USB 3.0 is undoubtedly the future, but tests conducted by Techworld suggest that laptop users in particular might need to upgrade their hardware to see much benefit over current technologies such as eSATA.
The test comprised plugging Freecom's USB 3.0 external drive, the XS Hard Drive 3.0, into a mainstream dual-core laptop using the company's new USB 3.0 Express Card laptop add-on.
Throughput was derived using a simple calculation based on how long the drive took to copy and paste a large number of video and image files to and from the laptop, replicating how the drive will actually be used in the real world for functions such as directory backup.
The Freecom XS operating in USB 2.0 mode managed an average throughput of 18.7MB/s for reads and only 11.1MB/s for writes, well below the theoretical maximum of USB 2.0 but in line with real-world transfer speeds on a mid-range laptop.
The same drive in USB 3.0 mode raised this to 36.6MB/s for reads and about the same or slightly slower for writes, although this fluctuated considerably for reasons that might relate to the supplied NEC driver. What matters here is the relative difference rather than the absolute figures, which will depend on a range of factors including overall system performance.
Conclusion? USB 3.0 offers even laptop users a handy though not spectacular speed boost compared to USB 2.0 of around two-three times. However, when pitted against an eSATA drive from LG, the interface port for which is found on many high-end laptops, the results were less clear cut.
Copying the test files to an external LG eSATA drive achieved throughputs of 32.5MB/s for reads, and 29.7MB/s for writes, not much slower than USB 3.0 on this hardware. In some cases, it even matched the USB 3.0 drive.
Freecom engineers agreed that USB 3.0 would be held back by a number of bottlenecks on today's systems, especially laptops which typically use slower internal hard drives. Desktop systems which can use the company's faster PCI Express Card interface would fare better, they said.
USB 3.0 will start to shine when paired with forthcoming SATA 3.0 or even SSD drives, faster CPUs able to keep up with the dramatically higher data throughputs, integrated USB 3.0 ports that don't need slow interfaces such as Express card, and possibly also better drivers and chipsets.
In the meantime, few if any users have even one or two of these elements in place. Our advice: if you have a PC it is worth buying USB 3.0 if bulk data transfer is a necessity. Laptop users should probably wait for a new generation of laptops to appear.