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USB 3.0: The new speed limit

USB 3.0: The new speed limit

Faster data and more power

Buffalo DriveStation USB 3.0 HD-HXU3

With its sensuously curved case and jet black finish, Buffalo's DriveStation USB 3.0 HD-HXU3 is not only stylish, it's a reliable place to stash your data.

The 1.5TB version of DriveStation ($US175-$200 retail) consists of a 3.5-in. SATA drive with 1.36TB available for use. Buffalo also sells a 1TB drive for $131-$168 (retail) and a 2TB model for $US244-$280 (retail).

Like the StarTech dock, the drive comes with an AC adapter. It set itself up automatically on the first try, without any additional software. I really liked its LED activity light, which glows blue for USB 3.0 and green for USB 2.0.

It also comes with a number of utilities, including Memeo backup software, a disk formatting application and a power conservation application. Throughout the testing, the DriveStation stayed cool and silent. At times, it was so quiet that I was hard-pressed to tell it was running, even while data was being transferred.

Test results

Unlike the Seagate and StarTech devices, the DriveStation did not come with a controller card (and Buffalo doesn't offer one separately). I connected the DriveStation to the Fujitsu laptop using the ExpressCards from Seagate and StarTech, and directly to the Lenovo ThinkPad W510.

When the DriveStation was plugged directly into the ThinkPad's USB 3.0 port, it had a DiskMark score of 319.9, compared with a score of 115.2 when connected to a USB 2.0 port.

The DriveStation had the best Random Read-Write speed, at 27.4Mbit/sec., which translates into sustained back-and-forth data transfers. It also did exceedingly well on Sequential Writes when paired with the StarTech card, and Sequential Reads when connected to the ThinkPad W510.

Its speed when moving the 8.45GB folder of files was in the middle range of our tested devices, with average read and write speeds of 350.2Mbit/sec. and 339.9Mbit/sec., roughly double the results when doing the same task with USB 2.0.

Bottom line

I like the way the Buffalo DriveStation looks on my desk and that it's significantly faster than USB 2.0 devices. Interestingly, the DriveStation was slower than the Seagate mobile drive on most tests involving the USB 3.0 ExpressCards; on the other hand, it did slightly better than the Seagate when plugged directly into the USB 3.0-equipped ThinkPad.

Seagate BlackArmor PS 110 USB 3.0 Performance Kit

Seagate's BlackArmor PS 110 USB 3.0 Performance Kit ($180) can make mobile data move a lot faster. Small enough to go where you go, the 500GB portable drive is a convenient way to carry around your files and/or backups.

At 0.5 by 3.2 by 5.1 in. and weighing 6.2 oz., the PS 110 is about the same size as other portable drives, such as Western Digital's My Passport Essential drive. Inside is a 2.5-in. SATA drive that spins at 7,200rpm and yields 465GB of usable space.

The BlackArmor kit includes its own ExpressCard adapter so that you can enjoy USB 3.0 speeds on a USB 2.0 laptop; the card offers a single USB 3.0 connector (not quite as convenient as the StarTech card, which gives you a pair of USB 3.0 slots). It also requires a second USB connection on the host computer to power the drive.

The BlackArmor drive installed its drivers automatically when I plugged the unit into the computers. The ExpressCard adapter also set itself up without any problems and connected with both the USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 devices neatly.

The drive comes with Seagate's BlackArmor backup program and 256-bit AES encryption software for scrambling your files so only you can read them. When data is being transferred onto or off of the drive, its LED glows blue; however, unlike the DriveStation, the BlackArmor drive doesn't indicate whether you're running it as a USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 device.

Unlike the other two drives tested here, which use a full-sized USB 3.0 plug, the BlackArmor uses a Micro USB 3.0 plug. In my testing, the drive worked dependably with the StarTech and Seagate ExpressCard adapters and with the ThinkPad W510.

Test results

With the drive plugged directly into the ThinkPad's USB 3.0 port, the BlackArmor had a DiskMark score of 275.4, just a bit slower than both the Buffalo DriveStation and the StarTech Dock with the Western Digital drive. However, it sped ahead when connected to the StarTech USB 3.0 ExpressCard with a score of 432.9, the highest DiskMark score in these tests.

The drive's Sequential Read and Write scores were also the fastest of the group, with 466Mbit and 468Mbit/sec. of throughput respectively, about three times the speed it delivers with USB 2.0.

On the downside, it was the slowest of our three test drives when it came to reading and writing the 8.45GB folder of assorted files, with speeds of 287.6Mbit and 207.4Mbit/sec.

Bottom line

At $US180 (direct) for 500GB, including an ExpressCard adapter, the BlackArmor PS 110 is a good buy that can open up the benefits of USB 3.0 for those who are on the go or on a budget.

StarTech SuperSpeed USB 3.0 to SATA Hard Drive Docking Station

Let's say you already have a good hard drive with all your data on it, and all you want to do is speed it up to USB 3.0 speeds. StarTech's inexpensive SuperSpeed USB 3.0 to SATA Hard Drive Docking Station is a good place to start. At $76, it can goose your drive to top speed.

The beauty of the StarTech dock is that it works with both 2.5- and 3.5-in. SATA drives. It's also easy to install: The drive drops right in through a hinged door that gives way as it enters the dock. There's no software to load -- just turn the dock on; as data starts moving back and forth, the power light in the switch goes from blue to purple. (However, it's not as cool as the Buffalo's light, which indicates whether the device is connected to a USB 2.0 or 3.0 port.)

The drive dock comes with a 3-foot USB 3.0 cable, and StarTech sells a USB 3.0 ExpressCard adapter for $50. The card has two USB 3.0 ports, unlike the Seagate card's single port. The dock automatically connected with the ThinkPad W510 and both of the ExpressCard adapters I used.

Test results

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-inch notebooks.

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

Conclusions

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.

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Tags storagereviewsUSB 3.0StarTech SuperSpeedBuffalo DriveStationLenovo ThinkPad W510Seagate BlackArmor

More about AES EnvironmentalAppleBuffaloFujitsuIntelLenovoLinuxMemeoNECNvidiaSeagateSpeedStarTechUSB Implementers ForumWestern Digital

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