Does it matter what FireWire card I buy?
Everybody and his dog seems to be announcing FireWire/USB cards for Macs with PCI slots. OrangeMicro was the first to ship and couldn't make enough. Now that everyone has one, they may be making too many. With all peripherals going either USB or FireWire these days, a FireWire/USB board is a great way to upgrade your older PCI slotted Macintosh. Is there a difference in speed? And how do the features compare?
Card speeds compared
This test was performed using the same VST 22GB Full Height FireWire drive with each card.
The fastest card is highlighted in red for each test. I'm still baffled by the slowness of the OrangeMicro OrangeLink. I've tried it on various Power Mac models and with various drives. The write speed always maxes out at around 9MB/sec. One explanation offered by their competitors is that they are the only manufacturer using the NEC chip. All the rest use the TI chip. Features compared
VST 1394/USB Firewire
ProMAX FireMAX Sonnet Tango XLR8 MACH
2 2 3 2 2 2 2 3
0 0 1 0 1 0 1 **
2 2 2 2 2 0 2 0
6/6 pin No 6/6 pin 6/6 pin 6/6 pin 6/4 pin 6/6 pin 6/4 pin
A to B No No No No No No No
No Yes Yes No No No No No
Adobe Premiere LE None None None None None None Strata VideoShop 4.5 DV, QuickTime Pro
$139 $129* $109 $169 $159 $199 $139 $99(* $99 if purchased with drive
** one external port can be used internally; total of 3 FireWire ports )
(graphs removed - see special page devoted to drive comparison)
Of all the cards, my favorite is the FirewireDirect 6-port FireWire/USB Combo Card. It offers the most FireWire ports (4 counting the internal one) and includes a pass-through power cable. That latter item is important when you figure that most cards will exceed the IEEE spec for power consumption on the PCI bus when supplying power to the FW connectors. The only other card that supplied the power cable was VST.
They include one FireWire cable because "buyers expect it." I find that most buyers,
a) already have a cable supplied with their FireWire peripheral,
b) need a different length or different connectors from the one supplied.
VST has realized that and do NOT provide a cable of any kind.
FirewireDirect has cables at low prices. So does Outpost.com who will ship them overnight, free, even one little cable.
I'm still shaking my head over the OrangeMicro slow write speed. If you don't care about speed, why are you reading this?
Where to Buy
OWC has great prices on various FireWire cards and FireWire drives.
A big "mahalo" to VST for letting me test the VST 1394/USB board and the 22GB Full Height FireWire drive (Driver Version 2.2.2). You can order those products direct from them or your favorite online store.
A big "thank you" also to FireWireDirect (6-port Combo), MacWorks (RocketFire), and OrangeMicro (OrangeLink) for letting me test their boards.
Small Dog carries most of the products mentioned above.
Check also with MacGurus.
QUESTION: Why are these FW drives, with 400Mps connections, so damned slow (compared to analog IDE and SCSI), and will this change any time soon?
ANSWER: I've been told they are working on it. Right now it's a kludge. There's no such thing as a "native" FireWire drive. They are all IDE drives with a special FireWire bridge board. Supposedly, with some bridge board refinements and firmware slight of hand, they can match the speed of the fastest IDE (Ultra ATA) and Ultra SCSI drives.
One of the limitations is the drive themselves. The fastest single drive I've ever tested is the 15K Cheetah at 40MB/sec sustained read/write. That's equivalent to 320Mps or Mega Bits Per Second (megaBYTES times 8 BITS). So even if you had that drive on a 400Mps interface, the drive would be the bottleneck.
So you see, until the drives can go faster or you use an array of striped drives, FireWire offers no real speed advantage. But FireWire drives ARE hot-swappable and easily packaged as external drives. Try that with your Ultra ATA/66 or Ultra3 SCSI.
Test machine was a G4/400 Sawtooth.
The SUSTAINED READ OR WRITE test 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.
© 2000 Rob
Art Morgan, publisher of BARE
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