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FireWire vs. USB: Do They Differ? Should I Care?

Firewire vs Usb

When we talk about communications between your PC/laptop and other electronic devices like printers, speakers, and cameras, we have two standards before us. These are IEEE 1394 (commonly known as FireWire) and Universal Serial Bus (popularly known as the USB).

The USB as you know comes in different versions: 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0. FireWire on the other hand is the brand name used by Apple for the IEEE 1394 interface just like you have i.LINK for Sony etc.

In the following paragraphs we are going to examine the major differences between USB 3.0 and FireWire, and how this impacts your computing experience. But first, let us go through the origin and evolution of both these standards.

FireWire vs USB: A Brief History

Both FireWire and USB made their debut in the late 1990s, FireWire was created first in 1995 while the later was developed in 1996.

The credit of developing FireWire goes to the IEEE P1394 Working Group which was backed by the major tech companies, especially Sony, IBM and Texas Instruments.

The largest contributions, however, came from Apple. Apple was already developing this standard a decade earlier, and it only came to fruition in 1995.

Apple had already planned to create a standard for high-speed connectivity between PCs and audio/video devices, and the original FireWire provided data transfers at a speed of 400 megabits/second.

The USB 1.0 was also a joint effort of American and Canadian tech giants, including Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Northern Telecom and Compaq.

The USB 1.0, offering a speed of 480 Mbits/second was developed for two main reasons. Firstly, computer manufacturers wanted to supplant the many connectors on the back of computers, thereby reducing clutter. Secondly, they wanted to make communication between electronic devices faster and smoother.

Before these ports were introduced in PCs and laptops, users had to manage with serial and parallel ports which came with dead slow data transfer rates. Moreover, unplugging any device meant that your computer will crash. Not to mention swapping multiple devices on the same port was next to impossible.

USB 2.0 was launched in April 2000, followed by USB 3.0 in November 2008, offering unparalleled data transfer rates running 10 times faster than USB 2.0.

FireWire vs USB 3.0: Overview of Differences

As you have already seen, USB and FireWire were made with different goals in mind. Yes, both aimed for efficiency, but USB was meant to be a cost-effective and simple way of achieving communication between devices.

FireWire focused more on high performance in connection to digital audio and video equipment, whereas USB originally was created for simpler hardware like mice and keyboards.

The major difference between both standards is that of network topology, which then creates further distinctions in how these ports operate on internal and external levels.

For instance, since USB networks run on a ‘tiered-star topology’, peripheral can only communicate with the host when then latter requests communication. The FireWire’s ‘tree topology’ on the other hand allows the connected device to communicate with any other node depending on the network conditions.

Another major difference is that USB 1.0 and 2.0 rely on the host processor to run low-level USB protocol, whereas similar tasks on FireWire are run by the interface hardware. As a result, while USB 2.0 offers data transfer rates of 480 Mbit/sec, you only achieve sustained transfers of 240 Mbit/sec on average.

Compare this with FireWire’s theoretical speed of 400 Mbit/s, but it generally offers a higher signaling rate than USB because low-level tasks are delegated to the device which requires little or no PC-usage.

FireWire also allows connectivity with memory-mapped devices, which further improves performance. FireWire 800 gives a theoretical speed of 800 Mbit/s, so the benefits double.

Note that USB 3.0 has been designed to enable devices to initiate communications with the host and it offers unprecedented transfer rates (see USB 3.0 Prosbelow). Other technical differences include:

  • Cable Length: USB cables initially came with a maximum length of 5.0 meters which achieves a maximum allowed round-trip delay of approximately 1,500 ns. The FireWire copper cable comes with a maximum length of 4.5 meters.
  • Power Supply:FireWire supplies up to 20 watts of power, although theoretically it can supply up to 60 watts. USB ports supply up to 2.5 watts of power.
  • Overhead Power Line: USB runs with a 5V power line whereas FireWire runs on 30V power.

To sum up, USB and FireWire are poles apart when it comes to their network topology as well as their history and development over the years.

FireWire and USB 3.0: Pros and Cons

Firewire Pros
  • Speed: You can get data transfer rates up to 800 Mbit/s with FireWire 800.
  • High Transfer Rate: This enables seamless streaming of video, hard drives, and other high bandwidth data.
  • Compatibility: Most Mac-compatible drives come with built-in FireWire 800 support.
  • No Royalty Charges: Initially users had to pay a royalty to Apple for using IEEE 1394, but not anymore.
  • Support Two Way Communications: FireWire enables devices to initiate communication with host.
  • Run Hard Drive without AC Power:A standard FireWire copper cable consists of 6 wires and has six-prong connectors on each end. Two of these wires provide power to external drives. What this means is that you can run an external hard drive on the go.
FireWire Cons
  • Limited Support: Compatibility is there, but it is limited. For instance, the MacBook Air doesn’t support FireWire 800. Software like Windows 8 also doesn’t support FireWire natively, which is a significant drawback for Windows users.
  • Greater Potential Points of Failure: Since there is greater two-way communication between devices, the potential points of failure increase, and two devices may not work together.
  • You May Lose Two Power Wires: Your notebook may have a four-pin FireWire port, which means two of the six cables are useless since devices will be connected with a four-pin cable/adapter.
USB 3.0 Pros
  • Speed: Theoretically, USB 3.0 is 10 times faster than USB 2.0
  • Backward Compatibility: USB 3.0 offers backward cable, signaling, power, and SW connectivity with USB 2.0.
  • Power Efficient:USB 3.0 requires less power than 2.0 to run typical devices thanks to a new power saving mechanism.
  • Directed Packet Protocol: This means that USB 3.0 doesn’t need to broadcast packets to all devices.
  • Room for Development: USB 3 technology is rapidly developing so you will have improvements in the near future as well.

USB 3.0 Cons
  • Cable Length: USB 3.0 has shorter cable lengths than both USB 2.0 and FireWire. You get a maximum length of 3 meters, but this ensures greater speeds.
  • Limited Devices: Not all computers have USB 3.0 ports, although many do
  • Cost: While USB technology has been developed as a low-cost standard, upgrades to USB 3.0 are costly.

To summarize, while both standards have their pros and cons, USB 3.0 is the fastest option around when it comes to data transfer between devices.

Many new Apple MacBooks are offering USB 3 ports, so you can use USB even if you are an Apple purist. Of course, using USB 3.0 means bringing yourself to new technology.

In the future, we can imagine that further developments will be made in USB technology and more devices will offer compatibility and support. Which port you choose is entirely up to you, and depends on your connectivity needs and PC capabilities.

USB has always lived up to its name, in that it is indeed universal. Despite all its benefits, FireWire usage is gradually decreasing, whereas the market for USB is increasing judging by latest trends.

So while you may be worried about the costs and hassle of switching to USB 3.0, the change is inevitable and it is better to adapt sooner than later.

FireWire to USB 3.0: Is it Possible?

Many users have hard drives with USB 3.0 ports, but no FireWire port. They want to take advantage of the speed capability of FireWire ports, but wonder whether there is any way the FireWire 800 can be connected to a USB 3.0 port on an external hard drive.

You may find many websites advertising cables and adapters, labelling them as ‘FireWire to USB 3.0’, but I think that is mostly to attract clicks.

Hopefully by now you have understood that both FireWire and USB 3.0 have major technical differences and they were built for different purposes.

Hence, both are non-interchangeable, and there are no cables or adapters available to interconnect them. But there are adapters available on the market for FireWire to USB 2.0, which work fine due to similar transfer speeds.

And since USB 3.0 is backward compatible, your USB 2.0 to FireWire adapter cables will be compatible with a USB3.0 port. You can easily purchase these cables online, especially on Amazon.

There is always a possibility of getting custom cables made for this purpose, but that would be an added expense.

Finally, you can also use a PCI card to get around this problem on a desktop. The whole FireWire vs USB thing doesn’t have to be that complicated. Thankfully, now you know enough about both of them.

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