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Ask – FireWire or USB?

October 25, 2012
Is FireWire an endangered species? Not if Thunderbolt has anything to say about it.
I’ve been using a PreSonus Inspire 1394 and it’s worked fine, but I need to upgrade to more inputs. I’ve always been told that FireWire has more bandwidth than USB, which matters as I want to do more recording at 96kHz. But it also seems FireWire is being phased out, and I don’t want to be stuck with a doorstop. So . . . FireWire or USB?  
FireWire and USB started became common in the mid-’90s. USB has more general market share than FireWire; formerly “FireWire-only” companies (like PreSonus) now make USB 2.0 interfaces. FireWire 400 and USB 2.0 are roughly equivalent in terms of performance, while FireWire 800 has higher bandwidth than USB 2.0. Although USB 3.0 changes that, there are presently no USB 3.0 audio interfaces. (Many USB 2.0 models are compatible with USB 3.0 ports, but they don’t take advantage of the higher speed.)
The correct answer depends somewhat on your platform. Few, if any, new Windows laptops include FireWire, and most probably don’t include an ExpressCard slot suitable for a FireWire adapter. However, most Windows desktop systems include at least FireWire 400, and if not, adding a FireWire 400 or 800 card is trivial. Although the Mac seems to be phasing out FireWire, it’s phasing in Thunderbolt—and the Apple Store sells a Thunderbolt-to-FireWire 800 adapter for $29. Windows laptops (e.g., Acer and Lenovo) are starting to offer Thunderbolt ports.
If you need a FireWire interface, or one has the features you want, you’ll have no problem keeping it alive for a long time (except for some Windows laptops). But if a USB 2.0 interface suits your needs better, it will have plenty of bandwidth for most recording applications.
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