Firewire 800 vs USB 3.0 – Which is Faster?


Now that both the MacBook Pro Retina Display and MacBook Air ship with USB 3 I was curious to find out which was actually faster? Going with my existing Firewire 800 drives and the Thunderbolt to Firewire adapter or USB 3 drives. I did searches online and really didn’t come up with much in the way of current data or test. Most of what I found was comparisons to USB 2 or tests done before Macs had USB 3 built-in. Since I couldn’t find the data I wanted, I decided to do my own tests.

Making it fair

I wanted this to be as fair as possible. That meant that I didn’t want to use two different drives. Ideally I would want to test the same drive that has both Firewire 800 and USB 3 built-in. That configuration isn’t as easy to find as you would think on a portable drive. I found two: LaCie’s Rugged 1TB (which I’ve used in the past with no issues) and the Oyen Digital Mini Pro. Since I was looking to have a smaller enclosure, I decided to give the Oyen Digital a shot. It was also a few bucks cheaper.

For the benchmarks I went with the Free App – BlackMagic Disk Speed Test.

Get it here Blackmagic Disk Speed Test - Blackmagic Design Inc

I recorded my results in the video above.


  • Lynn Grillo

    Thanks, Terry. I like the real world test of writing the 16GB folder. I guess the real world read test would be about the same.

  • Doug

    I’d love to see a comparison between eSata (via a Thunderbolt adapter) and Thunderbolt itself
    I would also be curious what sort of numbers are achievable when the external drive is instead a fast ssd drive

    • Bob

      The limitation for thunderbolt is the drive itself since it is essentially a PCIe connection fast enough for a graphics card. Even Internal SATA is only 6Gb compared to Thunderbolts two channels of 10 and SSDs can go far beyond eSatas limits.

  • Lynn Rogers

    That’s really helpful, Terry. Thank you.

  • http://www.silverado.cc Torrey Loomis

    Terry–might the real world test have been compromised a little by the volume you were pulling data from? That may have been a bottleneck…

    • http://terrywhite.com Terry White

      It was an internal SSD.

      • Doug

        Wow, I thought 1TB SSD drives were still $1100+ without an enclosure

        LaCie’s Rugged 1TB – linked in article – $189
        Oyen Digital Mini Pro. – linked in article and used in test – $169.56

        960GB Mercury Electra MAX 3G SSD – MacSales – $1129 (without enclosure)
        http://eshop.macsales.com/item/OWC/SSDEX3G960/

        • Doug

          Apologies, you were talking about the drive in the Mac (I misread)

  • Piper

    USB 3.0 is usually more than twice as fast as FireWire 800. If you were using an SSD inside the enclosure you would see a much larger difference in performance.

    The USB 3.0 chipset can make all the difference too. I have seen USB 3.0 speeds as much as 5x faster than FireWire when using an SSD for testing and when the USB 3.0 design is optimized for SATA 6G. Performance very close to Thunderbolt will be available with quality USB 3.0 enclosures in the future – for a fraction of the price.

  • chaz Johnson

    Terry, This is great for just copying data, but how about video editing. I seem to remember that firewire had an advantage over USB in that firewire sends data both ways at the same time. How does that figure into USB3?

    • Stephanie

      This is my concern as well. I am also still trying to afford to make the switch from my old Mac to a new Macbook Pro – So I’m thinking about getting one of these drives with BOTH capabilities so that my current MAC will be compatible, and it will also be compatible with a new one MAC so I don’t just invest in the older technology…

      • http://www.paquete3.com Alfredo HuecK

        This is my concern as well. I mean how about video editing

  • jared

    I think the thing to remember here is that Firewire is going Away.

    No more card readers in FW 800. only on ebay.

    USB 3.0 will be able to handle faster loads & writes with SSD drives as they are coming down in price. & FW would not be able to get the best performance from the SSd anyway

    I have always loved FW, but I love spending less time on the computer . & more time with my Family. So 3.0 here I come.

  • http://www.kenstone.net Steve Douglas

    Very well articulated testing. I have always had the big hunch that in ‘real world’ performance, that it wouldn’t be significantly different. Nice going and thanks.
    Steve Douglas

  • Jojo

    The test comparison I would like to see is how USB 3.0 and Firewire 800 compare when you string multiple devices together. In the past this is where Firewire had the real advantage.

  • Alfred Schmidt

    So this flimsy connector is a usb 3 what a step backwards… way to easy to break never mind the speed if your drive is broken because of the built quality.

  • http://www.ultrabook-news.co.uk Tim

    @Jojo – +1. I would also like to see this test, although I reckon USB 3.0 may have the edge overall.

  • Simon

    Thanks for doing the test and explaining what’s done is great but personally I’d rather see that written up than have to sit through an 8 minute video where we watch you mounting and unmounting drives and waiting for the speedtest to happen. I can digest information a lot faster when it’s written and time is a precious commodity. And, yes, I just spent time writing this (not much, though as I type fast) but I mention it because if all your information is delivered in youtube videos then you lose me and others like me as an audience (fwiw).

    • lily

      I like the video very much. the information engages more sense and stays with me longer.

      thank you.
      lily

      • Stephanie

        I liked the video as well.

  • Matt

    Thbaks for doing this. Exactly what I needed and well done.

  • Mike

    Hi Terry,

    Seeking an answer to this same burning question ever since I purchased both a mid-2012 MacBook Pro and a Lacie Rugged 500GB FW/USB3.0 drive, I came across your excellent “real-world test” and, while the differences weren’t very dramatic, the answer…and the method by which you demonstrated the comparison…was timely, useful, and very much appreciated. My hat’s off to you for job well done. Many thanks, Terry.

    Regards,

    Mike

  • Ric in Sydney, Australia

    Hi Terry,
    a good initial test comparing the two technologies – thank you.
    With regard to the real world, I did not see how many files and the sizes of the files in your 16GB folder. I would guess this would impact on the speed as the OS would be allocating and polling the source and destination drives more often for a lot of files than if it were one 16 GB video file for example.

    So allow me to suggest more real world comparison tests:

    One large video file (or BPAV folder with one large clip) 15GB – 16GB.

    A 16GB folder containing a mix of files, perhaps jpg’s, psd’s, mp3′s, and mp4′s, which are perhaps around the 5 – 50 MB each. My guess is a 16GB folder containing 1,000 or 3,000 files will take a longer duration to copy than a folder with only 1-5 files.

  • Dean

    thanks for this. One more thing I’m curious about is CPU and memory usage during these tests. Firewire supposedly uses less system resources than USB, and I’d love to see if this is the case. It’s more important in real world use, because we may get a file copy started, then perform other tasks in the foreground. The point might be moot with multicore desktops with 8gigs of ram and up, but I’m still curious.

    • Grit

      agree, I remember USB vs Firewire favoured to firewire because the CPU had to do all the transfer work on USB devices. Firewire managed that by it’s own chips, leaving your cumputer faster while transferring data

  • http://www.thadthoughts.com Thad P

    Great comparison Terry. Just what I needed to see too! Thanks!

  • Dean

    Thank you Terry, that was well done and impossible to find on other sites.

    • Dean

      BTW, I’m a different Dean than the previous poster (not a lot of Dean’s around!).

  • Steve Cowen

    http://terrywhite.com/firewire-800-vs-usb-3-which-is-faster/

    Interesting results. Benchmark test showed USB 3.0 wins by a mile. Real world copying from the internal drive to the external drive showed USB 3.0 by a hair (closer than the Obama vs. Romney polls). Call it a dead heat. What is going on? FireWire is full duplex while USB is half duplex. Copying a file requires handshaking, so the back channel sees a small amount of data being transferred, too. While the USB forward channel is waiting for the USB back channel to free up the half duplex link FireWire keeps on working away at its sustained full speed. Nice to have a two lane road in the real world. What would have been very interesting would to time copying a file FROM the external drive BACK to the SAME external drive, where full duplex Firewire should be significantly faster than half duplex USB, I suspect.

    Sent from my iPad

  • http://www.watana-design.com/ watana

    Now I test on my external HDD WD Caviar Blue.
    For HDD about Firewire 800 vs USB 3.0 it same fast.
    Because HDD has a limit to read – write.
    if use SSD it deference sure.

    • Stephanie

      Uh….what?

  • DC

    Interesting results, especially the real world test. I can think of a few alternative testing scenarios where CPU loading and simultaneous read/write could produce results more favorable to Firewire. Your research shows that USB 3.0 is faster than Firewire, but not always enough to be noticeable.

    It would take an extreme scenario to make USB 3.0 look like a bad choice, although I have no doubt it can happen, possibly on a Mac Mini that someone has pressed into service as a file server with multiple users and simultaneous read/write. At that point, Ethernet becomes the bottleneck so maybe it doesn’t matter.

  • Jack

    Finding this video a little late .. But you’re using a MBP that has USB 2.0 ports. I conducted my own tests for work purposes transferring 100GB of RAW 5K 25fps RED Epic footage from an external SSD onto another external SSD via USB 3.0 using a 2012 retina MBP and the transfer was 7 minutes on the dot. I then repeated the same transfer using a 2011 MBP with Firewire 800 and the transfer was just under 30 minutes.

    • http://terrywhite.com Terry White

      I assure you Jack that my MacBook Pro 15″ Retina Display does have USB 3 ports.

  • Todd Kingsberry

    Very cool video and very informative. Thank you. Reading the responses above, I decided to do my own little test with Black Magic. Results confirmed your overall analysis. USB 3.0 edges Firewire 800. Barely.

    Results:
    USB 3.0— Write 256 / Read 501
    Firewire 800 — Write 250 / Read 502

    I was testing on G-Drive Mini 7200 RPM. And that’s a huge factor if you are using the drive for Video. Go with 7200 RPM over 5400 RPM.

    I would say, use whatever is convenient. Personally, I use Firewire 800. Why? Because one USB 3 port is taken by my mouse wireless transmitter and the other USB 3 port is used by my video capture device. I also give a big-time agreement with Mr Schmidt above— what’s up with the 3.0 connector?

    Anyhow, my two cents. Once again, Thank you for fantastic and highly informative video. I now have a new bookmark in Safari. :-)

  • Robert Holland

    fantastic – answers my Q’s re concerns over no fw ports on some of the news macs

  • http://www.framedelegance.com Rick garcia

    Terry, that was an excellent comparison and food for thought. I myself was conducting these tests but not with USB 3. I was more in line with FireWire 800 and different drives in different enclosures which included an SSD 120gig drive. I started thinking about the comparison between FireWire 800 and USB 3 and did a search online and your website with the info came up. Great job and thanks.

  • Kevin Costello

    Just discovered your column and I will be following your blog for more tech insights. Excellent test and commentary on these two interfaces. Especially nice to have the benchmark vs. real work sample. I have firewire 800 drives and will likely purchase the adapter regardless but this really helped me make a decision on what type of drives to purchase going forward.

  • Sam

    I’m putting together a system now, and this exact question occurred to me. Thank you so much for providing a straight forward video test that clearly covers all the bases…Now I just need to research what this thunderbolt drive you mentioned is! lol

  • Jan-Willem Arnold

    Thank you for this test!

    Overall you did a good job testing the transfer this way. It is interesting to see real world figures instead of just ’800 mb/s’ , ’5 gb/s’ etc. I see one remaining issue in the method you used however. Different partitions on a disk might result in different speeds, because the transfer rate the hard disk is able to reach depends also from the physical position of the heads on the platters. On the outside of the platters the disk reaches a higher transfer speed. The circle is bigger, the path is longer, so you can put more data on it.

    Firewire is a dying technology, there is no development, ports are vanishing and the price is not competitive. The question is, not even whether USB 3 outperforms Firewire in every respect, but whether it is a usable alternative.

    My new favorite storage strategy is rather simple:
    - one thunderbolt drive for projects I am currently working on
    - cheap storage for the rest. USB 3 seems to do the job.

    A very interesting test would be esata over thunderbolt. This should be cheap, have high performance and put a low burden on cpu.

  • http://www.trailpeople.org Michael Russo

    This test is pretty much nonsense. You should do this with something that can actually handle the extra bandwidth. This is a “Blackmagic disk speed” test. Not a bandwidth test. Come on Terry. I have seen thunderbolt move a 7GB file to a RAID in less than 30 seconds. This test of yours is pointless. Not trying to be rude but it kinda annoyed me because it’s just straight up misinformation and I have watched your videos on editing many times.

  • Silver Surfer

    Not a fair comparison! You failed to state whether you were using a SSD, 5400rpm, 7200rpm, 10,000rpm 2.5 HD. There are many variables left out and what seems to me to be a plug for the Oyen and the LaCie! I was really hoping to learn some factual data.

  • Don Martinez

    firewire 800 eats usb 3.0 alive don’t be fooled. just because a computer has support for the buggy usb 3.0 doesnt mean the drive will run at 3.0 speeds. in many case the drive will run at 2.0 but you can’t really tell which is being used. I had WD external drive was supposedly USB 3.0 was horrible.

    it would take about 30 minutes to transfer 10GB of data. I took it out of the pile of crap enclosure and put it in a lacey enclosure that offered both usb 3.0 and firewire 800 both and I tried both. the firewire blew the USB 3.0 away. the same 10GB of data took only 3 minutes to move verse close to 30 minutes.