in the computer or device
  • Uses a computer to control the transfer of data to and from the gadget
  • You can't yet directly connect USB devices to each other and you can't use USB without a computer
Availability
  • Historically, FireWire was the technology of choice for digital video gadgets like camcorders, but it's now making gains in other consumer electronics
  • Recommended for digital video tasks such as DVD players and writers
  • Manufacturers also are supporting it for other devices, such as webcams, scanners, external hard drives, optical drives, digital TVs, gaming consoles and audio equipment
  • USB models exist for all types of peripherals, especially lower-bandwidth devices, such as keyboards, mouses, hard drives and portable drives (USB keys)
Compatibility
  • FireWire 800 is compatible with older, FireWire 400 devices
  • You'll only get faster speed of 800 is you use a compatible FireWire 800 device
  • USB 2.0 is compatible with its older counterparts, USB 1.0 and USB 1.1
  • It uses the same cables and connectors as USB 1.1
  • The problem is that the two devices won't communicate at the faster speed
  • You'll only achieve the speed benefits of Hi-Speed USB gadgets when they're plugged into a USB 2.0 port
Costs
  • FireWire requires a special inbuilt chip in the device so it's more expensive to build into products
  • Many manufacturers absorb the extra costs
  • Some USB-enabled devices are slightly cheaper than FireWire gadgets

 

System requirements

Most new systems will come with four or more USB 2.0 ports and possibly a FireWire port. Generally, however, PCs built before 1996 won't support either technology and PCs built around 1998 are likely to use USB 1.1.

You don't tend to find USB 2.0 in Macs or PCs built before 2001 and even though some computer hardware may be ready for USB 2.0, your operating system plays an equally important role and must also support the standard. Built-in operating system support for USB was introduced with Windows 98.

Today, Win 98, 2000 and XP, as well as Mac OS 8.6 and later all have native USB 1.1 and FireWire support.

If you run Windows XP, you can add USB 2.0 driver support by installing Service Pack 2 (SP2). SP2 is available from www.microsoft.com/athome/security/protect/windowsxp/choose.aspx.

Remember however, to achieve maximum performance from a Hi-Speed USB device, the ports on your computer must support USB 2.0, not USB 1.1.

If you use Windows 98 or 98SE, you can check if your operating system supports USB by using the free USB evaluation utility available from the USB Implementation Forum website at http://www.usb.org/about/shopping_bag/. It will examine your PC's hardware and software to determine its USB capabilities.

If you run Windows XP, but are unsure if your system supports USB 2.0, you can check:

  • Control Panel
  • System
  • Hardware tab
  • Device Manager
  • Universal Serial Bus controllers.

Look for an ENHANCED USB Host Controller - this indicates you have USB 2.0.

FireWire ports have only started to appear in PC-based systems in the last few years, but Apple has shown long-time support for the technology. If you have a system that doesn't support either technology, you may be able to upgrade by installing a FireWire or USB card or a combination card.

Installing a FireWire/USB or combination card

  • Turn off and unplug your PC. Open the case
  • Make sure to ground yourself by touching some metal
  • Find a free PCI slot and remove the slot cover
  • Insert the card and fasten it down with the screw
  • If your card has a socket for powering USB or Fire-Wire peripherals, find a power supply connector and connect it to the card
  • Replace the cover and plug in the PC

Installing the drivers

  • When your restart your PC, the Add New Hardware Wizard in Windows 98SE or Me should start up. Follow the prompts.
  • If you run Windows XP, the Found New Hard Wizard should appear and the software drivers should be installed automatically.
  • If your operating system can't find the drivers, insert the CD-Rom that came with the card and follow the prompts.

USB 2.0 - How fast is it?

USB 2.0 compatible scanners, printers and peripherals of all kinds may not actually be as speedy as you think. A combination of potentially misleading jargon and inconsistent labelling has complicated consumers’ understanding of what’s already a relatively complex technology.

What’s in a name?

Under the older USB 1.1 specification, there were two kinds of USB devices. Low-speed gadgets, such as mouses and keyboards, designed to run at a maximum of 1.5 megabits per second, and full-speed devices that can transfer data at speeds up to 12 megabits per second.

However, that all changed with the introduction of USB 2.0, which allows for data transfer at up to 480 megabits per second.

Rather than renaming ‘low’ and ‘full’ speed devices to reflect the change, the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), which decides how USB should be promoted, chose to add the term ‘Hi-speed’ to the classifications it already had for USB 1.1 devices.

Hi-speed describes devices that can transfer data at the new maximum speed defined by USB 2.0. So, defying all logical expectation, a Hi-speed USB device is 40 times faster than a full-speed one.

This wouldn’t be so great a problem if USB 2.0 wasn’t ‘backwards compatible’. The fact that older style USB devices, which still run at 1.5 or 12 megabits per second, will work in a newer USB 2.0 port, effectively opens the door for them to be referred to as ‘USB 2.0’, even though they don’t transfer data at the speed people expect from a USB 2.0 gadget.

A rose by any other name

With the poor choice of naming, it’s not surprising that consumers expect a full-speed USB 2.0 device to deliver the maximum USB 2.0 speed.

Even the USB-IF recognises the problem and admits that there’s a mismatch between consumers’ expectations and what products deliver. It states "inconsistent use of terminology in combination with the ... general misconception that USB 2.0 is synonymous with Hi-Speed USB … creates confusion in the marketplace".


To combat this, the USB-IF has devised a new labelling scheme under which manufacturers are only entitled to use the Hi-speed USB logo (right), or state that a product is "up to 40x faster than original USB" on the packaging of devices capable of the maximum USB 2.0 speed (480 megabits per second).

Products that operate at low or full-speed (that is, up to 12 megabits per second) should use the basic form of the logo and avoid terminology such as USB 2.0 full speed, full speed USB or USB 2.0 — labelling should only state that the product "is compatible with the USB 2.0 specification", and then, only in a less prominent position like the side or back of the packaging.

The reality

Rather ironically, however, even manufacturers that are members of the USB-IF aren’t adopting these recommendations.

Labelling woes are compounded in Australia, where you’ll still find USB 1.1 devices that haven’t migrated to the new standard and naming. Bear in mind when shopping that you may see products listed with two different USB logos and descriptions until the naming settles down.

USB product manufacturers need to improve labelling to reduce confusion and the potential for consumers to mistakenly buy devices based on false expectations. In the meantime, if you want speedy peripherals, look for the Hi-speed tag.

Tips:

  • Some devices — mouses, keyboards, gamepads — don’t benefit from the faster Hi-speed USB at all. Don't waste your money.
  • Devices capable of the fastest speed are labelled Hi- speed USB and can use the logo.
  • Report manufacturers using misleading labelling to the department of fair trading or consumer protection agency in your state.
  • Even if a device is correctly labelled Hi-speed USB 2.0 it won’t run at maximum speed unless your operating system and motherboard support it.
  • Cables designed for (and compliant with) USB 1.1 can be used with all USB 2.0 devices — low, full or Hi-speed.