A late adopter’s guide to USB 3.0

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.

Some testing and conclusions

SuperSpeed hardware is all well and good, but is it really any quicker than good old USB 2.0 gear? To find out, I used a highly elaborate benchmark of my own design: copying 3.81GB of files to and from the drives and timing the process with a stopwatch. The 3.81GB data set was made up of five video files (totaling 2.82GB), 98 music files (631MB), and 1,324 miscellaneous TR-related files weighing in at a combined 383MB. That ought to cover most types of data transfers—a few big files, some medium-sized ones, and lots of tiny guys, respectively.

I tested the Mukii enclosures and the StarTech dock using a 3.5″ Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB and a 2.5″ Western Digital Scorpio Black 500GB. The Mukii enclosures were tested with the appropriate drive for their size; the dock was tested with both the Caviar and the Scorpio.

The machine on which all of this testing took place, in case you’re wondering, was an open test bench with a Core i5-750 processor, 4GB of DDR3 RAM, a 1TB Samsung Spinpoint F1 system drive, a Radeon HD 6850 graphics card, and a 750W Corsair power supply. Some of the PCI slots were blue, some of the chips had heatsinks on them, and the fans spun at an average speed. And there were cables—lots of them.

Here’s how our various contenders performed when data was written to them from this illustrious build:

Now, here’s how they performed when data was copied back to the test machine:

If you were still sitting on the fence, well, it’s time to hop down. No matter which direction our 3.81GB file set was going, it took about twice as long to get there with USB 2.0 than with USB 3.0.

You can work out the precise transfer speeds with a pocket calculator, but the important metric here is time saved: over a minute per transfer. That kind of savings adds up. If you’re doing a few transfers a day, five days a week, four-and-a-little-more weeks a month, you might soon find yourself saving entire hours. Even if you make minimum wage, hours are valuable.

I think it’s helpful to think of those gains in the context of processor upgrades, too. Any self-respecting enthusiast will shell out one, two, three hundred dollars for a 20%, maybe 50% performance increase over his previous CPU every year or two. Here, you’re looking at a 100% performance increase for the price of a $30 adapter card and a hard drive enclosure that’s just about as cheap. Unless you’re the type of enthusiast whose files will all eventually disappear without having left their storage device of birth (we know you exist), that’s quite a bargain.

Finally, props go out to Mukii for making two sleek, speedy, and easy-to-use USB 3.0 enclosures—plus an affordable PCIe adapter card to match. I like the low-key and slim enclosure design as well as the aluminum casings, which ought to provide a decent measure of durability as well as potentially better thermal dissipation than a plastic shell. Mukii’s prices might not be bottom-shelf material, but really, a USB 3.0 hard drive enclosure isn’t something you ought to cheap out on, given how long it should remain useful.

Comments closed
    • Bensam123
    • 12 years ago

    Nice review, kinda lackluster without a SSD pushing on the USB 3.0 standard, the card you bought, or the enclosure. You could’ve even used a old USB 2.0 cable to demonstrate the differences between the two.

    • Turd-Monkey
    • 12 years ago

    Lightpeak/Thunderbolt is a bus that multiplexes display port and PCI Express traffic. (I believe equivalent to 4 lanes of PCI-E 2.0 in both directions.) The point is basically to bring the bandwidth of the SYSTEM bus outside of the computer and to simplify cabling by adding in the display port traffic.

    If someone wants to build a device for it, they’ll (at least initialy) combine a PCI-E chip (such as a SATA or USB3 controller) with a thunderbolt “bridge” chip. The PCI-E chip will show up as being on the system bus, and your OS will load drivers for it. (Hot plugging is probably implemented similarly to ExpressCard.)

    We might see multiple ports showing up on systems, but since thunderbolt allows daisy chaining of devices, it probably won’t be as important as it is for USB.

    Using Mini DP as the physical connector has a couple of benefits. 1) No additional space is needed on for the port (nice for laptops) 2) Existing mini-DP adapters continue to work and trigger kind of a “fallback” mode where the bridge chip basically drops the thunderbolt encapsulation and connects the port directly to the video card, allowing mini-DP to DVI adapters to work.

    I don’t personally see the lack of optical cabling to be an issue. USB3 was initially reported to utilize fiber also, but that didn’t pan out either. Since copper lightpeak’s data rate is the same as the pre-release optical data rate I don’t think we’re really missing out. Copper currently allows cheaper, more rugged cables. The downside is the 3 meter cable length.

    Intel says that when thunderbolt moves to optical, it will be initially implemented via copper to optical transceivers built into the cabling. At some point the ports themselves will move to optical, but that will be a later step. Power will likely be provided by copper cables bundled along with the optical cabling, but that may restrict cable length.

    • Meadows
    • 12 years ago

    Exactly. Given the bandwidth at hand, video interfaces were pretty much the first thing I imagined back when I first heard about the technology – heck, just not-sucking webcams, if anything.

    And it’s been everything BUT multimedia so far. You can plug a hard drive into it, and it’ll go faster somewhat. That’s USB 3 at the moment.

    • Corrado
    • 12 years ago

    Yeah, I’ve seen USB3.0…. External and flash drives. Thats it.

    • dpaus
    • 12 years ago

    [i<]"USB 3.0 is all around us these days"[/i<] -- Yeah? Name [i<][b<]one[/i<][/b<] USB 3.0 video adaptor. Any one. Go ahead. Really, go ahead and name one.

    • paulWTAMU
    • 12 years ago

    and yet, my ports on the front of my case can’t be easily upgraded…and those are the ones I use for things like external drives for backup. 🙁 Bummer.
    For 90% of things it doesn’t matter but when I do my backups, I’d like a faster connection (and a faster drive at some point).

    • KoolAidMan
    • 12 years ago

    Absolutely. Two plugs per device instead of one, screw that. I’ll stick with FW800 for now, then Thunderbolt once the drives and motherboards start showing up.

    • KoolAidMan
    • 12 years ago

    What is ambiguous about it? Light Peak over copper is also over twice as fast as USB3, and it can still move data bi-directionally at full speed. I can’t say that I’m disappointed.

    Here it is, transferring data from an external RAID array to a Macbook Pro, while simultaneously outputting that data (four concurrent HD streams) from Final Cut Pro to an external 27″ Displayport monitor: [url<]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gk69pCcVSSQ[/url<] Really nice. Lightpeak is clearly in its infancy right now, but it'll hit the mainstream next year once it gets into PC motherboards. It is technically superior to USB 3.0, and there are no licensing fees associated with it, nor are there licensing fees associated with the connector, so I don't think there should be difficulty getting it into as many mobos or laptops (where the mini-DP connector makes so much sense) as possible.

    • porov
    • 12 years ago

    Exactly, most people don’t really need USB 3.0, only if you are doing alot of transfers to external drives is it beneficial.

    • Vrock
    • 12 years ago

    Wait, there’s a USB 3.0? Do my peripherals know about this?

    • FuturePastNow
    • 12 years ago

    I’ve been using USB 3.0 for a while now. Got a drive dock, a 2.5″ enclosure, and two computers with the PCIe cards. Planning to buy another dock for the second computer when prices come down a bit more.

    Great for backups. Very fast, and I don’t have to worry about hot-swap issues like I always have with eSATA (got darn AMD southbridges!).

    • Farting Bob
    • 12 years ago

    Why do you need a fan for a HDD with a very large surface area that shouldnt be using more than 6-9 watts?

    • Asbestos
    • 12 years ago

    Intel sure had you in its marketing thrall. That was a rather gracious admission of error, though. Better late than never.

    • UberGerbil
    • 12 years ago

    It’s not just Intel. You don’t see — yet — much adoption in the consumer electronics sector either, despite the added power available (which is more important than the bandwidth in most cases). I don’t think it’s even made any inroads against Firewire in the DV market, which is one place the bandwidth would make a difference.

    • sweatshopking
    • 12 years ago

    thanks der. 🙂

    • derFunkenstein
    • 12 years ago

    That’s a surprisingly poignant comment coming from you.

    • sweatshopking
    • 12 years ago

    I think we have different ideas of what a “late adopter” is. the #1 motherboard company in the world, intel, doesn’t even have this out yet, and won’t for another year. I’d hardly call it ‘late’ yet.

    • sweatshopking
    • 12 years ago

    Hey Cyril, I will trade you that 6850 for a 4890 and cover the shipping, whaddya say?

    • anotherengineer
    • 12 years ago

    Hey Cyril, I will trade you that 6850 for a 4850 and cover the shipping, whaddya say?

    • HisDivineShadow
    • 12 years ago

    This reads like a USB3 ad. Is USB3 faster than USB2? Yes. I think we all knew that. USB3 > USB2. eSATA > USB2, too. Thunderport > USB2. But USB2 is cheap, well tested, usually compatible with other devices with other controllers, and everywhere. USB3 is b/c with USB2, sure, but with only one major controller on the market for …forever, well buying USB3 now is rolling the dice that the device that works with those NEC controllers is going to work with the new controllers that haven’t yet been released.

    In a year, maybe less, you’re going to see integrated USB3 in chipsets by AMD and afterward Intel. When that happens, I’ll care about USB3 because I’ll feel more confident that the USB3 external enclosure I buy will work with them. Or at least I’ll be able to test them and be sure whether it does or doesn’t.

    For now, my eSATA enclosures and my eSATA motherboard and my eSATA laptop will have to make do with identical speeds. 😉

    • potatochobit
    • 12 years ago

    esata has too many bugs and requires external power
    totally useless in the world of portability

    • Corrado
    • 12 years ago

    I don’t have any real needs for external storage. I have a GigE NAS that houses all my backups, and really have no other need for ‘faster’ than USB2 yet.

    • obarthelemy
    • 12 years ago

    I intend to be an extremely late adopter of USB3. Any hint of real-world compatibility tests coming up ? Especially, being careful to mix and match USB 2, 3, various chip vendors, device types… I got lucky you did test ONE different-brand device out of 3 here… but after being repeatedly bitten by USB 1 and 2 issues, I’ll wait for a bit more feedback.

    • continuum
    • 12 years ago

    Now will more 3.5″ USB 3.0 harddisk enclosures with a decent fan come out?

    aka Antec can you PLEASE update the MX-1 with a USB 3.0/eSATA version as opposed to the current USB 2.0/eSATA?

    • continuum
    • 12 years ago

    Finding that Asus card has been kinda tough lately… or have I just been looking in the wrong places?

    • maasenstodt
    • 12 years ago

    Since I’ve been using eSATA for backups and large data transfers, I think including that in the comparison would have been helpful.

    • stdRaichu
    • 12 years ago

    Aye, I’ve been hunting high and low for someone who sells an eSATA + USB3 combo enclosure in 2.5″; so far nothing.

    Spotpuff, there are plenty of motherboards and laptops out there with eSATAp connections. I use one on my motherboard and work machine. [url=http://www.amazon.co.uk/DeLOCK-cable-eSATAp-22pin-84402/dp/B002MV2468/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1301067442&sr=8-1<]This cable[/url<] is awesome for providing all the benefits of an eSATA caddy with none of the bulkiness drawbacks.

    • Spotpuff
    • 12 years ago

    I use an eSATA drive for backups but the lack of power over the connector is a killer for portable laptop drives. Having to use a power brick + cable in addition to the data cable is not as convenient as having a little laptop drive in an enclosure with one cable (that works with USB 2 ports) that has the same transfer speed.

    • thesmileman
    • 12 years ago

    You need to get a PCIe card that supports at least 4x like “ASUS Model U3S6 USB 3.0 & SATA 6Gb/s”
    It doesn’t just work with ASUS boards it will work with any similar board from other manufacturers. I got mine to replace a PCIe 1x card and it was so much faster. Also it has SATA 6Gb/s!

    • rpsgc
    • 12 years ago

    Ever heard of eSATA? Yeah…

    • vvas
    • 12 years ago

    The PCIe card looks sweet. As an added bonus, I see at Amazon that it includes a low-profile bracket too, so it’s also possible to upgrade the Dells and the HPs out there.

    Not that I have any need for USB 3.0 at the moment, but it’s good to know what the options are.

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