USB 3.0: Separating hype from reality

The scoop: BlackArmor PS 110 USB 3.0 Performance Kit, about $180, by Seagate.

What it is: This kit includes a 500GB BlackArmor drive, a USB 3.0 PC card adapter (ExpressCard size), cables for connecting the two, plus an additional USB cable for power. The kit allows notebook users with ExpressCard slots to connect the portable external hard drive to their notebook to achieve faster USB speeds, as compared with USB 2.0 systems. The drive also offers Seagate backup software and the ability to encrypt files via AES 256-bit encryption. If you don't want to connect the PC card adapter, the drive still works as a standard USB 2.0 drive.

Why it's cool: The first batch of USB 3.0 products are out, and they all promise faster speeds than existing USB 2.0 products. How fast is a matter of debate -- I've seen some vendors claim up to 10x speeds, when in reality it's much closer to a 2x or 3x speed upgrade. The USB 3.0 gear also gets data transfer speeds closer to the speed of the internal hard drive. If you have very large files that you transfer back and forth on a regular basis, the increased speeds of USB 3.0 can be very appealing.

In my tests on a Windows 7 Lenovo ThinkPad X200 Tablet (2.13GHz, 2GB of RAM), I got an average sequential read speed of 59.02 MB/sec with the USB 3.0 system, 30.13 MB/sec when using USB 2.0 and 71.99 MB/sec on the internal hard drive. Average write speeds were 61.74 MB/sec via USB 3.0, 16.92 MB/sec when using USB 2.0 and 71.12MB/sec on the internal drive (using CrystalDiskMark 2.2 freeware disk benchmarking software). So in reality, we got about 2x read speeds, and about 3x write speeds when comparing USB 3.0 to USB 2.0 on the same drive.

Some caveats: I had one minor quibble -- I had to install the USB 3.0 drivers off the hard drive by attaching it via USB 2.0 (without the adapter) first, and then reconnect the system via USB 3.0. I don't mind the process -- it just wasn't described in the quick start guide or the manual (I needed to call Seagate to figure out where the drivers were).

Bottom line: The big question is whether 2x read and 3x write speeds are fast enough for you at the moment to go through the process of using the PC card adapter. Eventually, USB 3.0 will be built into new PCs, eliminating the need for the card and cables. But for the person who transfers 30GB files on a regular basis, saving an extra 20 minutes could definitely be worth it.

Grade: 4 stars (out of five).

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This story, "USB 3.0: Separating hype from reality" was originally published by Network World.

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