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USB 2.0, FireWire, Or eSATA: Which Interface Should You Use?

USB 2.0, FireWire, Or eSATA: Which Interface Should You Use?
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Several years ago, users had to replace their PC’s hard drive or install an additional one to increase storage capacity. However, today there are many options with which to expand storage space by adding external devices, including 2.5” portable drives with 640GB (and soon 1TB of capacity) and 3.5” products that offer up to 2TB on a single hard drive. Meanwhile, enthusiasts might opt for a RAID-based storage box with several hard drives. However, since performance depends on the interface, we decided to look at two popular drive options to help you choose the interface that works best for your application: high-capacity USB 2.0 and a combo product that also offers FireWire 400, FireWire 800, and eSATA.

2.5” vs. 3.5”

The image above also shows a 2.5” portable drive. Everything we’ll discuss applies to 2.5” portable drives, as well as to 3.5” external hard drives. Using USB 2.0, both form factors deliver similar performance, while 2.5” models might not require an additional power supply. However, there are only few 2.5” eSATA drives, and you can expect 2.5” drives to deliver less throughput than their 3.5” brothers.

USB Against the Rest

USB 2.0 has been available for many years and it’s not an exaggeration to say that this interface is available on each and every computer--whether we’re talking about desktop PCs, notebooks, or servers in the Windows world or on Apple systems. And although USB 2.0 is reliable, highly compatible, and easy-to-use, it does have a disadvantage that forced the industry to move on: USB 2.0 is limited to 480 Mb/s, which translates into 30-35 MB/s maximum bandwidth for typical storage applications. This is certainly more than enough for most device types and for casual storage use, but as soon as you want or need to move many gigabytes of data on a regular basis, you’ll want more throughput.

FireWire (or IEEE 1394) has been around for many years as well. The initial standard, FireWire 400, or 1394a, provides 400 Mb/s throughput and isochronous transfer, which is necessary for real-time transmission of data--something you would want for digital video, for example. FireWire 800, or 1394b, doubled the throughput to 800 Mb/s, but neither of the two FireWire specifications really became mainstream. Although FireWire is popular and widespread, it is not even remotely as prolific as USB.

Finally, we have eSATA, which stands for external Serial ATA (SATA). This is a modification of the SATA standard that most computers use to attach hard drives and optical drives, adjusted to support longer cables for external devices through modified electrical specifications. In addition, connectors are physically different to avoid mixing them up. The cable length of up to 2m is sufficient for storage applications, but both FireWire and USB still support longer cables that are 4.5m and 5m in length. However, eSATA is as fast as internal SATA, which translates into a maximum of 300 MB/s for 3 Gb/s SATA connections.

Future FireWire standards, such as 1394d, could reach 6.4 Gb/s, but these will probably not be very mainstream. USB 3.0 (also known as SuperSpeed USB) is specified at 4.8 Gb/s and has the potential of reaching effective throughput of up to 400 MB/s. The standard is in the process of deployment, but it will take at least one more chipset generation in one or more years until we can assume that most systems will actually be equipped with USB 3.0. eSATA at 6 Gb/s also has the potential to offer additional bandwidth, but we believe that USB 3.0 will dominate.

Combo Drives

There are hundreds of portable and external hard drives that utilize the USB 2.0 interface. Most of them deliver similar performance, so there is not much risk associated with opting for one product over another. However, if you go for a high-capacity product, it can take several hours for a storage device to read or write hundreds of gigabytes of data.

Drives that combine USB 2.0 with additional interfaces seem to offer a good compromise--FireWire 800 enables additional throughput and eSATA promises to deliver native hard drive performance without any bottleneck for modern storage products. Today we're comparing a 2TB USB 2.0 and a 1TB quad-interface combo drive, analyzing the performance differences.

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  • 20 Hide
    dimitrik , January 22, 2010 9:43 AM
    I also found the article severely lacking. No CPU use data at all. No mention of the massive compatibility issues with eSata external drives and drive enclosures, which make it a crapshoot based on whether your motherboard likes the external drive controller, whether the external drive controller will work or will its firmware brick your drive (as with several generations of seagate external esata drives) and what speed you will get. I have seen several (most) eSata drives delivering 30-50MB/sec only.

    This would have worked better as a product review of the two external drives than as an article on interface performance (which should have included several more products to establish a baseline).

    It seems this and some other articles on Tom's guide lately are aimed at the totally non-technical users who don't have a clue about anything. I'm all for expanding and helping non-technical users get up to speed but not at the expense of the previously high Tom's standards.
  • 10 Hide
    JaguarOne , January 22, 2010 7:17 AM
    The article missed an important advantage of esata over usb2: Copying large number of files, especially when they are small files. Usb can't handle the I/O traffic and the difference is huge
Other Comments
  • 10 Hide
    JaguarOne , January 22, 2010 7:17 AM
    The article missed an important advantage of esata over usb2: Copying large number of files, especially when they are small files. Usb can't handle the I/O traffic and the difference is huge
  • 8 Hide
    False_Dmitry_II , January 22, 2010 7:19 AM
    eSATA. Done.

    The others? Still waiting.
  • 0 Hide
    sohei , January 22, 2010 8:19 AM
    this is a good article , and necessary with all this types of connection ....to many connection, and this connection make the components expensive ex motherboard
  • 3 Hide
    micky_lund , January 22, 2010 8:41 AM
    why can't they get a eSATA connected external hdd, powered by usb, so as to not have the annoying plug that has to go into the wall socket?

    make it easy to carry, and quick transfer
  • 1 Hide
    bigbadbenny , January 22, 2010 8:46 AM
    Like to see iSCSI in this mix...
  • 20 Hide
    dimitrik , January 22, 2010 9:43 AM
    I also found the article severely lacking. No CPU use data at all. No mention of the massive compatibility issues with eSata external drives and drive enclosures, which make it a crapshoot based on whether your motherboard likes the external drive controller, whether the external drive controller will work or will its firmware brick your drive (as with several generations of seagate external esata drives) and what speed you will get. I have seen several (most) eSata drives delivering 30-50MB/sec only.

    This would have worked better as a product review of the two external drives than as an article on interface performance (which should have included several more products to establish a baseline).

    It seems this and some other articles on Tom's guide lately are aimed at the totally non-technical users who don't have a clue about anything. I'm all for expanding and helping non-technical users get up to speed but not at the expense of the previously high Tom's standards.
  • 0 Hide
    g00ey , January 22, 2010 9:58 AM
    And how about SAS (Serially Attached SCSI)? The prices of SAS controllers are coming down to the same levels as SATA based equipment and about 99.9% of SAS controllers are compatible with SATA, i.e. you can use a SATA hard drive with a SAS controller. SAS offers two major types of external connectors; SFF-8088 and SFF-8470 (aka Infiniband). In a fair test these should be included, no excuse.

    To be honest I would rather prefer a SAS or eSATA solution because both USB and FireWire have caused me a lot of problems, especially when the connected drives increased in numbers.
  • 7 Hide
    ava__ , January 22, 2010 10:53 AM
    This article is not about comparing peripheral interfaces (as the title would suggest), but about a single product from a single company. There are loads of other similar products. In other words, this article is a shameless disguised ad.
  • 1 Hide
    SneakySnake , January 22, 2010 11:10 AM
    micky_lundwhy can't they get a eSATA connected external hdd, powered by usb, so as to not have the annoying plug that has to go into the wall socket? make it easy to carry, and quick transfer


    I've got an eSata drive that is exactly what your talking about. They make em, you just have to look around
  • 0 Hide
    JeanLuc , January 22, 2010 11:33 AM
    Can I ask what's the deal with Patrick Schmid and Achim Roos? Are all of their articles a partnership or does one translate the other ones work from another language?

    Once you have used ESATA you will never want to back to USB2, however it would have been nice if you could have included USB 3 into this article as controllers and devices are now available.
  • 1 Hide
    hixbot , January 22, 2010 11:36 AM
    For portable drives with no connection to a wall socket, USB offers the only solution. If they had of included a power wire with the eSATA spec, USB would be obsolete.
  • -6 Hide
    gaiden2k7 , January 22, 2010 12:34 PM
    stay with usb 2.0 because firewire is dated and esata is not worth the upgrade (given it doesn't include power). if esata dont fix this soon when usb 3.0 comes around it's game over.

    so far the future seems to be usb 3.0 & hdmi

    sorry i was trolling, because i hated the title and didn't want to read on... :\
  • 5 Hide
    sublifer , January 22, 2010 12:35 PM
    This was a waste of time. I could have answered eSATA the moment the questions was brought up. What you should have done was included USB 3.0 as that is the least known tech.
  • 3 Hide
    neilnh , January 22, 2010 12:42 PM
    hixbotFor portable drives with no connection to a wall socket, USB offers the only solution. If they had of included a power wire with the eSATA spec, USB would be obsolete.


    As a previous poster mentioned to another less than fully informed comment, eSATA drives powered with a USB cable are available. Including power over the eSATA port would have been nice, but you are NOT dependent on wall power.
  • -2 Hide
    zelannii , January 22, 2010 2:11 PM
    Hell, i got a slot plate that takes a molex to a SATA power cable, and passes 2 mainboard SATA ports through via an eSATA connector. I simply plug internal drives to those cables externally and save on the chassis prices. The power rail from my modular PS is dedicated for this, so hot-swapping the cables has no impact on the system power stability, and my mainboard supports hot swapping SATA II drives via the onboard controller...

    This is a much cheaper solution thatn buying external enclosures and requires no additional power cabling to a surge protector. It's also handy for helping friends and family diagnose HDDs and works equally with any SATA drive (in or not in a case). Bonus: Windows sees it as a local, not removable drive.
  • -1 Hide
    hixbot , January 22, 2010 2:32 PM
    neilnhAs a previous poster mentioned to another less than fully informed comment, eSATA drives powered with a USB cable are available. Including power over the eSATA port would have been nice, but you are NOT dependent on wall power.

    Yes i realize that, still that hardly makes usb obsolete. my point was that if esata offered power, it would make usb obsolete.
  • 0 Hide
    gwolfman , January 22, 2010 2:34 PM
    obarthelemyOMG. 1- no CPU usage data (huge difference between USB 2.0 and FWire/esata, don't know for USB 3.0), and 2- no attempt to check compatibility (plenty of issues with USB 2.0).useless article.

    Well, I agree with argument 1. USB is host-based, so USB 2.0 requires CPU cycles. Try running one of the iometer tests over USB 2.0 and compare it to FireWire and you'll see a big difference. FireWire doesn't require CPU cycles like USB does.
  • -1 Hide
    cadder , January 22, 2010 2:44 PM
    Quote:
    i got a slot plate that takes a molex to a SATA power cable, and passes 2 mainboard SATA ports through via an eSATA connector. I simply plug internal drives to those cables externally and save on the chassis prices.


    My desktop machines have this, in fact I think some Gigabyte motherboards come with the slot plate and cables. At least one of my laptop computers has an esata connector too, but how would it work with a bare internal hard drive? Would I need some form of separate power supply?
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , January 22, 2010 2:47 PM
    Thank you for pointing out the massive performance difference between SATA and USB 2.0. While obvious to most power users, for average consumers this comparsion was long overdue. People have been spending good money on 500GB and 1TB USB 2.0 drives for about 2 years now, only to find that actually using that space can mean DAYS of time waiting for the copy/move to complete.
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