Computer cables: USB, Firewire 400, Firewire 800

What is the difference between USB, Firewire 400, or Firewire 800 connectors?

Submitted by Pat M., one of my newsletter subscribers.


Great question Pat! I guess you were out shopping for a new back up hard drive after reading this post!

The simple answer is that they all have different transfer rates, or copy speed, when moving data from one device to another. Here are the approximate rate differences from fastest to slowest:

  1. Firewire 800 – 800 Mbps (or 75MB/sec)
  2. USB 2.0 – 480Mbps (or 60MB/sec)
  3. FireWire 400 – 400Mbps (or 50MB/sec)
  4. USB 1.1 – 12Mbps (or 1.5MB/sec)

So, Firewire 800 is the fastest connector for external drives we have right now.

Here’s a visual

Firewire 800

USB connector

Firewire 400 connector

Firewire 400

Here’s where the connectors go on your hard drive. Your computer should have some of these ports too.

Please note: Published transfer speeds and actual transfer speeds depend on other variables like cable length and your own computer hardware (bus speed). As they say, your mileage may vary. To be honest I didn’t even know that USB 2.0 was actually faster than Firewire 400 until doing the research for this post! I guess that’s why they didn’t include a Firewire 400 port on my new MacBook Pro.

If you are connecting your camera directly to your computer, the speed of your memory card plays a big factor as well. Those cheap drugstore brand memory cards may not cut it for you anymore!

The thing I like about the Firewire devices (card readers, DVD burners, hard drives, scanners) is that they can be daisy chained together ending with just one connector going into your computer. USB drives need to be connected directly to your computer, or to a USB hub, if you run out of USB ports. Using a hub slows transfer speeds. I was disappointed that my new laptop only had two USB 2.0 ports, so I may be forced to use a USB hub.

Most new large, high quality (1 GB or more) backup hard drives have at least two connection options (USB 2.0, FW 400, or FW 800). Most people are familiar with USB. The USB 1.0 and 2.0 look exactly the same, so it’s hard to tell which you are using. But all new devices use USB 2.0, which has a faster transfer speed. So check the specs before buying a USB drive, especially from eBay or similar sites.

Do you have a burning question? Just ask!

Comments are closed