FireWire vs USB 2.0

There are many USB devices – keyboards, mice, webcams, microphones – but not nearly as many FireWire devices – mostly digital cameras. I got an email from Katie asking me what the difference is between USB 2.0 and FireWire.

FireWire and USB 2.0 use two completely different architectures and handles data in different ways.

FireWire uses a “peer to peer” architecture, where the peripherals are intelligent enough to handle bus conflicts on their own. FireWire also has less overhead, which increases its sustained throughput. This is the main reason why you’ll see digital cameras and video capture cards use FireWire over USB 2.0.

USB uses a “master-slave” configuration where the computer handles all conflicts and data flow. Since USB has more overhead the sustained throughput is significantly decreased, making this a less attractive option for applications that need a higher sustained throughput.

Since USB has lower hardware requirements, common peripherals tend to use USB, which lowers the overall cost of the product.

USB-Ware has a hard drive performance comparison showing the speed difference between USB and FireWire:

Read and write tests to the same IDE hard drive connected using Firewire and then Hi-Speed USB 2.0 show:

Read Test:

  • 5000 files (300 MB total) FireWire was 33% faster than USB 2.0
  • 160 files (650 MB total) FireWire was 70% faster than USB 2.0
  • 5000 files (300 MB total) FireWire was 16% faster than USB 2.0
  • 160 files (650 MB total) FireWire was 48% faster than USB 2.0
  • Write Test:
    USB 2.0 vs FireWire, who wins?
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