USB 2.0 brings on the speed, but can it be faster than FireWire?

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Maxtor provided us with two similar 5400 rpm external hard drives, the USB 2.0-based Personal Storage 3000LE and the FireWire-based External Storage 3000XT. With our 1.3-GHz Pentium 4 test system equipped with 1GB of PC800 RDRAM, we loaded up SuperSpeed Software's RamDisk XP Pro and created a 700MB virtual hard drive. The low latency of our RAM disk as well as its solid-state performance allowed us focus on the performance of each interface using the similar external drives.

We created two sets of data files and measured the length of time each drive could read and write to our virtual drive. Our two sets of data files consisted of one folder containing over 5,300 files and 90 folders totaling 289MB (Test 1) and another folder containing 160 MP3s totaling 645MB (Test 2).

Our write tests consisted of transferring the contents of the RAM disk to the hard drive and timing how long it took. Likewise, we performed our read tests by copying the data files from the hard drive back to the RAM disk while timing the process. All drives were formatted between each test run. (Read/write results are in megabytes per second; higher is better.)

Hard Drive Tests

USB 2.0


% faster than USB 2.0

Test 1 (read)




Test 2 (read)




Test 1 (write)




Test 2 (write)




While USB 2.0 may not be the ultimate hard drive interface, its ability to read at a rate of 6MB per second matches the maximum write speed of a 40x CD recorder. Focusing on the MP3 transfer rates (Test 2), FireWire offers a significant advantage over USB 2.0, besting it by nearly 48 percent in write speeds and over 70 percent in read speeds. (Yet another (indirect) reason Apple iPod owners are so happy.)

We will soon revisit this particular test with a 7200 rpm hard drive, but the results are likely to remain consistent. In addition, notebook-sized hard drives such as those used in the iPod can be powered by a 6-pin FireWire interface whereas USB 2.0 would require an additional power supply/connection.

Final thoughts

Despite the speed advantage USB 2.0 offers over the old v1.1 standard, FireWire remains the performance king of plug-and-play connections. USB 2.0 will be integrated into most new computers, but that's just a case of market dominance. FireWire will continue to be the connection of choice for digital video cameras, but digital still cameras will likely to move on to USB 2.0. Be prepared for the shockingly slow speed of current flash memory technologies (another bottleneck). Chipset pricing and market penetration are two of the major factors in determining which interface a manufacturer will use in a product that would benefit from a high-speed interface.

Even though the official pricing of USB 2.0 and FireWire chipsets remains secretive, pricing of the upgrade cards we looked at suggest USB 2.0 is already less expensive than FireWire by at least $10. Compared to FireWire's firm lock on the realm of digital video, USB 2.0's lack of a killer application will likely be overshadowed by aggressive chipset pricing and the fact that it will be everywhere in 18-months.

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