A first look at USB 3.1 performance

A new generation of USB devices is upon us.

A year and a half after the completion of the USB 3.1 spec, motherboards supporting the new standard are turning up in e-tail stocks. Also known SuperSpeed Plus, USB 3.1 promises a sizable performance increase over the previous generation.

It doubles the signaling speed from 5Gbps to 10Gbps, and it also changes the line encoding scheme from 8b/10b to 128/132b, meaning that only four bits out of every 132 (as opposed to two out of every 10) are sacrificed to encoding overhead. The result is a jump in maximum effective transfer rates from 500MB/s to 1.21GB/s—at least in theory.

USB 3.1 also introduces Type-C connectors and cables. Type-C connectors are reversible, so you can plug them in upside down without worrying about that whole USB quantum superposition mess. Type-C cables support Alternate Mode, as well, which allows them to carry DisplayPort audio and video alongside USB 3.1 data and as much as 100W of power. Some have called USB 3.1 Type-C a Thunderbolt killer, and it’s not hard to see why.

Today, we’re going to take our very first look at some USB 3.1 gear. Asus has supplied us with a drive enclosure and a matching motherboard, which will help us gauge the kinds of performance gains users can expect.

The hardware

According to Asus, our USB 3.1 enclosure is a “prototype for testing,” not a retail product. It doesn’t look half bad, though:

The enclosure features one of the new Type-C ports along with an old-school Micro-USB connector. The former is for data, while the latter supplies power to the enclosure. If this were a retail device, a single Type-C port would theoretically be enough for both power and data.

There’s not much to say about the Type-C connector itself, except that it’s predictably painless to use. Apple’s Lightning connector still feels sturdier and smoother to insert, but the Type-C plug remains a big improvement over, well, pretty much all standard USB connector designs.

I bet some of you were expecting the enclosure to conceal a 2.5″ SSD. Guess again! This puppy actually houses two mSATA drives running in RAID-0 mode. That arrangement should enable peak transfer rates greater than the mSATA interface’s 6Gbps maximum.

Asus sent us the enclosure with a couple of Samsung’s 840 EVO 250GB solid-state drives. The RAID-0 config results in a 500GB volume that should be faster than either drive on its own.

The drive enclosure wouldn’t do us much good without a motherboard capable of harnessing USB 3.1’s higher speeds. Asus’ Z97-A/USB 3.1 fills that role. As its name suggests, this board is a USB 3.1-infused successor to the Z97-A we reviewed last year. It has a similar layout and feature set, but its rear cluster sports a couple of teal-colored SuperSpeed Plus Type-A ports. (The original Z97-A had two USB 2.0 ports in the same spot.)

Because they’re Type-A, the new ports are backward-compatible with older USB devices. However, that advantage comes with a tradeoff: no support for Type-C’s Alternate Mode or 100W power delivery. According to Asus, these USB 3.1 Type-A ports are limited to 4.5W.

Since Intel’s Z97 chipset lacks built-in support for USB 3.1, the new ports are backed by an ASMedia ASM1142 controller. The ASM1142 can be fed by either one PCIe Gen3 lane or two PCIe Gen2 lanes. Asus uses the latter arrangement on the Z97-A/USB3.1.

The two PCIe Gen2 lanes provide the ASMedia controller with 10Gbps of bandwidth, but there’s a catch. Actually, two catches. First, that 10Gbps is shared between the two USB 3.1 ports. Second, because PCIe Gen2 uses 8b/10b encoding, maximum effective transfer rates are limited to 1GB/s, somewhat shy of SuperSpeed Plus’ 1.21GB/s theoretical maximum. Using PCIe Gen3 wouldn’t address the second catch, since a single Gen3 lane would deliver 8Gbps with 128/130b encoding, for an effective 985MB/s.

 

The performance

Partly because the Asus drive enclosure doesn’t support either TRIM or secure erase, and partly because we were short on time, we forewent our usual storage benchmark suite. Instead, we simply ran CrystalDiskMark, which measures sequential read and write speeds. That ought to give us a nice, at-a-glance overview of USB 3.1’s potential.

For our testing, we fired up Asus’ AI Suite software and enabled “Turbo” mode for the USB 3.1 controller. “Turbo” mode enables the USB attached SCSI protocol, which boosts transfer speeds by “eliminating most of the round trip delays between command phases and by utilizing a multi-tasking aware architecture that [speeds up] multiple transfers,” according to Asus. Here are the results:

Simply switching the drive enclosure from a USB 3.0 port to a USB 3.1 one boosts sequential read and write performance by a good 75-78%. 4K random write speeds almost triple, too, although that gain may be attributable partly to differences between the Z97 chipset’s native USB 3.0 implementation and the ASMedia USB 3.1 controller.

Either way, these speeds are impressive. Yes, it does take two SSDs running in RAID-0 mode to reach them. But keep in mind that newer M.2 SSDs can surpass the SATA interface’s 6Gbps limit, and nothing is stopping hardware makers from devising USB 3.1 enclosures for those.

Availability

So, when can you get your hands on some USB 3.1 hardware yourself?

The motherboard we tested today is already available at Newegg for $159.99. The same e-tailer also sells Asus’ Z97-PRO(Wi-Fi ac)/USB 3.1 and Z97-Deluxe/USB 3.1, which are similarly equipped with USB 3.1 Type-A ports. If you need cables, Newegg has you covered there, as well.

As for USB 3.1 devices to plug into those boards, I don’t see any listed yet—but Asus did provide us with this handy list of upcoming products:

Manufacturer name Product category Product name Availability
AKiTiO USB 3.1 device Neutrino Bridge USB3.1 March 2015
USB 3.1 device NT2 U3.1 March 2015
AVLAB Technology SIIG USB 3.1 to 2.5-inch USB 3.1 to SATA 2.5-inch Enclosure April 2015
USB 3.1 to 2.5-inch USB 3.1 to SATA 2.5-inch Enclosure Pro Q2-Q3 2015
USB 3.1 to 3.5-inch USB 3.1 to SATA 3.5-inch Enclosure April 2015
GODO 2.5-inch USB 3.1 enclosure GD25602 2.5-inch USB3.1 HDD Enclosure March 2015
2.5-inch USB 3.1 enclosure GD25702 2.5-inch USB3.1 HDD Enclosure March 2015
2.5-inch USB 3.1 enclosure GD25611 2.5-inch USB3.1 HDD Enclosure March 2015
HighPoint Technologies, Inc USB 3.1 device RS3111A March 2015
USB 3.1 device RS3112A April 2015
Iomaster 2-port host card IOT-U31A3 March 2015
SATA 2.5 enclosure IOT-3125A3 March 2015
USB 3.1 to SATA 2.5 & 3.5 adapter IOT-3123A3 April 2015
USB 3.1 to MSATA & M2 SSD enclosure IOT-U31NF March 2015
Minerva Innovation Company 3.5-inch SATA to USB 3.1 enclosure 3.5-inch SATA mSATA x 2 and M.2 x 2 to USB 3.1 Adapter (Type B) March 2015
2.5-inch SATA to USB 3.1 enclosure 2.5-inch SATA mSATA SSD x 2 to USB 3.1 External Enclosure (Type-C x 2) March 2015
2.5-inch SATA to USB 3.1 enclosure 2.5-inch SATA M.2 SSD x 2 to USB 3.1 External Enclosure (Type-C x 2) April 2015
Speed Dragon USB 3.1 device USB 3.1 to SATA 6G cable adapter March 2015
USB 3.1 device USB 3.1 PCI-Express add-on card March 2015
USB 3.1 device USB 3.1 PCI-Express add-on card March 2015
USB 3.1 device USB 3.1 to dual SATA 6G hard drive enclosure April 2015
Super Talent Technology Corporation USB 3.1 device USB3.1 Portable SSD May 2015
Sunrich Technology Adapter U-1040 USB 3.1 to SATA 6G Adapter March 2015
Adapter U-1050 USB 3.1 to SATA 6G Adapter April 2015
Hub U-1060 USB 3.1 4-Port Hub TBA
Hub U-1070 USB 3.1 7-Port Hub TBA
Docking station U-1080 USB 3.1 Docking Station TBA
Docking station U-1090 USB 3.1 Docking Station TBA
UNITEK PCI Express to 2 Ports USB 3.1 (Type-A x 2) Y-7305 March 2015
PCI Express to 2 Ports USB 3.1 (Type-A x 1, Type-C x 1) Y-7306 March 2015
USB 3.1 to SATA6G enclosure Y-3363 April 2015
USB 3.1 to SATA6G Docking station Y-3605 April 2015
USB 3.1 to 2.5-inch Dual SATA6G enclosure (Type-C) Y-3364 April 2015
USB 3.1 active extension cable Y-3001 June 2015

I don’t see that nifty Type-C thumb drive Adata showed us at CES a couple months back, but I’m sure it’s coming, too.

Other motherboard makers are also jumping on the USB 3.1 bandwagon. Both ASRock and MSI have boards with USB 3.1 Type-C ports in the pipeline, and Biostar is cooking up a Z97 mobo with USB 3.1 Type-A ports. Then there’s Apple, whose next MacBook Air laptop is rumored to feature a single USB 3.1 Type-C connector that splits power, data, and audio/video output duties.

In short, USB 3.1 is here, and there’s plenty more where it came from. Given the encouraging nature of our performance results and the awesome reversibleness of the Type-C connector, that’s cause for celebration.

Comments closed
    • Hrunga Zmuda
    • 5 years ago

    Why no explanation of the different between USB 3.1 ver 1 (i.e. USB 3.0 renamed) and ver 2? That omission could lead to a lot of confusion. Apple’s new MacBook is the former. So it has half the bandwidth of Thunderbolt. Not that a laptop of that kind needs Thunderbolt bandwidth.

    • climatepete
    • 5 years ago

    Does it have the USB security issues?

    • davidbowser
    • 5 years ago

    [quote<]USB 3.1 Type-A ports are limited to 10W just like their USB 3.0 brethren.[/quote<] I realize that there is currently a shortage of Type-C ports, but I just hope the mobo makers don't start putting out too many boards with USB3.1 Type-A ports. Don't waste the space. If I am going to get a watered down version of USB3.1, I would rather buy an add-in card with Type-C and know that it will be limited by the PCI-E port.

    • mcnabney
    • 5 years ago

    Would have liked to have seen data points of a RAID0 pair of mSATA Samsung 840 drives connected directly to a PCIe card for reference. Would make it a bit more clear what is sacrificed using an external storage solution.

    • UnfriendlyFire
    • 5 years ago

    And meanwhile USB 3.0 flash drives are still noticeably more expensive than USB 2.0 flash drives.

    (There is a certain point where USB 2.0 transfer speeds are too slow, such as writing +32GB of files, but the markup for having speeds that aren’t guaranteed to saturate USB 3.0’s bandwidth…)

      • localhostrulez
      • 5 years ago

      Yeah, but a lot of those cheap USB 2 drives are nowhere near the USB 2 limits as it is. On the other hand, I have a USB 3 Corsair Voyager that cost way more per GB than those, but that’s almost as fast as an SSD on SATA II. Ie. 200MB/s reads and 100MB/s writes. You get what you pay for.

        • auxy
        • 5 years ago

        [url<]http://www.amazon.com/Mushkin-Enhanced-Ventura-MKNUFDVU120GB-120GB/dp/B00FSAHH5I/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1425726372&sr=8-1&keywords=mushkin+enhanced+ventura+usb[/url<]

          • culotso
          • 5 years ago

          I wish they sold those in bright, fun colors. 🙂 It’s hard to find a quality USB drive that isn’t dark and boring, and looks like it’s designed by the same people who design gaming keyboards aimed at teenagers.

        • travbrad
        • 5 years ago

        Yep. Those USB 2 flash drives wouldn’t be that bad if they actually got anywhere close to bandwidth USB 2 is capable of, but most of them are only a fraction of that speed. They generally use lower grade (slower) NAND flash for those and on top of that most of them only have single channel memory access (or at best dual channel).

        USB 2 is theoretically capable of about 60MB/S, but most of the USB 2 flash drives I’ve seen can’t even hit 10MB/S. The USB standard/spec isn’t the limiting factor there.

      • culotso
      • 5 years ago

      Using a USB 2.0 flash drive is a punishment, really, not just for large files, but for anything. The speed difference is tangible in every situation. And USB 3.0 flash drives cheaper nowadays then the USB 2.0 ones were when they were still being made. You can get 32gb for <$20, heck you can get 128gb for less than $50. How is that noticeably more expensive? It is literally *less* expensive in many cases, and literally sold at the same pricepoint at their inferior 2.0 forebears. 😛

      • EsotericLord
      • 5 years ago

      I snagged a 128GB USB 3.0 drive for $40 awhile back, how much cheaper do you need?

    • Wirko
    • 5 years ago

    There’s the Asus Z97-K/USB3.1 too – hey, this thing has got everything, old and new alike!
    – two USB 3.1 ports
    – a reversible USB 2.0 type-A port
    – two PCI slots
    – separate PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports

      • Tatsh
      • 5 years ago

      Also don’t forget to mention the VGA port. Seriously? I would not buy this.

        • culotso
        • 5 years ago

        What’s the problem with a VGA port?

          • Tatsh
          • 5 years ago

          Only my old monitors even have a VGA port nowadays. No good reason to use VGA. I’d rather see 4xDP or 4xDVI-D (all can be converted to HDMI or VGA).

          • aceuk
          • 5 years ago

          Converting a digital video signal to analogue and then back to digital is ridiculous.

          Also annoying is when VGA monitors have to keep auto-adjusting the image on the screen when you boot up the computer.

          VGA seriously needs to go!

    • martin0641
    • 5 years ago

    Why are we still making connectors that have thin strips in the middle for connections as opposed to just doing what Apple did with their lightning connector? I’m not an Apple fan, but this has to be one of the most logical designs for an adapter that I’ve seen in terms of reversibility, sturdiness, ease of insertion, and resistance to failure.

    [url<]http://www.tracyandmatt.co.uk/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Lightning-connector.jpg[/url<]

      • mesyn191
      • 5 years ago

      Patents I believe.

      USB3.1c connectors have the metal shield stick out and beveled a bit which does a decent job of protecting the center contact riser. The port itself should have better durability than current micro USB ports. The real issue IMO is that the OEM’s have to do a good job of attaching the port to the PCB and I don’t think USB3.1c does much if anything to improve things there.

      If the port is great but attached poorly than it doesn’t matter how good the port is since it’ll still fail early.

      • tuxroller
      • 5 years ago

      Less chance of damaging the device side than with lightning.

      • TrailBlazerDK
      • 5 years ago

      I think there was some consensus that any power bearing plug should be shielded, as a physical precaution (so it would be impossible for children to easily put fingers across something that would provide a shock)

      This plug is the only one (that I know of) that does not provide that shielding.
      I think there is some other protection though, so you don’t have a live wire laying on your table/floor

        • mesyn191
        • 5 years ago

        USB negotiates power between devices when plugged in as a safety mechanism against shocks and arcing. Starting baseline is ~900mA @ 5V and ramps accordingly from there if the device says it can take and if the port is able to deliver it.

        • Brainsan
        • 5 years ago

        You can’t get shocked on 5 volts, no matter how hard you try.

      • psuedonymous
      • 5 years ago

      [quote<]Why are we still making connectors that have thin strips in the middle for connections as opposed to just doing what Apple did with their lightning connector? [/quote<] Because with Lightning, the cable connector is a nice solid piece of metal with fixed contacts on, but the device receptacle contains moving pins and the moving retention mechanism. When these wear out or are damaged, you must replace the expensive device rather than the cheap cable. With the Type-C approach, if the moving contacts or retention mechanism wear out, you just buy a new cable. with a plug inserted the outer metal sheath takes the mechanical load, so the only way to damage the floating 'finger' is to apply a high lateral load while removing the connector. But that is an issue with almost any connector, including Lightning.

      • WaltC
      • 5 years ago

      Apple didn’t design the Lightning connector–like USB itself, Lightning is Intel’s baby, 100%. (BTW, the Wikipedia write up on USB is not very good–only fair–I had considered linking it for you until I read it…;) I had *supported* (drivers) USB in a Win98SE clone two years before the first USB-equipped iMac rolled off the shelves–not surprisingly, many Apple neophytes–just like today–had never heard of USB before Apple told them about it and they had erroneously concluded that USB was invented by Apple–just as you have done with Lightning, etc. ) Look for the USB 3.1-C-type connectors to quickly outpace the minimal market that Lightning has achieved thus far in the wider markets. Pretty much 100% of everything Apple sells in a Mac today (except OS X, of course) is designed and manufactured by Intel. Nothing wrong with that or with Lightning, AFAIC, except that most of the expense and works are in the cables, which is why it has never caught on in the larger markets…;)

      USB 3.1 C may do better, but still you can get close to 1gig/sec just from a 2.0 4xPCIe slot, and there are millions, probably tens of millions, of such unusued, open slots on motherboards right now–no 3.1-C-type connectors needed. So we’ll see…it’s utility is greatest for portability, but it’ll be interesting to see how much cpu 3.1 top speeds require, if much, I think.

        • invinciblegod
        • 5 years ago

        Nowhere can I find that lightning was designed by intel. Where does it say so?

        • eewarlord
        • 5 years ago

        WaltC – you are confusing Intel’s Thunderbolt connector with Apple’s lightning connector. The Lightning Connector has been used on iPhones and iPads for the past few years, while Thunderbolt is most commonly used on Macs in the past 3-4 years.

        You are correct that many Mac users believe the Apple invented Thunderbolt, as they are the primary proponent of it. But it is a different connector and standard than the Lightning connector.

        • Hrunga Zmuda
        • 5 years ago

        Wow! So much disinformation. Apple uses Qualcomm, Samsung, and many others (including some companies they own you probably don’t know they own) to make their products. Especially in terms of manufacturing. The Mac Pro is manufactured by Apple in Texas. The graphics cards are AMD FirePro cards. The drives by Samsung. The list of your wrongness goes on and on.

        Secondly, Lightning is for phones and tablets. Not laptops and desktops. USB was not invented by Apple for sure. They came in a year later than most of the others for the USB 3.1 spec. But they were major contributors to the C connector specification.

        You’re comparing Apple’s to oranges to claim USB will outpace Lightning. That’s like saying car trunks are outpacing motorcycle gearshifts.

        Lastly, USB would have been floundering well into the new century if Apple hadn’t included it in the iMac in 1998. I remember back then. I was a PC user. (OS/2 fan actually.) There were so few USB peripherals that spring that they were essentially non-existent. Apple haters mocked Apple for going so gung-ho for USB. Just like they are now with the USB C port. Or like they were when the MacBook Air came out without the DVD option. Or when Next introduced the NeXT computer without floppy drives, using that new fangled (very expensive) CD drive by Canon. (Ross Perot, a mostly respected business man in those days and not the economic nutter candidate of the 90s, saved NeXT around that time. I worked with one of his people shortly afterwards.)

        I was there. I saw the whole thing. (NeXT even tried to recruit me once.)

    • sschaem
    • 5 years ago

    Maybe its just me, but the type C ratio make it look like yet another “crow bar” connector destroyer.

    So not a huge fan of the new connector. Its better then the last, but its still look cheap (dinky) and thick and bulky. Put it all together and a type C cable dangling from a mobile device will put huge stress on the device connector…

    • NeelyCam
    • 5 years ago

    [quote<]Second, because PCIe Gen2 uses 8b/10b encoding, maximum effective transfer rates are limited to 1GB/s, somewhat shy of SuperSpeed Plus' 1.21GB/s theoretical maximum. Using PCIe Gen3 would address the second catch, since that standard uses 128/130b encoding.[/quote<] Um, not exactly. PCIeG2 uses 5Gb/s "raw" signaling rate, and 8b/10b encoding overhead takes the maximum theoretical data rate to 4Gb/s->500MB/s. PCIeG3 uses 8Gb/s "raw" signaling rate (not 10Gbps), but the encoding overhead is minimal, so the maximum theoretical data rate is close to 8Gb/s (2x of PCIeG2). One PCIeG3 lane is pretty much equal to two PCIeG2 lanes, so in the case of ASMedia controller, it'll be bottlenecked at around 1GB/s either way. The encoding scheme difference between G2 and G3 itself doesn't really play much of a role here - what matters is the max theoretical data rate between the two, and 2x4Gb/s = 1x8Gb/s.

      • Cyril
      • 5 years ago

      Oops, my bad. Fixed.

    • Bensam123
    • 5 years ago

    Cool shit, there really needs to be some sort of easy cheap adapter to go between normal USB connectors and Type-Cs or it’s not going to gain much traction. As just with Thunderbolt, if there is nothing there to help people transition they’re going to stick with tried and true. There are a lot of normal USB devices out there and they need help.

    That’s really the linchpin, otherwise this may turn into another Firewire/Thunderbolt, when we really want to see Type-C connectors take over.

      • jihadjoe
      • 5 years ago

      I think the transition will be ok so long as the necessary cables are cheap and widely available.

      Didn’t take much long for micro USB to take over when device makers started using it en masse. For 3.1 A to C cables will help somewhat, but for motherboards doing full type-C we’ll be wanting C to B, and C to mini/micro USB as well.

    • Krogoth
    • 5 years ago

    I would expect more bandwidth from USB 3.1 but the real question is what is the CPU utilization and how it compares to Thunderbolt.

      • Bensam123
      • 5 years ago

      Interesting and also agree, although I wonder what role PCI-E 2.0 would play in that.

    • anotherengineer
    • 5 years ago

    Well hopefully it doesn’t have the massive Apple Lightning usb mark up.

    Bought a USB A to micro B cable 3 bucks and the same brand/length cable with an apple lightning end was 17 bucks, just wow.

      • Deanjo
      • 5 years ago

      Lol, I pick up Lightning cables for like a $1.15

        • anotherengineer
        • 5 years ago

        Something that could have been brought to my attention a month ago.

        Cables to go and/or startech?

          • NeelyCam
          • 5 years ago

          Monoprice…?

            • derFunkenstein
            • 5 years ago

            They’re like a whole $8 there.

            • anotherengineer
            • 5 years ago

            Which would be about $16 to $20 by the time it got to Canada ;(

            • sweatshopking
            • 5 years ago

            8$ is a heck of a lot more than the .99 CAD i pay for usb cables. it’s actually 800% more.

            • cygnus1
            • 5 years ago

            I’ll second the MonoPrice ones. They’re the cheapest MFi certified lightning cables. Definitely cheapest 6′ and 10′ certified cables. Plus lifetime warranty on their cables.

            A while back I bought a 10 pack of the knock off / no name ones that were under $2 each and they all failed within a few months of use. That 10 pack didn’t last a year.

            The MonoPrice cables are easily 5x more expensive than the cheapo cables, but they’ll easily last much longer than 5x as long as those cheapos. That makes them worth it to me.

            * not a MonoPrice employee or shareholder

            • Deanjo
            • 5 years ago

            I have a bunch of cheapos from the local dollar store. Only one has failed and that was because phone slid off the table and yanked on it.

            • anotherengineer
            • 5 years ago

            If it ships from the States, it will be international shipping to Canada, + duty + handling fee + 1.2x exchange rate + 13% additional tax when it gets here.

          • Deanjo
          • 5 years ago

          Got a dollar store or a gas station or Aliexpress? They are everywhere.

            • anotherengineer
            • 5 years ago

            Actually have a Dollarama and a Dollar store, didn’t think to check them.

            Oh well, have the one that came with the idevice and now a 6ft startech one only 2 yr warranty though.

            • Deanjo
            • 5 years ago

            [quote<]Actually have a Dollarama and a Dollar store, didn't think to check them.[/quote<] The dollarama stores here sell them for $3. I bought 10 from Aliexpress for $11, sure it took a month to get here via snail mail but they all work fine and are damn hard to tell apart from the original Apple cable.

    • UberGerbil
    • 5 years ago

    Remember when Windows XP allowed you to set up an ad-hoc network over USB? And then Microsoft dropped the feature. But I certainly could imagine some scenarios where having a 1+GB ethernet connection could be pretty handy….

    I currently don’t have any PCIe cards in my work machine. A USB3.1 card may be the first one that goes in there.

      • Deanjo
      • 5 years ago

      You still can setup a USB–> USB network. Maximum speed is USB 2 speeds however. USB3+ can do it as well in theory but nobody has bothered with creating the protocol.

      • Bensam123
      • 5 years ago

      Yeah I used to do firewire networks back in the day during lan parties when everyone was running 100Mbps. That definitely would be a pretty cool idea, there are definitely some applications that could make use of the excess bandwidth.

        • Deanjo
        • 5 years ago

        Doing a Mac migration / clone SSD to SSD via Thunderbolt is simply ungodly fast.

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