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 .

I recorded my results in the video above.

Apple Thunderbolt to Firewire Adapter

The MacBook Pro Retina Display is the 1st “Pro” Mac to ship without Firewire. However, Apple also announced that they would ship a Thunderbolt to Firewire Adapter in July. Although the adapter did ship a few days late, it’s here and no surprises – it works!

I was shopping for USB 3 drives, but I kinda just stopped looking. I figured that I could get by with connecting my existing drives via USB 2 until the adapter shipped. I’m glad I waited, because out of the box I just plugged in my existing Firewire 800 drives and up they came onto the desktop. This makes my MacBook Pro Retina Display complete.


One of the downsides with going with the MacBook Air in the past was that you’d be giving up high speed connectivity to external drives. The original MacBook Air only came with USB 2. The last two models included Thunderbolt, but Thunderbolt drive availability was far and few between. This adapter also brings Firewire connectivity to the MacBook Air for the 1st time! I plugged in my LaCie Rugged 1TB drive into my MacBook Air via the Adapter and it just worked.

Although I haven’t done any speed tests, the speed should be the same as Thunderbolt is faster than Firewire. It should therefore be able to keep up with Firewire drives.

You can get the Thunderbolt to Firewire Adapter here.

LaCie Rugged goes 1TB

It still amazes me when I think about the fact that we've reached a point where we can carry around 1TB drives in our pockets. I typically carry an external drive or two in my laptop bag for carrying extra files, Windows 7 Images for Parallels, bootable backups and to backup my shots after my shoots before I leave the studio. Until the 1TB 2.5" drives came out this meant carrying two or three drives to accomplish this. Now I can carry one! I got the LaCie Rugged 1TB to put to the test. I wanted one drive that I could partition into three partitions and of course I wanted one that was bus powered over Firewire 800 (and USB when needed).

The LaCie Rugged meets those requirements. It has a triple interface with Firewire 800, 400 and USB 2 ports on back. Although it's bus powered, they even supply a USB to power cable for those situations when your single USB port isn't providing enough power, you can plug this cable into a second USB port to power the drive. They also provide FireWire 800, 400 and USB 2 cables.
Although the bright orange color stands out (you'll have no problem seeing it in your bag or maybe even a dark room), I ordered the optional 3 pack of sleeves to change the color of the drive.

You get black, silver and purple in the sleeve pack. Even the purple/blue is a little more subdued than the orange.

So far so good

In my short time of using this drive it seems fast (5400 rpm speeds) and quiet. I had no problems cloning my boot drive to one of the partitions that I made and loading up the other two partitions with the files I need to carry. Also they call this drive "rugged" for a reason. It's meant to be traveled with. It has a rubber outer case (the sleeves) and it's one of the only drives I've ever seen that advertises a maximum "drop distance" although they clearly state that you should avoid dropping it while it's running (duh!).


Maximum Drop Height :  up to 2.2 meters in non-operating mode (dropping is not recommended in operating mode)

While this is not the first LaCie Rugged drive I've purchased (I got my daughter one for her Time Machine backups when she went off to college), it's the first one that I've gotten for me.

You can get the 1TB LaCie Rugged here for $199

You can get the 3 optional sleeves in Black, Grey, Purple here for about $17

Is That 1TB in Your Pocket or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

I recently got the OWC Mercury On-The-Go Pro 1TB (one terabyte) drive to test. Before this drive I was carrying TWO external hard drives with me when I traveled. One was a clone backup of my internal drive. I swear by having a clone backup because I want the ability to "boot" from the external if my drive dies right before or during a presentation. Mac OS X's Time Machine is great, but since it's not bootable, there's no time to do a restore if something happens while on stage. The other drive contains files and videos that I may use from time to time during a presentation, but don't need to tie up my internal drive with. I also use that other drive to backup photos onto from a photo shoot in my studio until I get home. 


The 1TB OWC Drive Replaces 2 of My External Drives

My goal for this drive was to use it to replace the two drives I'm currently carrying. I got the drive and partitioned it to 2 500GB partitions. The first partition I use to backup (clone) my internal drive via SuperDuper! The second 500GB partition is for those other misc files and temporary backups I travel with. Although I knew from a size perspective that the 1TB capacity would be exactly what I needed, I was concerned about the relatively slow speed of this drive. Most laptop 2.5" drives spin at either 7200 rpms or 5400 rpms. This drive spins at only 5200 rpms. Back in the day, some 2.5" drives were as slow as 4200 rpms. So while it's not the slowest drive on the planet, it is slower than the speeds regularly available in other capacities today. So for the choice was either carry two fast drives or one big slower drive. 

After I did my clone backup and loaded on all the files I wanted to carry via the other partition, I did a boot test from this drive while it was connected via Firewire 800. It worked. While I could tell that it was slower than my internal 7200 rpm drive, it was tolerable. Keeping in mind that I would only be booting from this drive in an emergency anyway, I can live with the speed if it means carrying one less drive 100% of the time. 


The Mercury On-The-Go Pro  3 in 1 enclosure

I've been a fan of this enclosure for years. Although there are certainly smaller, sleeker 2.5" drive enclosures out there, this enclosure has never failed me. I can connect via Firewire 800, 400 or USB 2. It's bus powered on all 3 ports and at a glance I can "see" exactly which drive is inside (make, model and capacity). I've had smaller enclosures overheat before and that's never been a problem for me with the Mercury On-The-Go Pro. The drive comes with all the cables you need, a carrying case and an Firewire 800-400 cable. 

The 1TB Mercury On-The-Go Pro drive goes for $260 and you can get it here.

I recommend this particular model for someone who needs to carry around a lot of data and speed is not the most important factor. If you want a faster drive, look at their other models here. The folks over at OWC are GREAT to deal with and I also buy my RAM from them too. Never had any issues buying from them. They stand behind what they sell.