USB 3.0 vs. USB 2.0: How much faster is it?

This year, USB 3.0 hard drives and other gadgets are finally hitting stores. You can buy them — they're real! They cost a little bit more up front, but the marketing speak promises data transfer speeds 10 times faster than the old USB 2.0 standard that you've been using for the past 10 years.

Is USB 3.0 really that much faster? And even if it's not, is it fast enough to justify the slight premium? Experts have already tested it. Here's what they discovered.

"10 times faster" on paper
USB 3.0 is capable of transfer speeds of up to 5Gbps (gigabits per second); that's a little over 10 times faster than USB 2.0's 480Mbps (1,000Mbps equals 1Gbps). In practice, it won't always be this much faster — mileage may vary depending on hardware configuration — but it will always be much faster than USB 2.0

The New York Times decided to test this "10 times faster" line, so it used brand new USB 3.0 hard drives and a desktop computer with an ideal configuration for transferring data over a USB 3.0 cable. In the test, writer Rik Fairlie copied a folder containing 10GB of files. He did this once over USB 2.0 and once over USB 3.0. The USB 3.0 connection took 6 minutes, 31 seconds, and the USB 2.0 connection took 22 minutes, 14 seconds. That's still a dramatic improvement (USB 3.0 was about 3.5 times faster), but it doesn't live up to the marketing hype.

Other real-world tests have produced similar results — 23 seconds for 500 photos on 3.0, 1 minute and 12 seconds on 2.0 from Amazon, for example. TweakTown clocked the actual speed at 2.8Gbps. That's still mighty impressive. USB 3.0 is significantly faster than its predecessor; it's the difference between 20 miles per hour on a side street and 70 on the highway. It'll get you where you need to go much more quickly.

More than speed alone

In addition to the speed gains, USB 3.0 is a step forward in other ways. USB 3.0 allows simultaneous reading and writing between two connected devices. That wasn't possible on most older 2.0 gadgets and computers, where the information had to take turns (even if those waits were too fast for the human eye to notice).

Furthermore, eco-conscious consumers should be pleased to know that USB 3.0 consumes far less power. Environmental considerations aside, that means better battery life for all devices that use USB 3.0 technology.

Hardware support required
All this talk of speed is moot if you don't have a computer that supports this new technology, and very few do at this point. The first devices that were certified for USB 3.0 were introduced just over a year ago, and they're only just now arriving in stores. That holds for computers just as it does for hard drives and other peripherals.

Thus, if you're in the market for an external hard drive for your laptop, both the hard drive and the laptop have to support USB 3.0 in order for you to take advantage of the speed it offers, which means they both have to be very new. And not even all new computers and hard drives support USB 3.0, so make sure you take a close look at the specifications for the hardware you plan to buy.

USB 3.0 devices also work with 2.0 partners, but only at 2.0 speed. If you buy that 3.0 hard drive but still have a 2.0 laptop, you'll be able to use it; you'll just pay more money for performance advantages you can't yet enjoy. The same rule applies if you have a 2.0 hard drive and a 3.0 laptop. Your connection is only as fast as the slowest component, whatever that may be.

Competing file transfer standards do exist. For example, Apple and Intel are both backing another super-fast connection called Thunderbolt (formerly Light Peak). The industry is split on which one will ultimately inherit USB 2.0's throne (or indeed, if either one of them will), so caveat emptor.

[Image credit: Paul May]

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