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FireWire card reader beats SCSI, USB  
Thursday, July 20, 2000 | by
I admit it, I'm an impatient digital photographer.

I hate to wait for photos to write to the card in the camera, and so I look to shoot with the speediest cards available. I also hate to wait to see those photos on my Mac, and have been on a continuous quest for ever-faster external card readers since first picking up a digital camera in 1994. That quest led me to the sprightly Microtech Digital Photo Album *p in 1998, a trim single-slot SCSI model that even today easily outpaces the newest USB readers, at least when reading from hard drive cards like the IBM microdrive.

But the Microtech Digital Photo Album *p isn't as speedy with Flash RAM cards as it is with hard drive cards for some reason, and besides, after two years of steady card and computer speed improvements, I was ready for accelerated reader performance as well.

Enter the Unity Digital FireWire Image Card Reader for CompactFlash. Finally, a reader that I could plug into the often-unused FireWire ports on my desktop Mac and Powerbook that, I hoped, would give me the throughput boost I craved.

Is it faster? Yes! In fact, it's almost twice as fast as the Microtech Digital Album *p when comparing the fastest card in each, and 3-4 times faster than any reader that connects to the USB port. If you like speed, this reader delivers.


Unity Digital FireWire Image Card Reader, CompactFlash version

To give you an idea of how much faster this reader is, the table below shows the relative performance of several USB, SCSI and FireWire readers, including the D1 itself in PC mode. I calculated the time it took to transfer 100 D1 JPEGs to the computer's hard drive. See the testing notes for additional information.

Speed at which 100 D1 JPEGs copy from the card, in kilobytes/second, using the devices listed
IBM microdrive 340MB
Delkin Devices 224MB
Lexar Media 160MB 10x
Sandisk 128MB
Nikon D1 (FireWire)
560K/sec
560K/sec
561K/sec
error during copy
Microtech USB CameraMate (USB)
775K/sec
770K/sec
768K/sec
error during copy
Delkin eFilm Reader-2 (USB)
770K/sec
770K/sec
770K/sec
error during copy
Lexar Media Jumpshot (USB)
n/a
n/a
810K/sec
n/a
Microtech Digital Photo Album *p (SCSI-Mac; DOS Mounter 3)
990K/sec
313K/sec
313K/sec
307K/sec
Microtech Digital Photo Album *p (SCSI-Mac; File Exchange 3.03)
1462K/sec
353K/sec
342K/sec
341K/sec
Microtech Digital Photo Album *p (SCSI-Windows PC)
1313K/sec
334K/sec
342K/sec
346K/sec
Powerbook G3/500 card slot (internal)
1622K/sec
1363K/sec
1373K/sec
error; card wouldn't mount
Unity Digital FireWire Image Card Reader for CompactFlash (FireWire)
2340K/sec
2736K/sec
2812K/sec
2294K/sec

As you can see, Unity Digital's FireWire reader is the fastest of all readers tested, with all four cards. These benchmarks only confirm what my gut had told me already: this reader knows how to hustle. Cards mount on the desktop instantly, browsing both D1 and Kodak/Canon pro camera files on the card feels only slightly slower than browsing files on the computer's hard drive, and copying files off the card, as the numbers indicate, takes 1/2 to 1/4 of the time it used to with any other reader. Pete Koeleman of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune also likes the reader's speed:

Been testing the reader with a 340 IBM and a G4 and it really flies. Unbelievable. Card mounts instantly on the desktop and the images pop up almost immediately using Photo Mechanic.

And the larger the file being transferred, the faster the reader gets, up to a point. For example, if you shoot 3.8MB .NEF format photos a lot in your D1, and use a Lexar Media 160MB 10x card optimized for the D1, the read speed jumps up to over 3100K/second (the Delkin and IBM cards show speed gains as well, though not as large, while the Sandisk card stays the same). Helios Lantest, a Mac application for testing networks that also happens to give a good rough gauge of maximum card and reader performance, indicates that the reader is capable of even greater throughput, perhaps as high as about 3800K/second, with a speedy card and fairly large photo files.

Also note that USB readers are all about the same; while the table above displays the results of only three different models, including Lexar's Jumpshot cable which works exclusively with Lexar Media's USB-enabled cards, it's fair to say that all USB readers are about equivalent performers. That is, while USB readers are convenient and cheap, they are also relatively slow, as the USB port was really designed for low-bandwidth devices. On this site I've previously described USB readers as being ideal for backup purposes only; their relative pokiness is why.

But any USB reader is going to be faster than the Microtech Digital Photo Album *p when a Flash RAM card is inserted, even though it uses SCSI to connect to the computer. I don't know why it's so slow, given that the microdrive's performance is fine in this reader, and older Viper PC Card hard drives are even faster yet. This is unfortunate, as the Microtech reader is handy to have in an all-digital photo department. SCSI readers are the only kind that work with a range of both Mac and DOS/Windows card management software. But that's a subject for another time. If you want to extract maximum performance out of the Microtech reader, the table demonstrates that the File Exchange 3.0.3 control panel (part of OS 9 and mislabeled as v3.02 in the control panel) is a better choice than DOS Mounter SE 3.0. File Exchange does not support the reader without coaxing, however. It needs to be patched.

Unity Digital's FireWire reader is also noticeably faster than a Powerbook card slot, the previous all-round speed champ. In fact, I've all but stopped using the card slot in favour of the FireWire reader, because the speed gains are too enticing to give up.

If your goal is the same as mine, to create the most efficient digital workflow possible, the speed of Unity Digital's FireWire reader makes it potentially a key component in that workflow.

Looking beyond speed

Speed isn't the only criteria for selecting a card reader. Card compatibility, build quality, price and ease of use are important factors too.

The reader will accept CompactFlash Type I and II cards, including the IBM microdrive. PC Cards are not compatible.

I experienced no problems whatsoever with four different brands of Flash RAM CompactFlash cards, 7 cards in total, ranging in capacity from 8MB to 300MB. Mounting, unmounting, copying, ejecting, browsing - all went without a hitch.

A 340MB IBM microdrive didn't fare quite as well. The reader won't eject the microdrive without a light wiggling of the card's right edge after pressing the eject mechanism. I don't know if this is isolated to the early production unit used for testing, or a glitch common to all Unity Digital FireWire readers. David Umberger's experience with the reader was similar:

Rob--same experiences with the Unity Firewire reader as yours, including the finicky eject with the IBM Microdrives. Once or twice, however, I've hit the button JUST right, and then the card shoots several feet across the desk! It's quite exciting.

The reader also emits a noticeable whine when the microdrive is spinning, a whine that is present but barely audible when a Flash RAM card is inserted too.

To make matters even more interesting, the whine is louder when the reader is connected to a Mac G3/400 desktop than when it's connected to a Powerbook G3/500.

Paul Smith, however, hasn't experienced either microdrive problem:

With regards to the couple of points you mentioned about use with the Microdrive, I haven't noticed any whine noise and the drive ejects very easily from the reader after pressing the eject button - no wiggling required.

IBM and Unity Digital are currently investigating the whine, though it seems unlikely that it signals a compatibility problem, and it may be restricted to my particular unit.

I've experienced one other minor problem: sometimes the microdrive won't mount if the Powerbook is running off battery (not AC) power and the reader is connected after the computer is up and running. Shutting down (not restarting) the computer, then starting it up again, or connecting the reader with the computer off, solves this intermittent problem. I have not experienced this with Flash RAM cards.

The reader seems well made. The fit and feel of the iMac-inspired translucent plastic, and its attached 3.5 foot FireWire cable, are good. Only time will tell if the reader is reliable of course, and the level of support one can expect from Unity Digital, known primarily for its amateur digicam power packs, is unclear, as I have no prior experience with this company.

Ease of use is unparalleled, especially when compared to anything SCSI. The FireWire reader can be connected and disconnected at any time, whether the computer is on or off. If you want to impress your friends, you can disconnect the reader from the Mac while its copying files, then reconnect the reader and it will continue to copy from where it left off. The reader draws power from the FireWire port, so an additional power supply is not required. On the Mac, a single extension, FireWire Datafab HD Driver, keeps tabs on the reader, though the File Exchange control panel is responsible for translating the card's DOS format. Mac requirements are OS 8.5.1 or later, FireWire 2.2.2 or later and a FireWire port. All testing was done on Macs with OS 9.0.4 and FireWire 2.4.

I don't have a PC with FireWire, so I can't verify its performance from within Windows. Given that few PCs include FireWire as standard equipment, and that FireWire cards on the PC, standard are not, sometimes require drivers unique to that computer to function, you may wish to check with Unity Digital to confirm that your PC/FireWire setup is compatible. At a minimum, Windows 98 SE or Windows 2000 and a FireWire port (called an IEEE 1394 port outside of the Mac world), are required.

Availability

At a price of under US$150, the Unity Digital FireWire reader is more expensive than all USB readers, but less expensive than most SCSI readers. For the speed gains it offers I think it's a steal. Unity Digital's Jim Frohling indicates that the first shipment is all but gone, but more stock is expected at the end of this month. The reader is sold by Unity Digital directly for US$149; their online store is a bit finicky, so you may wish to call the company toll-free at 1-888-419-4900 or +1 949-580-1955. Ask for Sales. B&H Photo Video, which lists it as a "Generic Brand" reader on its site now for US$119.95, and d-store, will be carrying the reader as well. Terry Cioni reports that the reader is available in Canada from CEID in Montreal. CEID is Unity Digital's Canadian distributor, but they sell to individuals as well. Call 514-338-3838 and ask for Kelly at extension 215 to place an order, or ask your favourite Canadian computer/camera retailer to bring it in for you.

If the integrated FireWire cable is too short to allow you to place the reader where it needs to be, a FireWire extension cable is one solution. These cables are hard to come by. Charles Bennett found the appropriate one - a 6-pin male to 6-pin female - at Newnex in Sunnyvale, CA. Contact them at +1 408-749-1480 or by email at sales@newnex.com.

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