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Should I choose a FireWire or USB audio interface?

Q: Should I choose a FireWire or USB audio interface?

A: Most audio interfaces today communicate with your computer either though a FireWire connection or a USB connection. Before purchasing an audio interface, the first step is to ascertain what type of communications your computer supports. Almost all modern computers feature at least two USB ports; however, FireWire is somewhat more limited to the pro audio and video environment, and many budget PCs will not support FireWire out-of-the-box. Despite this, most computers can be upgraded to obtain FireWire functionality at minimal cost. 

 

The Pros and Cons of FireWire vs USB

 

FireWire has long been a standard for both audio and video interfacing. Below are some of the common pros and cons for using a device with FireWire:

Pros

  • In general, FireWire devices support a higher bandwidth than USB 2.0, and therefore can send more data faster. This results in the ability to utilize more inputs and outputs, as well as increased performance and stability. This practically would apply only to interfaces with large numbers of inputs and outputs; the difference in performance between a single or dual-channel USB or FireWire interface should be negligible. 
  • FireWire streams data rather than packets data. This results in more stable synchronization and performance. A FireWire device can stream data in both directions at the same time, while USB requires the sent packets of data to finish transmission before the device can receive more data. While seemingly a minor technical detail, this can impact performance and stability to some degree. 
  • FireWire is typically dedicated for audio/video purposes, and wouldn't be in use by other services on your computer. Your system will most likely have a single controller for FireWire that shouldn't receive interference from other services or hardware on your system in a normal situation. Conversely, USB is used by a wide variety of hardware peripherals, resulting in an increase in the chance that a conflict could occur. 
  • FireWire devices have the ability to cascade or daisy-chain. This means multiple FireWire devices of the same family can be connected together for additional inputs and outputs. For instance, you can connect two PreSonus FireStudio Projects together for a total of 20 inputs and 20 outputs. USB devices cannot be connected together in this fashion.

Cons

  • USB devices can be used on almost any computer, because almost all computers contain USB ports. Conversely, most modern PCs do not have FireWire ports built-in. One can usually upgrade their computer to support FireWire, but this would require purchasing additional hardware.
  • There is no form of chipset incompatibility with USB devices. A USB 2.0 interface can be used on almost any USB 2.0 port; however, with FireWire, one must have a supported chipset in order to utilize the device properly. For more information about supported and unsupported hardware, check out this document. 

*Certain new computers utilize newer USB technology known as "USB 3.0"; PreSonus USB 2.0 audio interfaces should work with 3.0 provided that you are using an operating system that fully supports the 3.0 architecture, and that you have updated your USB 3.0 drivers. 

  • USB devices typically are at a lower price point than FireWire devices, so they may be more attractive to users on a budget.  
  • Certain computers can not be upgraded to support FireWire. If your computer is a laptop and does not have a Cardbus, PCMCIA, or ExpressCard slot, there is no way to add FireWire to the system. If your computer is a desktop but does not have any available PCI or PCI Express slots, you would not be able to add FireWire without removing another device. 

For more information on the technical aspects of USB vs FireWire, check out the documents below: 

http://www.tctechnologies.tc/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=28&Itemid=27

http://www.tctechnologies.tc/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=25&Itemid=26

http://www.1394ta.org/press/WhitePapers/1394NetworkArticle.pdf

http://forums.presonus.com/posts/list/23160.page

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