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USB 3.0 vs. Firewire: Which Will Win?

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: Simon Hill•updated: 1/22/2010

Firewire has long been considered the best choice of connection when moving large amounts of data. However, USB 3.0 is now being adopted by new products, and it promises higher performance. Can USB 3.0 topple the king?

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    USB 3.0 vs. Firewire

    Most people don't think about how devices connect to their computer. Then one day, having just shot a home video on the new digital camera, it is hooked up to the computer and...the waiting begins. A process that on its surface seems trivial ends up taking half an hour. The progress bar crawls across the screen with all the eagerness of a drowsy sloth.

    Fortunately, both USB 3.0 and Firewire (also called IEEE 1394b) are available to make the process of transferring data from various devices to your PC quicker. Both types of connections promise extremely fast speeds and promise to be easy to use. But given the choice between the two, which is the best?

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    The Question Which Matters Most

    USB 3.0 can overcome the speed of Firewire The performance of a connection type is without a doubt the most important factor in every day use. A performance difference of 25% on a large file can save a user 10 minutes or more of time on a data transfer. If these transfers are done often, that 10 minutes can add up drastically over the course of a year.

    Firewire has long remained the king. USB 2.0 had a theoretical maximum throughput of 480Mbps, which was faster than the 400Mbps of Firewire 400. However, in actual tests USB 2.0 usually failed to perform as well as Firewire 400. Then Firewire 800 came along, with a theoretical maximum of 800Mbps. This allowed Firewire to beat up USB 2.0 and take its lunch money. USB 2.0 remained popular because it was cheap to produce, but Firewire was the darling of those who regularly transferred large files.

    USB 3.0, however, has upset that balance. USB 3.0 is not a mere baby step, but rather a significant improvement over USB 2.0. The theoretical maximum of USB 3.0 is 5Gbps. That's right - G, as in gigabytes. That is way faster than anything else, including not only Firewire but also eSATA. Early performance tests collaborate these claims. USB 3.0 simply beats Firewire hands down.

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    Ease of Use and Availability

    Both Firewire and USB 3.0 were developed with ease of use in mind, and as a result neither is particularly difficult. They're both plug-and-play and won't typically require the installation of drivers in order to function correctly. It is unlikely that anyone will find one harder to use than another. Besides performance, there are not any features which are substantially different for the average user.

    At this point USB 3.0 is looking good. It performs the best and doesn't have any hidden disadvantages. Unfortunately, there is a catch. USB 3.0 is new, and its adoption seems to be taking some time. While there is a small number of devices currently on the market which support USB 3.0, the popularity of USB 3.0 doesn't seem to be growing as quickly as one might expect.

    This puts a real limit on the excitement surrounding USB 3.0. Firewire may be slower, but it isn't terrible, and it is much easier to find Firewire devices than USB 3.0 devices at this time.

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    Verdict

    This is a tough one, because the verdict is one which will change over time. USB 3.0 is faster, but for now is difficult to find. Firewire therefore will win by default for many users. However, USB 3.0 will slowly become more and more popular.

    My advice? Take a look at devices being used currently, as well as those likely to be used in the future, and see what they support. If they support USB 3.0, great! Use it and love it. If they do not, however, then use Firewire. While Firewire loses in performance against USB 3.0, it wins against USB 2.0, so Firewire is the next best option.