USB 2.0 vs. FireWire

The peripheral USB 2.0 bus appeared yet last year. Unfortunately, Intel didn’t integrate it in its new chipsets, and thus, prevented its popularization. NEC, however, released a single-chip solution for expansion cards with the USB 2.0 support.

And some mainboard manufacturers turned to those chips to integrate USB 2.0 in their boards. Unfortunately, there were too few such mainboards on the market; and it turned out that there were much more devices able to work with the USB 2.0 bus than the controllers.

The odd policy of Intel put the USB 2.0 into the same conditions as the FireWire was in. The FireWire bus is mainly supported via expansion cards. And there are not many mainboards with the integrated FireWire bus. Besides, expansion cards of both buses cost similar today.

So, the market is involved into a direct competition of these two buses.

Their technical characteristics are very close, though each has its own peculiarities.

USB 2.0

  1. 1.5 Mbit/s 12Mbit/s 480Mbit/s supported.
  2. USB controller is required to control the bus and data transfer.
  3. Cable up to 5 m.
  4. Up to 127 devices supported.
  5. Power supply to external devices is 500 mA/5V (max).
  6. Full compatibility with USB 1.1 devices.

FireWire (IEEE1394)

  1. 100 Mbit/s 200Mbit/s 400Mbit/s supported.
  2. Works without control, devices communicate peer-to-peer.
  3. Cable up to 4.5 m.
  4. Up to 63 devices supported.
  5. Power supply to external devices is 1.25A/12V (max.).
  6. The only computer bus used in digital video cameras.

Each bus its advantages and disadvantages. The maximum speeds are almost equal. And each bus has already occupied a certain market niche.

Today I want to compare USB 2.0 and FireWire with regard to storage devices. The devices I took are external cases for hard drives from Datatek.

Hard drives are the fastest data storage devices, and their operation via a peripheral bus is of the most interest.

Some huge companies have already released similar cases for hard drives, but they sell such cases only together with the drives. And the price turns out to be higher than if I’d buy a similar Taiwanese case and a hard drive separately.

USB 2.0 Storage Box


The device is made of semitransparent plastic a la i-Mac. All connectors are located on the rear panel. A power supply unit is external. The device comes also with a USB 2.0 cable, a network cable and drivers on a CD. Remember that with high-speed USB 2.0 devices you must use a USB 2.0 cable. With the USB 1.1 one you can lost all data. Unfortunately, it’s possible to tell the cables only by the marking. Now let’s look under the lid.


There are some screws for attaching the drive and a USB 2.0-IDE bridge which comes with a 80-conductor cable for hard drives with ATA66/100 interface. The case has some vent holes in its lower surface and a small fan on the rear panel. A power switch and a USB 2.0 interface connector are also there. The LEDs indicating power and operation are located near the rear panel and output onto the upper lid. The USB 2.0-IDE bridge is based on the In-System ISD300A1 chip.


In-System is one of the largest developers of USB-IDE bridges’ chips. At present the market has only its USB 2.0-IDE bridges, while other manufacturers are only preparing to release such.

3.5″ Mult-iBay FireWire.


This is a multifunctional 3″ case for the FireWire bus. It’s also made of semitransparent plastic in the i-Mac style. The design is classic. The removable front panel makes possible to put into the case other storage devices such as MO, LS-120, ZiP. The power supply unit is external. Among other accessories there is a FireWire interface cable, a network cable and drivers for Mac OS on a CD. Apart from two standard FireWire connectors on the rear panel there is one on the front one. The power switch is located on the front panel as well. Unfortunately, there are no any LEDs.


Under the lid we found sleds for attaching devices, screws and a FireWire-IDE bridge which comes with a 80-conductor cable for hard drives with the ATA66/100 interface. There is also a micro-fan which is output onto the rear panel. The FireWire-IDE is based on the Oxford semi. OXFW911 chip.


This chip is one of the fastest in its class.


Test system:

  • MSI 6337 (Intel 815EP) mainboard;
  • Intel Celeron 566(850) MHz;
  • 256 MBytes SDRAM SEC PC133;
  • ATA100 (ICH2) controller;
  • USB 2.0 (NEC chip) controller;
  • FireWire (Lucent chip) controller;
  • Maxtor 6 L040J2 HDD, 40 GBytes
  • Windows 98 SE, Windows 2000 (SP2)
  • drivers for USB 2.0 bridge: ISD 5.04

The tests were carried out in the WinBench 99 ver. 2.0. Besides, we measured time of copying of two text file suites: 1 GBytes in one file and 1 GBytes in 9226 files.

Windows98 SE

The installation didn’t cause any problems. The FireWire case was immediately identified by the system, and with the Fdisk utility I created one partition of the maximum size on the disc. Then it was formatted. When I was installing the USB 2.0 case the system decided to use the old drivers as before I had a USB1.1-IDE bridge from In-System. That is why I had to reinstall the drivers manually (“Property/Driver/Update driver..”). The partitioning and formatting processes were the same. For comparison we include test results of the hard drive connected directly to the ATA controller.

Winbench 99

Direct connection


Via USB 2.0


Via FireWire


Connection Direct USB 2.0 FireWire
Business Disk Winmark 6510 4870 6040
Hi-End Winmark 21300 13900 18500
Transfer Begin 41700 12400 27400
Transfer End 25600 12300 25400
CPU usage 17% 15,7% 12%
Access time, ms. 12.5 13.3 12.8

File copying

Connection Direct USB 2.0 FireWire
1 GBytes – 1 file 58.7 sec 1m 54.6 sec 1m 09.6 sec
1GB- in 9226 files 1m 24.1 sec 1m 59.4 sec 1m 30.1 sec

As you can see, the FireWire outscores the USB 2.0 in all WinBench tests, as well as in the file copying.

Windows 2000

The installation was similar to the Windows 98SE. The only difference is that the system doesn’t format 40 GBytes drives under the FAT32. That is why we had to do it in the Windows 98 SE. After that we noticed no problems in the Windows 2000.

Winbench 99

Direct connection


Via USB 2.0


Via FireWire


Connection Direct USB 2.0 FireWire
Business Disk Winmark 7870 8250 9650
Hi-End Winmark 26400 17500 18500
Transfer Begin 41900 14200 36100
Transfer End 25600 14200 25500
CPU usage 11.2% 5.93% 9.25%
Access time, ms. 13 12.9 12.6

File copying

Connection Direct USB 2.0 FireWire
1 GBytes – 1 file 43.8 sec 1m 20 sec 48.9 sec
1 GBytes – in 9226 files 1m 15.4 sec 1m 30 sec 1m 18.4 sec

Here the USB 2.0 comes very close to the FireWire in Winmark. However, the FireWire remains a leader.

After that I accomplished a few more tests of compatibility of some IDE devices with the bridge cards. I took a TEAC CD-W524E 24x CD-RW and a Pioneer M-500 DVD-ROM. After a bit of trouble with their connection (it’s still hard to put a 5″ device into a 3″ case) everything worked flawlessly.

In both cases recording of the CD-R discs at the maximum speed (24x) was excellent, as well as recording of the DVD-ROM Pioneer. Below you can look at the results of copying of the CD and DVD onto the hard drive.

Connection Direct USB 2.0 FireWire
DVD 1 GBytes 1 file 2m 51 sec 2m 58 sec 2m 43 sec
CD 725 MBytes 6425 files 4m 40 sec 4m 38 sec 4m 43 sec


Although the USB 2.0 is speedier than the FireWire, the latter beats it when used in high-speed storage devices. Probably, future products will unveil and use the full potential of the USB 2.0 bus. If we take only the storage devices sphere, the optimal solution would be a combo USB 2.0/FireWire -IDE bridge. In this case a user would get the maximum flexibility when choosing the ways of connection of data storage devices.

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