USB 3.0: The new speed limit

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I tried it out with a 320GB Western Digital WD Caviar Blue SATA hard drive. The StarTech dock was able to write data faster than the other two drives -- it moved 437.6Mbit/sec. using the StarTech ExpressCard. That's more than three times its speed when it was connected to the USB 2.0 port of a notebook. It was able to read from my 8.45GB folder of files at a class-leading 370.2Mbit/sec. but could write to the folder at just 257.9Mbit/sec.

Bottom line

StarTech's SuperSpeed USB 3.0 to SATA Hard Drive Docking Station is a good, inexpensive way of creating a fast external hard drive. Just be sure to bring your own drive.

Lenovo ThinkPad W510

The Lenovo ThinkPad W510 is one of the first notebooks on the market with USB 3.0 ports. At $2,300, you're paying two or three times as much as you would for a lesser system, but you'll get a great array of high-performance components.

Created with the power user in mind, the 15.6-in. ThinkPad W510 I used as a testbed for benchmarking USB 3.0 gear has a pair of USB 3.0 connectors with their distinctive powder-blue plugs. There are also two USB 2.0 slots, one of which doubles as an eSATA connector.

Inside the ThinkPad's traditional black case is a 1.73-GHz Intel Quad-Core i7 820QM processor that comes with a whopping 8MB of cache. The W510 is available with a 2-GHz version of the Core i7 that adds $200 to its price tag.

The system comes with 8GB of 1-GHz DDR3 memory and tops out at 16GB of RAM. There's also a 7,200rpm 500GB hard drive and a DVD Super Multi optical drive.

But the W510's crown jewel is its graphics. It's got the latest Nvidia Quadro FX 880M graphics engine with 1GB of dedicated memory. This can be augmented with up to 3GB from RAM, giving it 4GB of memory on tap -- more than enough for the most demanding video editors, Photoshop gurus or CAD designers. It's all topped off with a bright 1920-by-1080 high-definition screen, although the optional $450 touch screen intrigues me even more.

The W510 measures a stout 1.5 by 14.5 by 10.4 in. and weighs in at 6.5 lbs. with its nine-cell battery. Add to that its mammoth AC power adapter, and you have a 7.8-lb. travel weight that's on a par with many 17-in. notebooks'.

It may be big and expensive, but the ThinkPad W510 is one powerful portable.


USB 2.0, introduced in 2002, is obviously showing its age. "Eight years is a long time to wait for an update," says Brian O'Rourke, principal analyst at In-Stat, a market intelligence company. "We've clearly outgrown USB 2.0, and the new spec is aimed at those who move large chunks of data. Moving big files around will no longer seem to take forever."

There will, no doubt, be an onslaught of USB 3.0 equipment in the near future, including computers, drives, webcams and memory keys. According to O'Rourke, "2011 will be the year of USB 3.0, with a huge variety of devices available. By 2013, I expect that over 1 billion USB 3.0 drives will be sold worldwide."

In my tests, the first round of USB 3.0 hard drives delivered 400Mbit to 440Mbit/sec. of actual throughput. This is between two and three times what USB 2.0 is capable of and can reduce the time to transfer 10GB of data from about 10 minutes to between 3 and 4 minutes.

In the coming years, look for this increased speed to enable new technologies, such as kiosks that can put an entire high-definition movie on a memory key in a minute, self-powered DisplayLink USB high-resolution monitors and flash-based HD camcorders that can transfer their raw video in a few minutes.

For me, the most exciting step forward is that USB 3.0's speed will make it possible to put an entire system -- OS, programs and data -- on a memory key that's fast enough to work seamlessly. Who needs to lug a laptop around when you could just carry a memory key and a USB 3.0 card, and plug them into any computer?

Meanwhile, if you're shopping around for a new system, it's a good idea to see whether the computer offers USB 3.0. If it doesn't, then make sure it at least has an ExpressCard slot, so that when it's time to start buying USB 3.0 devices, you can also get an adapter -- and take advantage of the speed.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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