Sunday, September 25, 2016
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USB 3 Finally Comes to CostCo

Last December, when I took a good look at the new ASUS motherboard I had purchased to upgrade my old, ailing computer, I noted that it had a pair of USB 3 ports. I made a mental note to investigate these further at a future date. Right then, I was more interested in simply getting the computer up and running.

More recently, I received in the mail review samples of two USB 3.0 flash drives from Super Talent. One was 8GB (type ST2, MSRP $12.00) and a 25GB (type RC8, MSRP $84.00). I tried plugging them into the USB 3 ports on the back of my computer, but nothing happened. Either the motherboard is not set up for USB 3 or I have to run an installation disc, which I may have stashed away somewhere and forgot about it.

So next, I opted for some new hardware — a USB 3 hub ($40) and a USB 3 PCI-E expansion card ($32) for the computer. Both are from US Robotics (
http://www.usr.com). The expansion card is tiny, and provides just two USB 3 ports. It also has a power receptacle which accepts the standard HDD disk drive power plugs available in abundance from all desktop computer power supplies. I assume that this is because many future USB 3 devices will be power hogs. As a reminder, the hub?s USB cable is extra thick, and the hub end is oddly shaped with what appears to be an extra power circuit. The hub is also supplied by its own plug-in power supply. Is that overkill? I hardly think so, assuming that many future USB 3 devices will be power hogs.

Installing a New Card
Installing the card wasn't as easy as I had anticipated. Years ago, desktop and tower computer cases had neat stainless steel cover plates, one for each expansion slot. To plug in a new card, all you had to do was remove the locking screw for a cover plate, lift out the now loose plate, and plug in the new card. The back end of the card filled that hole with a plate exactly the same size and shape as the removed cover, and held in place by the same screw. The new case for my totally rebuilt computer (now just 6 months old) has no such niceties. In the interests of keeping a lid on costs, the manufacturer used steel punch-outs covering the needed spaces. But they don't punch out. Getting an open space for the new card meant cutting or twisting out a cover punch out that was stamped as part of the case; it was held in place by two steel tabs, and in the process of removing this, I managed to badly twist the dividing stanchion between the two holes, so that divider had to go as well.

By the time I had re-installed the two USB cards (one with USB 2 and the new one with USB 3) side by side, I was beginning to wonder (1) if the new card would work, and (2) if the computer would work at all. I need not have worried. It's all engineered to be compatible, and I didn't break anything.

Formatting Needed
The new high-speed drives from Super Talent (
http://www.supertalent.com) were a little unfamiliar to my Windows XP, and they were supplied unformatted. Windows recognized a new drive, but getting access proved to be a little tricky. Windows showed me a new drive letter with no identification — just a blank space with a red question mark. So I clicked on "Properties" and was able to view the 8GB drive, showing no available space. Then I directed Properties to format the drive, which made the 8GB totally accessible. I then tried transferring the entire contents (3.5GB) of a relatively fast SB 2.0 drive to the new USB 3.0 drive. It was slow going, taking about 25 minutes for a complete transfer. I decided that this was a limitation of the read speed of my old USB 2.0 dongle. The data included about 50 rather full file folders, plus over 500 files in the root directory — product files in Word, plain text, and numerous hi-res photos. This is my typical monthly load on my flash drives, and it gets cleaned out and renewed with each issue of U.S. Tech.

I then plugged in the new 25GB drive, formatted it, and transferred those same files from one USB 3 drive to the other. The operation was completed in about 2.5 minutes.

Then I tried measuring read/write speed using Nirsoft Freeware, but the results were grossly incorrect. Apparently the software has not been updated to measure read/write speeds for USB 3.

Judging from my own rather seat-of-my-pants speed comparison test, the read speed was about 10 times the speed of my fastest USB 2 flash drive. This is totally in line with what the manufacturer says about these drives: that they are designed to provide 10X the speed of USB 2.

According to Peter Carcione of Super Talent, "In order to take advantage of the new bus, we needed to think beyond one and two channel flash designs and think about four and even eight channel designs. More channels of flash enables more performance but also larger capacities. Now 128GB is within reach."

Also: "SSD controllers already supported four and eight channels of flash and were a natural candidate for this application." "The only issue we needed to solve was converting the SATA interface, used on many SSD controllers, to USB. Bridge chips were specifically designed to convert the SATA interface to USB," Carcione continued.

He said that for the RC8, his company chose the ASMedia 1051 bridge chip which provides an almost lossless conversion from SATA to USB 3.0 interface. That was paired with the SandForce SF-1222 eight channel SSD processor which offered outstanding performance, maturity and an acceptable thermal profile. As it turned out, features like unforeseen reliability, superior bad-block management, improve write amplification and data acceleration came along for the ride.

Data Compression
"Since the SandForce processors can compress data on the fly," Carcione explained, "many types of data can now use less space and take less time to write; compressing the data on the fly occurs so quickly that it can result in performance gain over writing uncompressed data. It also uses less flash which can extend the life of the drive. When it comes to reading the data from the drive, the same thing holds true. Reading compressed data takes less time and the processor can decompress data so rapidly that, in many instances, results in additional data acceleration."

Carcione feels that there is another usage model and market available now — that of Application Storage. While application storage has been around for a while, this new level of performance and capacity makes it more attractive than ever.

The other day, walking through CostCo, I saw a heartening example of this emerging market. A fairly large display was devoted to a new external hard disk drive from Seagate. It's USB 3.0, is 1.5 Terabytes, and was priced at $119. That tells me several things: HDD production is probably getting back close to normal in Thailand in the wake of last year's devastating monsoons; prices are starting to come back down for HDDs; and at least some segments of the industry feel that USB 3.0 has finally arrived.

Now the question is, can someone come up with a way to retrofit USB 3 into a notebook computer that comes with USB 2? Back in the day, these computers had PC Card or Express Card ports which could adapt readily to this type of use. But now they only have USB 2 ports, and making a 2 into a 3 might be a little difficult. Some genius out there will probably make a liar out of me within the next 6 months, but that's the nature of our industry, isn't it?  

 
 
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