Comparison of File Systems, Interfaces and Operating Systems

I decided to buy an external hard drive enclosure for the purpose of backing up and storing additional data on my Macbook. At a local computer store, I looked at my options knowing that I wanted a Firewire based external IDE hard drive enclosure. Based on price and availability, I picked up an Ultra 3.5″external hard drive enclosure with USB2.0 and Firewire 400 interface connectivity.

I installed a Western Digital 160GB (WD1600JB) with 8MB cache in the enclosure (using the Prolific 3507 chipset) and it worked flawlessly. I just had to setup the file system on the drive, and it got me thinking. I’d always use NTFS for my desktop computer and it’s a Windows XP machine, but I didn’t know much about the file system performance for the options available in OSX.

So I did a little bit of testing…

I wanted to compare the different file formats and the enclosure interfaces (USB vs Firewire) for both Windows XP and Mac OSX on my Macbook, and I had a hard time finding a cross-OS benchmark which had comparable results. Instead, I just developed a simple benchmark scheme myself. It consisted of making 3 packs of files approximately 850MB each:

  • Docs and Pics - average file size ~100KB
  • Music - average file size ~ 4.5MB
  • Movie - average file size ~ 850MB

With these packs of files, I tested throughput by copying the files between my Macbook and the enclosure, measuring the time it took to complete the transfer and dividing that by the size of the files being transferred. I did 3 trials of each test and used the average of the result.

The Macbook used for testing was equipped with a Core 2 Duo 2GHz processor, 2GB (2×1GB) Mushkin PC5400 memory and an 80GB Fujitsu 5400RPM SATA hard drive. Mac OSX 10.4.8 and Windows XP SP2 with Boot Camp 1.1.2 beta drivers were used.

Testing Results

In reading data, the enclosure experienced the best performance in Mac OSX using the HFS+ file system and Firewire interface. This combination wins in all file size tests. All of the Windows XP tests suffered dismal performance in comparison to the Mac OSX equivalents. It looks like there seems to be either an issue with the operating system, enclosure hardware chipset or device drivers as all the XP tests turned out similar results.

With the results of write testing, it is easy to see that for this enclosure, OSX combined with the HFS+ file system is far better than XP and its best performing file system, NTFS. The transfer rate of writing small files (~100KB average) is significantly faster using OSX, HFS+ and Firewire (combined) than any other combination tested by almost 100%!!

Conclusion and Notes

All in all with regard to the reading and writing performance, the combination of Mac OSX, Firewire and HFS+ clearly leads to the best possible performance in all scenarios. If you need interoperability with a Windows XP computer, the combination of Firewire and FAT32 is the best solution.

The only problem with OSX is intercompatibility with Windows XP is it isn’t there natively. There are third party software solutions available that will allow access to a HFS+ drive, but from what I found they aren’t the best in terms of ease of use (if any readers have any suggestions, please comment). Going vice versa, NTFS doesn’t really have the best support in OSX either (again, if you have any tips on this, please comment).