Flash Card Reader "BattleBots" -
USB versus FireWire

Posted 11/17/2000
© 2000 Rob Art Morgan (Bare Feats)


NOTE: I was informed on January 26th, 2002 that OS X drivers for the Lexar FW Reader are in testing. Keep checking driver download page for updates.


No, this isn't really BattleBots. It's a face-off between USB and FireWire Flash Card readers. Up until recently, only USB readers were available. They were so much faster than Serial Port readers, we were overjoyed. But now with 64MB and 128MB Flash Cards, I feel the need for MORE SPEED.

A FireWire reader has to be faster than USB, but how much faster? Is it worth paying 2 to 3 times as much? Betty, my wife, uses a digital camera for her graphic design business. She goes, "Here, let me see how fast it reads this flash card. It has 81 photos (60MB's) on it!" Okay...


Wow! Big difference! FireWire is 4.8 times faster!


I was curious about the maximum sustained READ speed of the FireWire versus USB reader so I ran ATTO's ExpressPro Tools.

This shows the maximum realistic throughput of the two kinds of readers. In this test, the FireWire reader is 5.8 times faster than the USB reader. Hmmm. The FireWire reader is a lot slower than the fastest FireWire hard drives (25MB/sec). Maybe the limitation has to do with the speed of the flash card media itself.
The LEXAR FireWire Compact Flash Digital Film Reader.

The Lexar FireWire reader is 5 to 6 times faster than the SanDisk ImageMate USB reader. It's definitely worth paying 2 or 3 times as much. I picked the Lexar over the FirewireDirect.com FireReader because the Lexar costs less and runs a little faster.

What about USB 2.0?

According to an article on MacKido, USB 2.0 is "yesterday's technology tomorrow." Translation: Do NOT expect the gap between FireWire and USB readers to close when USB 2.0 readers start shipping. Do expect FireWire to be updated soon to achieve 800Mbit/sec... possibly 1600Mbit/sec, Moral: Use FireWire any time the device can handle the speed. Some devices (like scanners and printers) have slow mechanical moving parts that make them no faster with FireWire than they run with USB.

(Needless to say, when faster USB and FireWire devices are available, Bare Feats will test them and update this page.)



Unity Digital FireWire reader was tested against SCSI and USB.

If you need a FireWire PCI card, read my comparison of FireWire PCI cards.



The LEXAR FireWire Compact Flash Digital Film Reader is available from Buy.com for $69. (search on "lexar firewire" )

NOTE: I was informed on January 26th, 2002 that OS X drivers for the Lexar FW Reader are in testing. Keep checking driver download page for updates.

If your PCI slotted Power Mac does NOT have FireWire ports, there are various cards available from various sources. (See my article on FireWire PCI cards for ideas.) If you don't have a PCI slot but do have a USB port, the SanDisk ImageMate USB is going for $23 at Buy.Com.



The TEST machine: An Apple G4/400 Yikes with 512MB of "222" PC-100 memory. Mac OS 9.04, VM off, ATALK off, clock display off, standard extensions.

I took a Flash Card with 81 photos (60.8 megabytes) and copied it to a 64MB RAM disk. (I used a RAM disk so the hard drive speed and fragmentation was not a factor.)

Results were obtained by using
Express-Pro Tools 2.3.2 benchmark test with 2MB maximum file size and system disk cache disabled. Sustained Rate is displayed in the charts. Peak rates can be impressive but do not reflect typical drive performance.


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