April 1, 2010

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USB: The Next Generation
All good things come in 3.0
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com.

Though 3-D television was the big news at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in January, another 3 showed promise as well, and is now leaking out into stores: USB 3.0.

You’ve used USB 2.0 for years now, connecting everything from keyboards and mice to hard drives and printers. I personally love it for cell phones and music players that can charge and transfer data at the same time. And all this at up to 480Mbps (megabits per second). What’s not to like?

The answer is nothing. There’s nothing not to like, but there’s always room for improvement. USB 3.0 makes improvements in terms of slightly reduced power draw and drastically faster transfer rates. Drastically as in 10 times faster. As in a whole order of magnitude.

Say it: Order of Magnitude. That’s a summer action thriller if I ever heard one.

You’ll see this improvement most with external storage. Although some portable hard drives support the eSATA standard — essentially mimicking an internal SATA drive through an external connection — for up to 3.0Gbps throughput, they generally weren’t backward compatible with USB 2.0 without using a different connector. USB 3.0 is faster than the fastest eSATA drive at 4.8Gbps.

Western Digital and Buffalo Technologies each have desktop drives at 1TB and above available now. Seagate has a portable 500GB drive as well. You can also build your own storage solution with an enclosure or dock. Enclosures offer a more permanent place to install the drives of your choice, while a dock lets you swap out drives at your leisure.

You won’t have much luck using USB 3.0 on your current computer, of course. It’s getting built into a few new PCs, but it won’t be a standard feature for a while yet. Your best bet is to get an adapter.

For a desktop, you’ll need a relatively new machine with PCI Express slots. Old fashioned PCI just doesn’t have the bandwidth to make USB 3.0 worthwhile. (Check your PC’s documentation to make sure you have the right slot open.)

Your choices abound — Buffalo and Asus make them, as do StarTech, Vantec, Koutech, Unitek and lots of other companies with some variation of “tech” in their name. The Western Digital My Book 1TB USB 3.0 drive is often sold with a bundled PCI Express adapter.

A laptop should have an ExpressCard slot. The Seagate portable drive mentioned above comes bundled with that type of adapter, and you can get one by itself from BUSlink, Sabrent, SIIG, Kingwin — just about anyone that makes any type of adapter card, really.

You can still use USB 2.0 devices and cables with USB 3.0 adapters, but the cabling has changed somewhat. USB 3.0 achieves its “SuperSpeed” with an extra four wires, so you’ll need to use the new cables in order to see faster speed.

USB 3.0 has one more advantage: even though it has features for reducing power draw, it has the capability to offer more power to devices that need it. USB 2.0 tops out around 500mA (milliamps). Some portable USB 2.0 hard drives shipped with bizarre two-headed cables, with the thought that one head would be used for data transfer and one for power; this should become a thing of the past. USB 3.0 provides up to 900mA — still not quite enough for most desktop drives, but plenty for portable drives. No more Cerberus cables.