The Need for Speed: USB 3.0


1st Gen PQI USB 3.0 Pen Drive

Wanting more speed is the one driving force that has remained throughout the life of the PC. As the consumer, we want it better, faster (and if possible, cooler), and we want it yesterday.

The Need for Speed
The Processor MHz war is perhaps the most publicised, and consequently, many new buyers are blinded by numbers when looking for their next PC. However,  true speed increases, that is, in a factor of ten, are very few and far between.

USB 2.0, launched at the turn of the millennium, has been the household high-speed connection used by most PCs. With a theoretical speed of 480Mbps (bits mind you, not bytes), and real world speeds plateauing at about 300Mbps (around 35 MB/s), it has provided a way to transfer very large amounts of data from Hard Drive to PC and back. The ability to Plug 'n' Play makes USB ideal in a variety of environments, but with external hard drives becoming larger and faster, USB 2.0 is beginning to hit its bandwidth limit. Transferring 100GB of data can take up to 50 minutes.

Meeting the Consumer's Needs
What is needed then, is a new USB architecture that far surpasses USB 2.0 in speed. Enter USB 3.0, aka Superspeed (I'm kid you not) USB. The first prototype was unveiled at the Intel Developer Forum way back in 2007, and it is only now that a few products are beginning to find their way into the market.

Tough Game
Unlike USB 2.0 however, Superspeed has been met with a fair competition. Firewire's S3200 is the main competitor, with Intel's Light Peak aimed at the multimedia buffs. Practically, Superspeed remains the best way forward for the PC user. Longer cables can be used (you don't know how convenient that is until you actually have it) and even though the ports themselves feature nine pins instead of four, any USB 2.0 will function when plugged into a USB 3.0 port, albeit without the bandwidth increase.

USB 3.0 device cable, notice the larger connector (left)

USB 3.0 will provide more speed, with be able to draw more power (therefore charging devices much faster), all over longer cables than USB 2.0.  As it stands, USB 3.0 provides very similar (and sometimes better) performance to the SATA interface, both giving a read rate of 146 MB/s, and a write rate of around 133 MB/s. What this infers is that bottlenecking is no longer focused on the interface, but the actual device being used.

Blue connectors are specifically designed to differentiate between USB 2.0 and USB 3.0

The Way Forward
It's fairly certain that Superspeed will become the norm when it gains widespread acceptance in 2011. I make such  a bold prediction because of Superspeed's backward compatability with USB 2.0, and, perhaps more importantly, people understand how it works. On top of that, a 2TB hard drive goes for about 150Eur (around R1500.00), and slipping that into a compatible caddy is no great task. USB 2.0 just doesn't make sense when moving around with that amount of data, and Superspeed becomes even more amiable when you consider that not all motherboards come with eSATA (which still requires an auxiliary power cable). Intel is holding out on the controllers for USB 3.0, so the only way to get them is through a new motherboard form either ASUS or Gigabyte. you can buy a PCI Express Controller card for your desktop PC, however, you will need PCI Express 4x for this, and indeed devices that support it.
PCI Express 4x USB 3.0 add-on for desktop computers. Notice the blue ports; and power connector (white), which provides the extra current needed for Superspeed.

A Personal Note
My advice would be to wait out the year before investing in USB 3.0 gear, mainly because Intel will have released the onboard controllers, but more importantly, device manufacturers would have ironed out many teething problems that comes with any new interface. Prices will consequently be lower, and that can only good for the consumer.

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