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FireWire and USB 2.0 Hard Disk Enclosures

>See our full range of FireWire and USB 2.0 Enclosures on our external hard drives page.

Or return to our FAQs and Guides index.


What is a Hard Disk Enclosure?

A hard drive enclosure is simply an external case that encloses an internal hard disk and turns it into an external device.

In the case of a modern FireWire / USB 2 enclosure, it takes a standard IDE internal hard disk and turns it into a FireWire and/or USB 2 external drive.

There are a range of enclosures available to cover the various requirements of users, there are three main attributes to consider:

  1. Connection Type: FireWire, USB and USB 2.0 connections are available. See our FireWire FAQ and USB 2.0 FAQ for more information on these protocols. Your choice of connection will often be dependant on the computer/devices you want to use your hard drive with. You do not necessarily need to restrict yourself to one or the other - there are enclosures which have both FireWire and USB 2 ports. More on this below.
  2. Drive Size: Not the storage capacity of the drive - this is determined by the capacity of the internal drive you use - but rather the physical size of the device. Internal hard drives come in two sizes: 3.5" which is the size used in desktop machines, and 2.5" which are usually used in laptops. There are enclosures available for both sizes. The 2.5" enclosures are obviously smaller and more portable, the larger drives however are cheaper and faster.
  3. Number of Bays: Single and dual bay enclosures are available. A dual bay enclosure can take two internal drives as opposed to one. For some users this can be highly useful feature, however for most people, considering you can replace the drive inside an enclosure with another one, its probably not necessary.

With any hard drive, whatever the protocol, you also need to consider exactly what you are going to use it for, and consider these four attributes:

  1. Spin speed : - this is measured in RPM and for IDE drives is either 4,200, 5,400 or 7,200 RPM. The greater the RPM the faster the drive can send information to the computer, or receive it from a digital camera, but also the faster the drive the more expensive it will be.
  2. Access time :- this is measured in ns (nano seconds) - this plays a smaller role than spin speed, but for digital video it will make a difference. The lower the value the better - however this is also linked to the cost.
  3. Sustained transfer rate :- this is measured in terms of megabits/s and is of most importance in digital video where data is required to be transferred at a near constant speed - for backing up of data and for extra storage this is less of a problem (see burst transfer rates below) for digital video it is recommended to look for greater than 30Mb/s, for backup or storage around 20 Mb/s is fine.
  4. Burst transfer rate :- similar to sustained rate, also measured in Mb/s, this is how a measure or how fast the drive can send and receive smaller packets of information down the FireWire cable - this factor is not as important in digital video as video requires a sustained rather than burst transfer. For storage or backup needs aim for the fastest possible speed - up to 300Mb/s.

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Why would I want a USB 2 or FireWire Enclosure?

Because you need a USB 2 or FireWire hard drive but want the flexibility given to you by an enclosure.

It used to be the case that it was actually cheaper to buy an enclosure and a drive separately and put them together yourself, however this slightly bizarre situation has changed with some of the manufacturers of enclosures releasing pre-built versions (ie an enclosure with a drive already inside it) at a discount.

For this reason enclosures are now mainly useful to people who either have an existing IDE or SATA drive they want to mount in a FireWire or USB enclosure, or want the particular features on an enclosure which is not sold in a pre-built version - for example a dual bay enclosure. Typically they are useful to people who have removed a drive from an old machine, for example a powerbook, and need to still access the data on that drive.

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Which should I choose - USB 2.0 or FireWire?

Frequently this choice will be made for you by the equipment you already own. If you are in a position to choose whether to go the FireWire or USB 2.0 route we have a FireWire FAQ and a USB 2.0 FAQ which might be of interest to you.

If you don't want to restrict yourself to one or the other, or you need both, there are some of enclosures which have both USB 2 and FireWire connections.

There are advantages to using both FireWire and USB 2.0 which are briefly summarised here:

  • FireWire Advantages: FireWire is an established protocol, it has been around for some time and there are many devices available which use it. Mainly found on the Apple platform, it is easy to set up and use, and it has a very good history of trouble free use. Unlike USB 2.0, FireWire devices can be chained together, allowing well many firewire products to run from a single FireWire connection, USB 2.0 on the other hand still uses the old master/slave methodology, meaning they cannot be chained together - therefore you need a USB hub if you wish to have extra devices.
  • USB 2.0 Advantages: USB 2.0 is a newer protocol, but while it has less devices specifically made for it, it does have the big advantage of backwards compatibility with USB 1.1 (that is the old standard USB connection). USB devices such as mice, printers etc. can be used on a USB 2.0 port, and USB 2.0 devices can be used on a standard USB port (although obviously at only the speed of a standard USB connection - about 40 times slower than USB 2.0). Because USB 2.0 uses a master/slave system, USB 2 devices are simpler (the controlling computer does more of the work than with a FireWire device), this makes them less flexible than FireWire but it also makes them cheaper.

There are advantages to both protocols. Generally, if your aiming at more high-end tasks your best bet is probably FireWire, its tried, tested, reliable and versatile.

For home use USB 2.0 is perfectly adequate. Its generally a little cheaper, and the backwards compatibility with USB 1.1 can be extremely useful.

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Where can I buy a USB / FireWire Enclosure?

That's the easy part! You can buy one from us.

We stock a good range of USB 2.0 and FireWire enclosures. We also have combined USB 2 and FireWire enclosures and dual bay FireWire enclosures. We also have a large range of IDE hard drives to go with them.

You can find USB 2 enclosures on our USB peripherals page and FireWire enclosures on our FireWire peripherals page. You can also find all our enclosures on our external hard drives page. IDE internal drives to use in these enclosures can be found on our internal hard drives page.

Or you can just email us or call 01223 833 412 and one of our friendly staff members will be happy to run through your options.

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I need more information than this!

You can find specific information on FireWire and USB 2.0 in our FireWire FAQ and USB 2.0 FAQ.

Lists of our products can be found on our FireWire page, our USB page, our external hard drives page and our internal hard drives page.

If you can't find the information you're looking for on our site then please do not hesitate to email us or call 01223 833 412 and get advice on your specific requirements.

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