USB 3.0: Same Great Interface, Ten Times Faster

USB has had a great run, living up to its promise as the plug-and-play Universal Serial Bus, with an installed base of over 10 billion USB products, according to the USB Implementers Forum, and more than 3 billion new products shipping a year. But now we need ever higher data rates, to meet the demands of devices including high-speed RAID data storage, higher-resolution digital cameras, and high-definition video camcorders. So the new USB 3.0 specification, branded as “SuperSpeed USB,” steps up the data rate another factor of ten, from 480Mbps up to 5Gbps.

These days, we take USB for granted as a simple connector that just works, replacing the clumsiness of the RS-232 and parallel interfaces. With USB, you can use the familiar connector to easily plug pretty much any device into the external ports on any system and have it automatically detected, plus add additional peripheral devices to a hub without having to open the chassis to insert a dedicated interface card. As a bonus, the USB interface even provides power to your devices.

Original USB, also known as USB 1.1, was released in 1998 for low-cost and relatively low-speed devices, with data rates of 1.5 and 12Mbps. It supported PC peripherals from mice and keyboards and gaming peripherals to devices like printers, scanners, and digital speakers. High-Speed USB, aka USB 2.0 from 2000, increased the data rate 40 times, to 480 Mbps, competing with FireWire for faster access to mass storage devices from thumb drives to portable hard drives, and to support portable consumer electronics devices including photo cameras, video camcorders, and smartphones.

The Promise

This year is the realization of the next step to SuperSpeed USB, the new USB 3.0, which not only offers another 10X performance boost to 5 Gbps, but also provides improved power efficiency for connected devices. And USB 3.0 continues to maintain backwards compatibility, so that new SuperSpeed devices can interoperate with existing USB 2.0 platforms, and new USB 3.0 hosts can support USB 2.0 legacy devices.

So how real are these promised benefits, particularly the up to 5 Gbps data rate (or 640 Mbps), compared to USB 2.0 at 640 Mbps (or 80 Mbps)? The USB Implementers Forum, the industry group coordinating the USB standards and compliance, reports that the industry already has demonstrated actual throughput in excess of 300 Mbps with a solid state drive, compared to USB 2.0 at 27 to 34 Mbps.

It is applications like SSDs that are driving the demand for USB 3.0, with laptops and notebooks and tablets offering much faster possible data rates than available from spinning magnetic disk. And the USB specification has always gone beyond simple data transfer to support specific usage profiles, so newer device classes such as Storage and AV are being developed that will enable new USB 3.0 products that transfer in excess of 400 Mbps.

USB for Video

As a result, USB 3.0 certainly will be welcome for videographers and photographers facing ever-increasing demands for the performance to support higher-res images with more complex projects, whether reading from hard drives or streaming data from digital cameras and camcorders.

SuperSpeed USB also can be used for video peripherals and even USB-based monitors. It also improves power efficiency for longer battery life and faster charging. It draws less power when devices are idle, and can provide more power for more sophisticated devices such as larger hard drives. Plus, the USB 3.0 redesign permits longer cable lengths for setting up computer or video workspaces, from a typical 2 meters for current USB 2.0 to 3 meters or more with proper shielding.

LaCie Rugged USB 3.0 Portable Drive

For a peek at the promise of USB 3.0, I was able to try out the LaCie Rugged USB 3.0 portable hard drive. This has the familiar LaCie Rugged design, drop resistant up to 2.2 meters, with a scratch-resistant aluminum shell, internal anti-shock absorbers, and the orange shock-resistant rubber bumper. The USB 3.0 version is available with a 500 GB disk spinning at 7200 rpm for $150, and delivers up to 110 Mbps from the 2.5 inch drive – already some three times faster than USB 2.0 even in this first generation. The drive has a new SuperSpeed USB Micro-B connector, and comes with a cable to plug in to a standard USB connector, so it’s compatible with both USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 systems. You can then upgrade your existing system to SuperSpeed USB with a PCI Express Card or ExpressCard/34 adapter, such as the LaCie USB 3.0 ExpressCard/34 which adds two SuperSpeed USB ports for $60.

In my testing with simple file copies in Windows Explorer, even simple file copies in Windows Explorer with the drive connected via the ExpressCard USB 3.0 interface were around two to three times faster than connecting via the built-in USB 2.0 ports on the same laptop. For example, copying two files totaling 13 GB took 10 1/3 minutes over USB 2.0, and only 3 1/2 minutes over USB 3.0. That’s an effective rate of around 60 Mbps, so there’s plenty of headroom in the future for even faster performance with optimized transfers and full use of the USB 3.0 specification.

Doug Dixon covers digital media at

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