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A late adopter's guide to USB 3.0


Or: how to get your SuperSpeed on
— 9:34 AM on March 25, 2011

USB 3.0 is all around us these days. It's in our motherboards, our PC enclosures, and our external hard drive docks. It's even in some of our laptops—provided they don't have a glowing piece of fruit on the back, at least. That's all well and good, but what if, like me, you put together a PC just before the USB 3.0 craze?

There are two avenues available to folks in this situation. First, you could bide your time until your next motherboard purchase, at which point getting something with a couple of built-in USB 3.0 ports is pretty much guaranteed... as is the likely fact that those ports will be hanging off a third-party controller chip, because both Intel and AMD are dragging their feet on chipset support. Two, you could shell out 30 bucks for a USB 3.0 adapter, which will offer the same number of ports and probably the same controller chip in the form of a PCI Express x1 card, and get your SuperSpeed on much sooner.

Of course, some readers might be asking themselves whether USB 3.0 support really warrants a $30 purchase and an occupied PCIe slot on their motherboard. SuperSpeed connectivity may be a nice additional perk as part of a future system, but is it worth the trouble as a standalone upgrade?

To answer that question, we've enlisted one of those adapter cards, Mukii's TransImp TIP-PU301, as well as a trio of USB 3.0 storage devices: two slim hard-drive enclosures kindly provided by the folks at Mukii, and that StarTech docking station we reviewed last November. We're going to see how straightforward the installation process is and what the performance payoff looks like.

Getting our hands dirty
Starting off with all of this gear involves unwrapping Mukii's TIP-PU301 adapter, which is thankfully cheap (Amazon has it listed for $29.99 right now) and easy to install. The card will slip into any PCI Express slot, and Mukii throws in a low-profile expansion bracket for slim PC enclosures. A Mini CD—yes, they still make those—containing the driver installer and instructions rounds out the bundle.

Mukii has based this card off of NEC's ubiquitous NEC D720200F1 USB 3.0 controller, which we've already seen in a great many motherboards. Here, the PCI Express x1 interface limits bandwidth to the rest of the system to 250MB/s or 500MB/s, depending on whether your motherboard has PCIe 1.1 or 2.0 slots, respectively. Even 500MB/s is a bit of a bottleneck for two USB 3.0 ports, since the standard allows for up to 600MB/s per port. In practice, though, few storage devices will push anything close to that.

Pop open your PC, insert the card, hook up the four-pin Molex connector (hey, those USB-powered devices need juice), boot up, install the driver for the card's NEC controller chip, and you're good to go. Couldn't be easier. The card will eat up a precious PCIe slot, but its small size won't block airflow to adjacent graphics cards.

Now that your machine is USB 3.0-capable, it's time to go shopping for some USB 3.0 devices. Newegg is brimming with those, from SuperSpeed flash drives to hard-drive enclosures and docks. That second category includes our StarTech dock, Mukii's 3.5" TransImp TIP-330U3-BK, and the pint-sized Mukii TransImp TIP-230U3-BK that takes 2.5" hard drives. Since we already covered the StarTech enclosure last year, let's have a look at the two Mukii enclosures.

The TransImp TIP-330U3-BK, pictured above, sells for $49.99 at Newegg right now. That's not particularly cheap, but this enclosure does have a sturdy aluminum casing that tightly hugs whatever 3.5" hard drive you see fit to slip inside. Installation involves pulling out the internal tray, mounting the 3.5" drive with four screws (making sure to mate it with the SATA power and data ports on the circuit board), connecting the LED cable inside, and fastening the enclosure together with a pair of Philips screws. You may need a jeweler's screwdriver for that last part; I did.

Once everything is assembled, you'll want to hook up the supplied power adapter and USB 3.0 data cable, then push the power button. The USB 3.0 port on the device is of the B type, which means it'll work with both proper USB 3.0 cables and older A-to-B cables (you know, the kind you have to drive back to the store for after a printer purchase). Plugging in an old-school cable will mean leaving part of the enclosure's data port unoccupied, but that's normal. It does mean you'll be using the device at USB 2.0 speeds, though.

Next up, we have the TransImp TIP-230U3-BK. This diminutive model will set you back $36.99 at Newegg. While the enclosure features a similar aluminum design as the larger 3.5" model, more compact dimensions only leave room for a 2.5" hard drive or SSD. Installation is a little bit simpler here: just connect the drive to the SATA ports on the circuit board, fasten the unit together with two Philips screws (again, the small screw holes may require a jeweler's screwdriver), and hook up the data cable.

There device appears to have a hole for a DC power plug, but there's no power brick in the box—nor did we need one when testing the unit. Instead, power is supplied through an included Y-cable with three plugs: one micro-B USB 3.0 connector that connects to the drive enclosure, one blue USB type A connector that connects to your PC's USB 3.0 ports, and a white USB type A connector for additional power. That second connector can go into any old USB 2.0 port, but you will want it plugged in.

One last thing to note: that elongated micro-B USB 3.0 port on the enclosure will happily accommodate an old-school micro-B connector, like the one you might use to charge a cell phone or download pictures from a camera. Such a cable will only let you use the enclosure at USB 2.0 speeds, but it will let you access the data inside.