USB 2.0 Demystified

All to often I hear people tossing about performance specs they’ve read off peripheral packaging, as if it were gospel. In particular, in my professional role dealing with media creation, I continually run into people claiming USB 2.0 is “faster” because the marketing-speak from Intel claims theoretical throughput greater than that of Firewire. Well, tune in and I’ll demonstrate why that just isn’t true and why Firewire is the choice of professional video editors.

Contrary to widely held beliefs, propped up by the theoretical numbers marketers like to bandy about, USB 2.0 is far inferior in terms of the kind of performance required for external disk storage, not just for digital video use, but for general use as well.

While marketers like to tout USB 2.0 throughput as 480 Mbps versus FireWire’s 400 Mbps, what they don’t discuss is the built-in inefficiency of the USB 2.0 architecture, which substantially reduces actual sustained throughput (the kind you want for disk storage and video editing).

Technically speaking, Firewire uses an architecture in which the peripherals negotiate bus conflicts to determine which device can best control data transfer. This peer-to-peer arrangement works well because the devices are independently intelligent. USB 2.0, on the other hand, uses a master-slave architecture, wherein the host computer handles all arbitration functions and dictates data flow between the attached peripherals (adding additional system overhead and resulting in slower data flow control). It is this flow-control that is a critical determinant in the actual performance of the device.

A great example, presented by PC Magazine, reveals USB 2.0 is not 40 times faster than USB 1.1 (as promised by comparing the “rated” throughput), but merely 2 to 13 times as fast1. Not only is that a wide discrepancy in the rated throughput, but also in actual performance. This is due, fundamentally, to the flow-control architecture.

Want real world numbers? Here they are (courtesy of

Chart comparing throughput in various scenarios of firewire versus USB 2.0

Read and write tests to the same IDE hard drive connected using FireWire and then Hi-Speed USB 2.0 show:

Read Test:
5000 files (300 MB total) FireWire was 33% faster than USB 2.0
160 files (650MB total) FireWire was 70% faster than USB 2.0

Write Test:
5000 files (300 MB total) FireWire was 16% faster than USB 2.0
160 files (650MB total) FireWire was 48% faster than USB 2.0

As you can see, the performance gap substantially widens as you move from large numbers of small files to small numbers of large files. Because video editing generally consists of utilizing large files, you can see why Firewire 400 is the substantially better interface. Then, consider Firewire 800 and you should be sold on the choice of Firewire for video editing.

Internet Explorer 7 Cometh

After all but abandoning Internet Explorer since releasing version 6 on August 27, 2001, Microsoft is readying an October launch of Internet Explorer 7. As this article details, the problem is, it’s not ready for prime time, and they’re making it an automatic download. Heck, the video actually demonstrates a rendering bug right under their noses â?? on the IE7 development team’s blog, no less. Support centers â?? brace yourselves!

For us web developers, the promise of Internet Explorer 7 is grand, because the prior version (used by >80% of the world, sadly) is the biggest piece of crapola because it doesn’t adhere to any semblance of standards. This arrogance on the part of Microsoft requires countless hours of testing and tweaking code to create web sites that work well regardless of the browser being used.

Finally, Microsoft has pledged to release a standards-based browser.

But, that just ain’t so. I’m not breaking any news here, for sure. Any web developer worth his salt knows IE7 is another half-baked MS product that only goes part-way to standards compliance. The perfect example of this is the Acid2 Browser Test from the Web Standards Project. This is a tough test that until recently no browser could properly render. But, everywhere but Redmond change happens rapidly, and other companies take this seriously. Even tiny iCab, written by Alexander Clauss, can render the test properly. As an illustration of how broken IE7 (Microsoft’s latest) is, let’s compare the output.

First, the reference rendering, which is basically a smiley face, show below:
Screen shot showing Acid2 Browser Test reference image (a smiley face)

Now, compare Apple’s Safari (v2.0.4), the default browser on all Macintosh computers:
Screen shot showing a perfect Acid2 Browser Test result for Safari 2.0.4 (Mac)

And Opera 9.02 on Mac (same results on Windows):
Screen shot showing a perfect Acid2 Browser Test result for Opera 9 (all platforms)

And iCab 3.03:
Screen shot showing a perfect Acid2 Browser Test result for iCab 3.03 for the Mac

And FireFox (Mac and Windows are the same):
Screen shot showing a less-than perfect Acid2 Browser Test result for Firefox 1.5 and 2.0 (all platforms)

And, finally, Internet Explorer 7 Release Candidate 1:
Screen shot showing a totally unrecognizable Acid2 Browser Test result for Internet Explorer 7 RC1

Above test notwithstanding, I just had to post the following video, which I think speaks for itself. It is a direct screen capture of the official Microsoft IE7 team blog. There, the program manager for IE7 announced on October 6th that “IE7 Is Coming This Month…Are You Ready?”. Erm, yes and no. Yes, in that the betas and release candidate that I’ve seen do a much better job at rendering web pages to standards (certainly not perfect as the above test illustrates…but believe it or not, WAAAAAY better than Internet Exploder 6). But what makes this a bit worrisome is that the plan, according to Microsoft, is to deliver new browser via Automatic Updates. So, users will have no easy choice. Meaning, we will conform, like it or not. Well, this isn’t really a departure from Microsoft’s tactics, so why complain now? You git what you git and you don’t throw a fit.

Except, the browser really isn’t ready for prime-time. It has numerous bugs, a fact that Monday’s (October 9th) blog posting by IE7 Program Manager Uche Enuha highlights so very succinctly. Seems that on first visiting the comments page, certain content mysteriously moves into a no-display zone on the left side of the screen. A reload corrects the anomaly. But I, for one, don’t want to have to re-author my sites to detect IE7 and force every page to reload so that the end user can actually see my content completely. That’s way too reminiscent of the current approach to Internet Exploder 6.

Video showing a rendering bug in Microsoft Internet Explorer 7

Hint to the Microsoft development team: Look at anchors.

All Hell Microsoft

Who’s running the ship over there in Redmond? The lurid tale of software hijinks, hardware foibles, and back-of-the-napkin business plans.

Holy cow. If there was ever a tale of how market share gained through monopolistic practices results in sub-standard products, Microsoft is it. Before you dive headlong down that slippery slope whereby you claim that Microsoft’s lack of vision somehow empowers others to have vision, stop. I’m not talking about the rest of the market place and the products that derive from it. I’m talking about the products Microsoft offers.

Microsoft’s history is replete with examples of a “Not Invented Here’ ethos. Better said, Microsoft has made a mint ripping off ideas from other companies and individuals, and then wedging the consumer into a place where they can only use Microsoft’s offering. Argue all you want, but the proof is in the pudding. How else can you explain a) the practice and b) Microsoft’s 1000-pound weight in a barrel of skinny chimps. Examples: Windows. Internet Explorer. Word. Excel.

In the past, Microsoft’s dismal track record for “creating” products that are both easy to use and reliable has been limited to software. Now, however, Microsoft is taking another approach. They are, my friends, in the hardware business.

Microsoft has (and will be) victimized by questionable business logic, born of the seemingly endless supply of cash that a monopoly like theirs provides (Windows creates $20 billion in yearly revenue…given their snail-like pace in updating that aged piece of hackery, we’re talking nearly 100% profit from that $20 billion). In a nutshell, it goes something like this. In order to dethrone the competition, Microsoft can flood the market with a low-cost version of a product even when it is highly unprofitable. Laws notwithstanding, there is a real anticompetitive stench there. Microsoft did it before (offering Internet Explorer as a free alternative to Netscape Navigator, brain child of Marc Andreesen, which was being sold as a commercial piece of software. Microsoft had to absorb a licensing fee on each copy distributed, losing millions in their bid to destroy up-start Netscape). Now, they’re in the hardware game doing roughly the same thing, though they can’t offer it for free because the devices cost far more than a software licensing fee.

Take XBox for example, Microsoft’s attempt to muscle into the gaming console market dominated by Sony and (to a lesser extent) Nintendo. The result, well, let’s let Steve Balmer, Microsoft CEO, explain:

“Generation one was lose moneyâ??gross margin loss on the console for the lifetime. You’ve got to take a lifetime view. We did have a lifetime view that said if you add all the revenue from selling consoles and all the costs of shipping consoles, it was negative. It was a model that made that back on royalties and third-party games and our own first-party games. We actually thought we could pencil it out.”

So, let’s get this straight. Microsoft’s business model for XBox is one that sacrifices profitability on hardware in exchange for the hopes of royalty revenue down the road. How’d that work for you, Stevo?

“We also didn’t think we would lose as much money as we did because we thought we could charge a premium for a device that had a hard disk in it.” â??Steve Balmer

Source: Business Week

Gotcha. Didn’t work so well. Which explains why XBox 2 is priced up there in the stratosphere.

So let’s take a look at Microsoft’s recent entry into another hardware category: the personal music player space. You know, the one currently dominated by Apple (but started by Creative). This is a market that appeals to a hip young crowd. Now, Microsoft (by anyone’s standard) wouldn’t know hip if it bit them in the ass. No matter. Let’s start that rocking chair a-creakin’, and get a Microsoft product on the market.

They’ve repackaged an already-released player (Toshiba Gigabeat) that has faired poorly on the marketplace. “While we have great respect for Microsoft, we are frankly underwhelmed by the much-hyped Zune device,” American Technology Research analyst Shaw Wu reported. Microsoft has added a few features, but they drastically reduce the already dismal battery performance of the device. As an added bonus, they’ve managed to match Apple’s pricing (even though the economies of scale don’t even come close). And they’ve launched the device in brown.


Microsoft Zune music player, clad in brown, player showing a photo of a defecating dog

That big black round thing that one might think replicates the iPod experience? Well, it doesn’t. It’s a glorified grouping of up-down and left-right arrows PRETENDING to be the input device that is so critical to iPod’s ease of use.

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, said his company’s upcoming Zune player fits into the hardware model (you know, the model that gave us XBox), because (now get this): the value, if it’s successful, is all in the software. “It’s in community [the ability to share music and pictures with other Zune users],” he said. “I want to squirt you a picture of my kids. You want to squirt me back a video of your vacation. That’s a software experience.”

Given the color of the thing, I’m not sure “squirt” is going to elicit a positive response amongst the young and the restless.

And then, there’s the whole back-of-the-napkin approach to deal, that makes me shake my head in dismay. It’s XBox all over again:

“The truth is, if it makes money, it will be built into the gross margin on the hardware. We’ll figure out how to make money on the community perhaps later though advertising or other means.” â??Steve Balmer

Source: Business Week