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Posted on November 4th, 2009 by Darien Graham-Smith

USB 3 first benchmark – it’s here, and it’s fast


The first USB 3 external hard disk has arrived in the PC Pro Labs – a pre-production sample courtesy of our friends at Asus – and initial impressions are simply excellent.

The chart above may need a little explaining. The first two groups of results show how long it took, in seconds, to copy a folder of 3,000 small files, totalling 300MB in size, back and forth between a RAM disk and an external hard drive using various connections. The 650MB results are based on the same process using a single 650MB file.

The USB 2 and USB 3 figures were obtained by simply connecting the external drive first to a USB 2 port and then to a USB 3 one. The eSATA figures are from the A-Listed Iomega Professional External Hard Drive.

The results

As you can see, USB 3 left USB 2 comprehensively in the dust in every test. That’s no surprise: USB 2 has always been a bottleneck for external hard disks, with even “Hi-Speed” mode limiting transfer speeds to a theoretical maximum of 480Mb/sec. USB 3 adds a new “SuperSpeed” mode that increases the bandwidth by a whopping ten times, yielding greater throughput than a typical SATA connection and enabling external drives to communicate at full speed. In our real-world 650MB test, the external drive connected via USB 3 averaged sustained read and write rates of around 120MB/sec, beating even our eSATA unit.

Our 300MB test was a little less clear-cut: USB 3 raced past USB 2 as expected, but eSATA performed erratically. In the write test, eSATA was three times as fast as USB 3, but in the read test it was barely faster than USB 2. It seems the SATA interface makes better use of buffering than USB when it comes to writing files, but it doesn’t read files back so efficiently. Overall, if pressed as to whether USB 3 was better than eSATA, we’d have to say “mostly”.

The connector

One interesting aspect of USB 3 is that it brings a new connector — the first one since USB 1 was specified in 1996 that actually involves an electrical change, rather than simply being a different shape. Previous versions of USB have used four-pin connectors, but to enable “SuperSpeed” transfers, USB 3 devices use new eight-pin connectors.

usb3-socketThe upgrade has been very thoughtfully implemented, though. You can still use a four-pin cable to hook up a USB 3 device to your PC — you’ll just be stuck at USB 2 speeds.

And if you have a USB 3 cable you can still plug it into a USB 2 socket on your PC: again, your device will simply fall back to USB 2 speeds.

The only thing you can’t do is plug a USB 3 cable into a USB 2 device. That’s because the new USB-B plug is physically larger than the old USB-B socket, to connect with the four extra pins which have been piggy-backed onto the top of the existing design (pictured).

The future

Will USB 3 catch on? Technically speaking, it’s hard to see why it wouldn’t. The performance benefits are simply unanswerable. Of course, not all USB devices will benefit, since things like printers and flash memory devices don’t saturate an existing USB 2 connection. But USB 3 ports and devices retain full compatibility with USB 2, so there’s really no reason not to switch.

(Indeed, despite what you may hear on this week’s PC Pro podcast, it appears that USB 3 even maintains support for USB 1.1 devices and ports.)

The transition may be slow, though. Neither Intel nor AMD yet supports USB 3 at the chipset level, so for now you’ll find it only on premium motherboards with dedicated third-party USB 3 controllers (such as the Asus P7P55D-E or the Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD3). If you want to add it to an existing system, you’ll need to invest in a PCI-E controller card. It’s safe to say that, with these as its only distribution channels, USB 3 isn’t going to flood the mainstream in the immediate future.

All the same, if USB 3 achieves even niche penetration, it will probably be the end of eSATA — always an awkward bus, technically superior but fatally narrow in function, unsupported by most laptops and often only half-implemented on the desktop. Come, USB 3, come, and put this unhappy also-ran out of its misery.

The bottom line

USB 3 marries everything that’s good about USB to performance that’s better than eSATA in most scenarios. To that extent, I am hopelessly in love with it.

But an interface is only as useful as the things it connects, and right now a quick Google search reveals precisely zero USB 3 devices on general sale.

So we’ll have to wait a little longer to see what sort of USB 3 devices appear, and how much they cost, and how quickly consumers take the nascent technology to their bosom. My suspicion, though, is that this upgrade could catch on very quickly indeed.

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Posted in: Hardware, Just in, View from the Labs


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15 Responses to “ USB 3 first benchmark – it’s here, and it’s fast ”

  1. Phil A Says:
    November 4th, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    “I am hopelessly in love with it.”!!

    Your enthusiasm astounds me.

  2. John Gray Says:
    November 4th, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    If you’d had to wait a lifetime for a backup to a USB2 external hard drive, then you would find the author’s enthusiasm understandable, perhaps even restrained!

  3. Alan Says:
    November 4th, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    The multiple files stats is the biggest positive for me.

    I’ve thousands of photos needs backed up so this would reduce backup times significantly.

    Roll on USB 3 !!! (but be easy on the prices)

  4. GW Says:
    November 4th, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    @Phil A – Mr Graham-Smith is a computing journalist. If he’s not enthusiastic about computer stuff then why would he be doing the job? duh?

  5. Dave Says:
    November 5th, 2009 at 7:05 am

    I’m only just switching to USB 2!!
    I’ve found that back up speeds to my external drives are fine using USB2 – I can do a full back up of the c drive in 30 minutes – at the moment thats more than adequate.

  6. Thomas Says:
    November 5th, 2009 at 10:12 am

    As more people try out USB 3.0 devices, the interest will grow. At this point, there aren’t enough devices or hosts for this to be much more than a curiousity.
    Right now, the device speeds are limited by the drive speed. That will increase, as flash drives get bigger and RAID devices become available.

  7. David Wright Says:
    November 5th, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Heard on BOL that Intel aren’t planning to implement USB3 on any of their chipsets until 2011, coincidentally about the same time their new LightPeak technology should hit the shelves… :-S

  8. stevil Says:
    November 5th, 2009 at 11:39 am

    I assume that it is hotswappable? All the ESata boards I’ve had have not supported hot swap, you’ve had to have the drive attached to the ESata port on bootup…..rendering it pretty useless to me :(
    I’d be interested to see what speeds you get with either a RAID array or a very fast SSD attached….can you oblige with this pre-production box? :)


  9. Darien Says:
    November 5th, 2009 at 11:42 am

    @stevil – Yes, USB 3 drives are detected on connection, just like USB 2 ones. But if your eSATA drives aren’t being automatically detected when you plug them in, try going to the Device Manager and selecting “Scan for new devices”… that’s always worked for me.

  10. stasi47 Says:
    November 5th, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Will it affect the performance, if I connect simultaneously an USB2 device (e.g. mouse) to the same USB-Bus as USB3 device?

  11. Mark Says:
    November 23rd, 2009 at 11:56 am

    I take photographs and video very frequently, so downloading images and movies fast is key! I have been waiting for USB 3.0 to save my sanity for years! I have GB’s of data and every shoot is about 4GB without video so please, please, please, please make USB 3.0 the standard for all high data traffic devices, we REALLY do need it to save time and life!

  12. Tim Day-Lewis Says:
    January 12th, 2010 at 5:07 am

    I just think that if the speeds are comparable, USB3 is a LOT easier to set up than an esata external HDD. I know – i just did one! :)

  13. Warren Says:
    January 15th, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    Why on earth was FirWire not included in this comparison of speed? I wonder if FireWire’s 3200 real world performance will exceed the performance of USB 3.0

  14. Ron Says:
    February 20th, 2010 at 9:13 am

    To the photographer, It still says that E-sata beats usb3 in small multi file writes, as in, specifically, backuping up 100’s of jpegs. E-sata works stupendously well for me, revelation compared to USB2. Esata FTW!

  15. Ivan Says:
    April 14th, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    I have just carried out some tests with testing all the above as mentioned and also have come to the same conclusion as the graph. Tested with a sumsung 1tb 7200 32mb cahe drive, Seems the older the drive the slower the speed result. Usb 3 is averaging to be twice the speed of USB 2

    Ofcourse the best results came from the cheapest looking caddies from China, the Ones with all the bells and whistles faire but not the same as the cheap caddies.

    Tested with PCI express card


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