NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, October 2003
The Big Debate:
Fire Wire Vs. USB 2.0?
by Cade Metz, Manatee Computer News

Shopping for a new DVD burner, external hard drive, or scanner (or just about any computer peripheral, for that matter) just got more complicated. That’s because of the emergence of USB 2.0, a high-speed connection technology that is competing with Fire Wire as a way to connect peripherals to your computer. Both are rated at comparable speeds—480 megabits per second (Mbps) for USB 2.0 and 400 Mbps for FireWire.

So which one should you use? We’ll give you the answer to this and other burning questions about the two interfaces.. Is upgrading your desktop from USB 1.1 to USB 2.0 with an add-in card worth the extra cost? Will a FireWire card deliver faster speeds for your peripherals? Or is a combo card your best bet? Which interface is faster for external hard drives, and which plays back video the best?

Life used to be simpler. Macs had fast FireWire ports that could handle the fun stuff like camcorders, which need speedy data transfers; PC users, however, were limited to much slower USB ports that poked along at 12 Mbps and could handle only run-of-the-mill gadgets like mice, printers, and scanners. But FireWire has crossed the divide, available via add-on cards for desktops, PC Cards for notebooks, and built-in ports with some new PCs. And the latest version of USB—USB 2.0—pumps up transfer speeds significantly, making it a viable competitor to FireWire (though you still can’t buy a USB 2.0 camcorder).

The Big Decision
Deciding which standard to use depends largely on the peripheral you want to connect. In many cases, the peripheral will make the decision for you, since most devices have only one type of port. But you may have a choice, as interface options broaden and multi-connection devices become more popular. So we ran tests to determine the best interface for many types of peripherals. We timed external hard drives, printers, scanners, DVD burners, and CD-RW drives over both USB 2.0 and FireWire. The results are surprising.

Though USB 2.0 is rated at a higher throughput speed, FireWire delivered faster performance on external hard drives when connected to a desktop. Still, an upgrade from a USB 1.1 to a USB 2.0 hard drive is definitely worthwhile. And since nearly all new mainstream desktop PCs have USB 2.0 ports, USB hard drives will be the market winners. For CD-RWs, test results were a mixed bag, though USB 2.0 showed a slight edge. For printing and most scanning work, USB 1.1 is fast enough for most users. We also compared the performance of USB 1.1 against USB 2.0 peripherals. Our tests showed that USB 2.0 was generally only 2 to 13 times as fast as USB 1.1— not the promised 40 times as fast. But even a doubling in performance is obviously significant. Once you’ve chosen a peripheral, it’s time to upgrade your computer, which likely has USB 1.1 ports.

Notebooks Forge Ahead
We expect to see notebooks move to USB 2.0 with the debut of the Intel Odem and Montero chipsets in the first half of 2003. FireWire is built-in only on some high-end PCs, all Apple systems, and most Sony computers. In this story, we explore five types of devices that add high-speed ports to your desktop or notebook: FireWire add-in cards, USB 2.0 add-in cards, combo cards, hubs, and PC Cards. We also list a handful of the many products available.

Over the next few years, both high-speed data transfer standards will continue to coexist. This may complicate your buying decisions but will also improve the ties that bind your PC and its peripherals. If you want to be the first on your block with a FireWire-enabled PC, you have a few options: Buy a new motherboard, buy a new computer, or—the cheapest and easiest answer— buy an upgrade card.

We didn’t see much variation in performance among these three-port PCI cards, but the products include very different cables, drivers, and software. PC MAG

Reprinted from PC Register, March 2003, the Official Journal of the East Tennessee Computer Society. Article reproduction coordinated by Steve Bass, author of PC Annoyances: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things about Your Personal Computer, O’Reilly Press. http://snurl.com/annoyances