FireWire (IEEE 1394) and USB (Universal Serial Bus) are both standards for communication between electronic devices. FireWire is the brand name that Apple uses for the IEEE 1394 interface. It is also known by the brand names of i.LINK (Sony), and Lynx (Texas Instruments). The USB standard has versions 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 with different devices using different versions.

Comparison chart

FireWire versus USB comparison chart
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Width in bits 1 1
Capacity 400–3200 Mbit/s (50-400 MB/s) 1.5, 12, or 480 Mbit/s (0.2, 1.5 or 60 MByte/s)
External? Yes Yes
Hotplugging? Yes Yes
Style Serial Serial
Number of devices 63 127 per host controller
Year created 1995 1996
Created by Apple Computer, Inc. Intel, Compaq, Microsoft, Digital Equipment Corporation, IBM, Northern Telecom
Speed FireWire 800 = 800 Mbit/s faster for a high number of small data but slower while writing a small amount of huge files USB 3.0 = 5 Gbit/s
 Tiny Dinosaur USBs (click to enlarge)
Tiny Dinosaur USBs (click to enlarge)

History and Development of FireWire vs USB

History of FireWire

FireWire was developed by the IEEE P1394 Working Group, largely driven by contributions from Apple, although major contributions were also made by engineers from Texas Instruments, Sony, Digital Equipment Corporation, IBM, and INMOS/SGS Thomson (now STMicroelectronics).

Apple intended FireWire to be a serial replacement for the parallel SCSI bus while providing connectivity for digital audio and video equipment. Apple's development began in the late 1980s, later presented to the IEEE, and was completed in 1995. On June 12, 2008, all amendments to the standard were incorporated into a superseding standard IEEE Std. 1394-2008.

History of USB

The USB 1.0 specification was introduced in 1996. It was intended to replace the multitude of connectors at the back of PCs, as well as to simplify software configuration of communication devices. USB was created by a core group of companies that consisted of Compaq, Digital, IBM, Intel, Northern Telecom, and Microsoft.

The USB 2.0 specification was released in April 2000 and was standardized by the USB-IF at the end of 2001. Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Alcatel-Lucent, Microsoft, NEC, and Philips jointly led the initiative to develop a higher data transfer rate than the 1.0 specification (480 Mbit/s vs 12 Mbit/s). The USB 3.0 specification was released on November 12, 2008 by the USB 3.0 Promoter Group. Its maximum transfer rate is up to 10 times faster than the USB 2.0 release.

Data transfer speed of USB vs FireWire

A Fire Wire hub from Medusa (click to enlarge)
A Fire Wire hub from Medusa (click to enlarge)

Although high-speed USB 2.0 (theoretical speed 400 Mbit/s) nominally runs at a higher signaling rate than FireWire 400 (theoretical speed also 400 Mbit/s), data transfers over S400 FireWire interfaces generally outperform similar transfers over USB 2.0 interfaces. Typical USB PC-hosts rarely exceed sustained transfers of 280 Mbit/s, with 240 Mbit/s being more typical. This is due to USB's reliance on the host-processor to manage low-level USB protocol, whereas FireWire delegates the same tasks to the interface hardware (requiring less or no CPU usage). For example, the FireWire host interface supports memory-mapped devices, which allows high-level protocols to run without loading the host CPU with interrupts and buffer-copy operations.

Besides throughput, other differences are that it uses simpler bus networking, provides more power over the chain, more reliable data transfer, and uses fewer CPU resources.

FireWire 800 is substantially faster than Hi-Speed USB, both in theory and in practice.

USB 3.0 (released November 2008) gives a theoretical speed of 4.8 Gbit/s, which is about 5 times faster than FireWire 800, substantially faster than any of its competitors or predecessors until the next one is released.

Technical Differences between USB and FireWire

USB and FireWire had different design goals when they were first developed. USB was designed for simplicity and low cost, while FireWire was designed for high performance, particularly in time-sensitive applications such as audio and video. USB was originally seen as a complement to FireWire (IEEE 1394), which was designed as a high-speed serial bus which could efficiently interconnect peripherals such as hard disks, audio interfaces, and video equipment. USB originally operated at a far lower data rate and used much simpler hardware, and was suitable for small peripherals such as keyboards and mice.

Cost of USB vs FireWire

The royalty which Apple and other patent holders initially demanded from users of FireWire (US$0.25 per end-user system) and the more expensive hardware needed to implement it (US$1–$2), both of which have since been dropped, have prevented FireWire from displacing USB in low-end mass-market computer peripherals, where product cost is a major constraint.


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