USB 3 has plenty of promise, but when will it deliver?
I recently attended the launch of a line of Seagate external hard drives. By themselves, external hard drives aren’t much to get too excited about. Admittedly, backup is one of those tasks that everybody should do and precious few do properly, but there’s just no way to make hard drives themselves exciting. Seagate’s attempt revolves around what it’s calling the GoFlex storage system. It’s basically a system of removable cables with different connection ends. Most of the drives ship with an ordinary USB 2.0 cable, but you can optionally buy Firewire, eSATA and USB 3.0 connectors.
It’s an interesting idea, but what really grabbed my attention and got me thinking was USB 3.0 specifically. Firewire and eSATA have their places, and they’re both significantly faster than the rather dusty USB 2.0 standard, but only USB 3.0 has the promise of both backwards compatibility and speed.
Quite a bit of speed, it should be said. USB 2.0 tops out at a theoretical 480Mbps, and a good bit slower in real world usage. USB 3.0’s promise is connection speed up to a theoretical 4.8Gbps. Again, we won’t see actual 4.8Gbps throughput, but even if USB 3.0 only manages a quarter of its potential, it’ll be much faster than USB 2.0. This has all sorts of knock-on implications, from the mundane matter of faster file copying through to data streaming, near invisible backup and seamless synchronisation of media devices.
There’s a problem, though. USB 3.0 requires two things to actively work. Firstly, you’ll need some kind of USB 3.0 storage device. As I write this, there’s one sitting just next to me. You wouldn’t spot it as USB 3.0 necessarily, but that’s due to the physical cabling being identical on first glance. This ensures backwards compatibility with older USB 2.0 only systems, albeit at USB 2.0 only speeds.
Backwards compatibility is a smart move, but the other part of the USB 3.0 puzzle is having a system that can actually take advantage of your investment in a USB 3.0 storage device. USB 2.0 is everywhere, most notably in notebooks, which are quickly becoming the predominant computer model. If you want to add USB 3.0 to an existing desktop PC, there’s a number of available add-on cards. But for notebooks, there’s not such a wide choice. If your system has provision for a PC Express card you can update via a card, although there’s not a whole lot of choice right now. More problematically, PC Express isn’t widespread across notebook models, and notebooks simply aren’t built for the kinds of upgrades that can be applied to desktop systems. There aren’t any USB 3.0 capable notebook systems on the Australian market yet, and exactly when they’ll start to hit retail is still up in the air.
Most of us buy notebooks with the expectation that they’ll get at least three years service life out of them, especially if you’re buying for a small business and writing it off against tax. That could lead to a situation where USB 3.0 peripherals — and they’ll mostly be storage at first, as there’s little need for a mouse to use 4.8Gbps of bandwidth just yet — predominate, but few systems actually use them to their full potential.