The 2010 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) introduced a bunch of new SuperSpeed USB (USB 3.0) peripherals with more to come. With USB 3.0 promising performance as much as ten times faster than USB 2.0, you'll want to add USB 3.0's digital goodness to your system as soon as you can. So, what do you need to know to make it work? Whether you have a desktop or mobile PC, we survey your options and help you zero in on your best choices.
Who’s Who in USB 3.0 Controllers
At some point in the next year or so, we'll probably see Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA begin to include USB 3.0 support in their motherboard chipsets for both desktop and mobile systems. In the meantime, it's up to third-party developers to make USB 3.0 a reality.
A possible future rival to NEC is VIA Technology, which has released two new products that demonstrate its USB 3.0 prowess: VL810 SuperSpeed Hub Controller and VL700 USB 3.0-SATA controller. Although VIA Technology was once a major PC chipset vendor, its recent emphasis on embedded systems has made it less of a factor in PC silicon. Thus, for the immediate future, NEC is the vendor that makes USB 3.0 host adapters possible.
NEC and Marvell - Different Chips, Different Jobs
Marvell, another chip vendor, is often mentioned in the same breath as NEC, which might lead to confusion over who was responsible for USB 3.0 controller logic. Marvell is the company responsible for creating SATA 6Mbps controller chips found in the new motherboards and add-on cards, such as this ASUS U3S6 add-on card:
Consequently, current motherboards and add-on cards with USB 3.0 and SATA 6Mbps host adapters use controllers from both companies.
Selecting a USB 3.0-Compatible Motherboard
If you're already planning on a motherboard upgrade and you want to be ready for the future, you should strongly consider motherboards with USB 3.0 ports. Whether you prefer Intel or AMD processors, major vendors offer a variety of choices:
These motherboards use Intel chipsets in the micro ATX form factor:
These motherboards use AMD chipsets in the ATX form factor:
GA-790FXTA-UD5 GA-790XTA-UD4 GA-770TA-UD3
Motherboards marked ** use Gigabyte's PLX PCI Express switch chip to provide maximum USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps performance
With so many choices, how can you choose the best motherboard for your purposes? In addition to the obvious factors such as platform (Intel or AMD), memory support, and form factor, take a look at the following issues:
USB 3.0 Power Per Port
USB 3.0 specifies 900mA of continuous power for bus-powered devices, up from 500mA in USB 2.0. However, just as with USB 2.0, some USB 3.0 devices, notably hard disks, might need additional power to start properly. If you plan to use bus-powered hard disks or other bus-powered devices, look for motherboards that offer additional power to USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports (a feature of all Gigabyte models)
USB 3.0 Maximum Performance
Although all current USB 3.0 motherboards use the same NEC controller chip, many motherboards run USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps traffic to the peripheral controller hub (PCH) using a single 2.5 gigatranfer PCI Express lane that provides only half the maximum speed possible with these ports. Some ASUS models use a bridge chip to put USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps traffic on a dedicated PCI Express 2.0 connection to enable both interfaces to provide maximum performance, and Gigabyte uses a PLX bridge chip to accomplish a similar performance boost on its top-of-the-line UD7 series motherboards.
Selecting a USB 3.0-Compatible Card for Desktops
Although PCI Express cards for desktop PCs use the same NEC SuperSpeed controller as motherboards, there are several differences in implementation in the initial offerings:
USB 3.0/eSATA 6Gbps Combo Card
ASUS's U3S6 provides two of each port in a card that plugs into a PCI Express x4 expansion slot. It includes the same bridge chip used in some ASUS USB 3.0 motherboards to provide maximum speed to both interfaces when installed in a system that supports PCI Express 2.0.
USB 3.0 – PCI Express x4
The PCI Express x4 interface is also used by several vendors for USB 3.0-only cards,including Active Media Products' Atomix PX and StarTech's PEXUSB3S2. By using PCI Express x4, these cards help assure maximum performance for both USB 3.0 ports.
USB 3.0 – PCI Express x1
For users with motherboards that don't include PCI Express x4 slots, some vendors offer PCI Express x1-based USB 3.0 cards. These include SIIG's DP SuperSpeed USB 2-Port PCIe and Gigabyte's Ultra Durable USB 3.0 PCI Express Card. While these cards can't support the maximum throughput available with USB 3.0 when two USB 3.0 devices are connected, they still provide a big speed boost over USB 2.0 devices and ports.
Gigabyte's card offers a unique feature that provides up to 3x standard power for power-hungry USB 3.0 or 2.0 devices. However, there's no free lunch: to enable the board to provide extra power, you must plug two spare Molex 4-pin hard disk/fan power connectors to the card.
Selecting the Card
First, make sure you have an appropriate open slot for the card. If all you have are PCI Express x1 slots, your choices are limited. If you have PCI Express x4 slots, decide whether you want to add USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps support, or only USB 3.0 support.
Next, make sure you have appropriate power. Some cards draw power only from the expansion slot, but most use one or more Molex power connectors.
You will need to install driver software after you install the card.
Selecting a USB 3.0-compatible Card for Mobile PCs
If you have a mobile PC with an ExpressCard 34 or 54 slot, you have a variety of add-on cards available to move up to USB 3.0. These include:
Active Media Products' Atomix EC, StarTech's ExpressCard USB 3.0, and SIIG SuperSpeed USB 2-Port ExpressCard/34, with more likely to follow. Note that ExpressCard-based USB 3.0 ports cannot provide full 900mA current to both ports. If you need to run two bus-powered devices that require 900mA current, buy the optional AC adapter available from the vendor.
Your Choice – Upgrade or Add-On?
If you have a desktop computer, you have two distinct paths to the future: upgrade your motherboard or drop in a USB 3.0 card. Which way should you go?
Time and Expense
If you're on a budget (either time or money), an add-on card is the way to go. At prices ranging from less than $30 to around $60 and installation times under a half-hour, an add-on card is faster and cheaper than upgrading your entire system.
If you're looking to upgrade more than just ports, a new USB 3.0-based motherboard can put you into DDR3 memory, SATA 6Gbps, better overclocking, and other new features. However, don't assume that a new motherboard is always better than your old one, especially in terms of overclocking.
For example, the ASUS Republic of Gamers Maximum III Formula (USB 2.0) has an Intel P55 chipset, just as ASUS’s new P7P55D-E PRO (USB 3.0) does, but the older board includes better overclocking software and features. If you overclock your systems, be sure to compare your existing motherboard’s overclocking features (BIOS and software) and stability with any potential replacement.
USB 3.0 ports and devices are still in their infancy, but even now, making the move to the new USB standard opens up new worlds of performance and flexibility. It's you're choice, so choose wisely.