As technology advances, data transfer protocols continue to evolve, and yesterday's best technique for moving files between devices may not be ideal today. Our options have expanded over the years, and choosing the best method for your purposes requires some research. Fortunately, we're here to help.

Whether your goal is file transfer, data migration, backup, or something else, this comprehensive guide will help you choose the best approach for your Mac. Let's take a look at the options.

The USB family

Universal Serial Bus (USB) is a protocol that is constantly evolving. Although newer iterations have seen dramatic increases in speed, performance, and functionality, many of us still rely on older versions.

USB 2

USB 2 was a common protocol that was used in the early 2000s, and most new Mac models included the updated port until 2002. Although modern generations of USB are increasingly replacing earlier versions, some of us are still using older Macs or outdated ones Peripherals.

USB 3

For a good part of the last decade, USB 3 has been the primary protocol used on many devices.

Newer Mac models have switched to the USB-C port, so you'll need the appropriate cable or adapter to plug in anything that uses the traditional Type-A design. In addition, Type-C is likely to be the standard connection for the foreseeable future.

Related: USB-A vs. USB-C: What's the Difference?

USB 4

Most hardware manufacturers will adopt this iteration until the next big version hits the market. Newer Macs have high-speed USB 4 support ports, and the protocol rivals Thunderbolt for speed and efficiency.

Theoretical maximum transfer speeds for each USB protocol are as follows:

  • USB 4 Gen 3×2: 40 Gbit / s

  • USB 4 Gen 3×1: 20 Gbit / s

  • USB 3.2 Gen 2×2: 20 Gbit / s

  • USB 3.2 Gen 2: 10 Gbit / s

  • USB 3.2 Gen 1: 5 Gbit / s

  • USB 2.0: 480 Mbit / s

  • USB 1.1: 12 Mbit / s

Read more: Understanding USB Cable Types and Which To Use

lightning

Thunderbolt is the distinctive connection standard of the modern Mac. Thunderbolt 2 offers high speeds and a reliable connection. But the third and fourth iteration that use USB Type-C cables are now the dominant forms.

Transmission speeds for each Thunderbolt protocol are:

  • Thunderbolt 4: 40 Gbps

  • Thunderbolt 3: 40 Gbps

  • Thunderbolt 2: 20 Gbps

  • Thunderbolt 1: 10 Gbps

As you can see, any Thunderbolt protocol is capable of significant speeds. Together with USB 4, they can transfer data quickly and reliably.

Related: What Is Thunderbolt 4? Is it different from Thunderbolt 3?

However, a powerful port and the right cable are not always enough to achieve impressive results. Your connected hard drives must also be able to cope with this task. While storage technology is constantly improving, only the fastest solid-state drives can keep up with the newer protocols. So keep this in mind if you are planning a large data transfer.

FireWire

FireWire may be an outdated technology, but some of us still have devices that use it.

At the time of its release, FireWire was a reliable data transfer method, and its high speeds were a key to success. However, newer technologies are now overshadowing the aging protocol.

The transmission speeds for each Firewire protocol are:

  • FireWire 800: 800 Mbit / s

  • FireWire 400: 400 Mbit / s

Ethernet connections

While Wi-Fi has quickly become the preferred connection for our devices these days, Ethernet can provide a more reliable connection when moving large files across a network. Whether you're connecting multiple Macs for data transfer or accessing a network attached storage (NAS) drive, using a cable improves reliability by reducing the chance of failure.

Transmission speeds for each Ethernet protocol are:

  • 10 Gigabit Ethernet: 10 Gbit / s

  • Gigabit Ethernet: 1 Gbit / s

  • Fast Ethernet: 100 Mbit / s

Here's how to check the available ports on your Mac

We've covered the essential wired options, but before we move on to wireless solutions, let's discuss how to check the specifications of the ports on your Mac. To find your hardware information, do the following:

  1. click on the Apple Top left menu.

  2. Shut opportunity Key, and About this Mac will change too System information.

  3. click System information and let them opportunity Key.

  4. From the side menu, select the log that you want to review.

Mac system information window with Thunderbolt hardware details.

In System information, you can examine every piece of hardware in your Mac and see what options are available to you.

Wireless data transmission solutions

We now live in a wireless world where everything from our refrigerators to our lightbulbs can connect to Wi-Fi networks. When transferring large amounts of data, wired connections are generally more reliable, but wireless solutions still serve a useful purpose.

Wireless Internet access

The latest version of Wi-Fi, 802.11ax, can achieve speeds of up to 10 Gbps. Far from being a wired option, this is still a practical choice if used wisely. Convenience is the main characteristic of a wireless connection, and while the protocol is not ideal for large transfers, it is great for smaller tasks.

The speeds for the most common WLAN standards are:

  • 802.11ax: 10 Gbps

  • 802.11ac wave 2: 1.73 Gbps

  • 802.11ac wave 1: 866Mbps

  • 802.11n: 450 Mbit / s

  • 802.11g: 54 Mbit / s

Your connection type will depend on the capabilities of your Mac and router. You can find your network hardware under the Wireless Internet access Section in System information; PHY mode is the entry you want to review.

You can also see which WiFi standard you are currently using by checking the opportunity Button and click the WiFi symbol in the top menu bar. Scan the list until you find PHY modeand you will notice the current connection type.

Mac Wi-Fi menu with a detailed map with PHY mode highlighted.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth adds another convenience as you don't need an active Wi-Fi network to use the protocol. The connection is made between correctly paired Bluetooth devices and offers a practical solution for transferring small files.

Common Bluetooth speeds are:

  • Bluetooth 5.0: 50 Mbit / s

  • Bluetooth 4.0: 25 Mbit / s

  • Bluetooth 3.0: 25 Mbit / s

You can check which iteration of the protocol you are using in System information within the Bluetooth Section. LMP version is the entry you are looking for.

Mac system information window with LMP version highlighted in the Bluetooth section.

Because of its slower transmission speed, Bluetooth is a protocol that is best reserved for smaller files. If you've ever streamed audio to a wireless speaker, you know that dropouts are common. Demanding tasks require a more stable connection.

The right Mac data transfer option for you

When it comes to data transfer, wired solutions are fast and reliable, while wireless options are simple and convenient.

Iterations of the USB and Thunderbolt protocols offer speeds that range from reasonable to peak rates, and using a cable to connect devices reduces the chance of disruptions. If you are aiming for high-speed transmission, you should review the specifications of each hardware component involved to identify potential bottlenecks.

The recent iterations of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are viable tools for transferring small amounts of data. However, wireless connections are prone to failure, so if you need a stable connection, try to limit interference. Also, if you're aiming for high speeds, make sure that each device has the appropriate hardware for the speed you need.

From slow to fast, each protocol has its place and purpose. It's all about choosing the right tool for the job.

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About the author

Matt Moore
(3 articles published)

Matt is an Australian freelance writer with a degree in creative and critical writing. Before his studies, he worked in technical support and gained valuable insights into the technology and its users. His real passion is storytelling and he hopes to one day write a well-published novel.

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By Matt Moore

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