1 January 2013, Comments: 16

Developed by Intel, the 10Gb/s bi-directional interface is technically PCI Express on a cable. It was originally designed to use fiber optics, but Intel later went with copper wiring as a mean to reduce cost and to supply power. The expansion bus can support both hubs as well as a daisy chain of up to 7 devices. Thunderbolt, which supersedes Mini DisplayPort on the latest Macs, has made way into all Apple laptops and desktops, except the Mac Pro.

While Thunderbolt is widely reported as USB 3.0 killer, it is not really a competing standard. Rather it is more a niche interface, whereas USB is more of a mainstream port. Say if you have a need to capture multi-HD stream and save the video feed into a SSD RAID on a daily basis, then all by means Thunderbolt is a viable option for you. For everyone else, Thunderbolt maybe an overkill. USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt, metaphorically speaking, are a good quality highway and peripherals are race cars. Taking the car to maximum speed without even touching the speed limit of highway itself is like copying 10GB or so of data to a 5400-rpm portable drive thru Thunderbolt. In this case, USB 3.0 can complete the transfer fairly quickly (minute and a half if speed is at 110MB/s) without the cost premium of Thunderbolt.

To leverage the full potential of Thunderbolt, you need some high end components that will take you beyond 500MB/s at which speed will definitely dwarf USB 3.0, but they will also add to the cost of Thunderbolt products. There is, however, a limited number of applications that require such transfer rate and that only prosumers and professionals can tell whether or not the increase in performance justifies the added cost. For this reason, Thunderbolt won’t be going mainstream anytime soon. On the other hand, USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 have almost reached price parity and it’s a no-brainer to pick the former for everyday tasks.

In summary, Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 has their own respective strengths, and consumers can decide which route to go based on their budget and requirements.

USB 3.0 (5Gbps) is theoretically 10 times faster than USB 2.0 (480Mbps). You can expect three-fold to ten-fold increase in performance with current generation of USB 3.0 devices but your mileage varies depending on the type of device.In real world, you’re going to see a SandForce-based flash drive topping 250MB/s and a 5400-rpm portable drive reaching 100MB/s. USB 3.0 also provides more power, 900mA up from 500mA of USB 2.0. This will allow some demanding devices, namely USB monitors and RAIDs, to be powered with just one cable.

Despite the USB 3.0’s advantages, USB 2.0 already serves as the ideal interface for a number of applications as it provides ample of bandwidth in these situations. USB 3.0, in this case, isn’t necessary and could increase the cost. For the reason, the market for USB 2.0 devices of all types isn’t going to dwindle in short to medium term.

The interface has long been the “forgotten” mass market, high-speed interface standard. Previously available in Firewire 400 or 800 flavors, it has gradually fallen in popularity as USB 2.0 and 3.0 has surged.  Apple, the inventor of the original IEEE 1394 “Firewire” standard, has repeatedly sent mixed messages with the ditching of Firewire first from iPods and more recently from the mainstream MacBook laptops (except for the lowest-end MacBook, oddly enough).

Firewire’s main claim to fame is that it is a highly efficient peer-to-peer, full-duplex, non-polling data communications protocol with very low overhead. Firewire delivers much higher actual throughput than USB 2.0 and can achieve much closer to its theoretical 800Mbit/s data rate than USB. Where a Firewire 800 7200-rpm hard drive can deliver sequential transfer rate of around 90MB/s, USB 2.0 hovers more around 40MB/s and USB 3.0 averages at 150MB/s.  USB 3.0 has since improved significantly with the latest flash drives reaching 350MB/s, largely thanks to recent advances in flash controllers and improved driver stacks.

In late 2007, the 1394 Trade Association announced Firewire 3200 (S3200) that builds upon the existing Firewire 800 standard that was released in 2002. Utilizing the very same connectors and cabling that is required for Firewire 800, S3200 is basically a drop-in replacement once the internal system components are updated in devices. To date, S3200 has not gained much traction, even in traditional Firewire markets such as digital video.

As of 2016, FireWire (all flavors) appears to be all but gone on recently shipped laptops and desktops.  You can, however, still find FireWire 800 on many Thunderbolt 2 docks.  And if you really want it, aftermarket PCI Express cards are still widely available.

Brought to market in 2004 as a consumer interface targeted directly at the crowded external storage market, eSATA successfully address the issue of the interface bottleneck, and allowed fast hard drives to leverage their performance potential when located external to a server or PC.

eSATA supports a data rate of 3.2Gbps, which is more than enough for the fastest hard drives, which can transfer about 120MB/s, easily better than USB 2.0 and significantly better than Firewire 800.

It is not without drawbacks, however. Cable length is limited to a mere 2; it cannot supply power to devices connected on the eSATA bus, and the connectors are neither small nor terribly suitable for consumer devices where aesthetics are important. Over the last several years, eSATA has steadily eroded both USB and Firewire market share in the data storage space, although its applications are limited, and really not well-suited to the portable device market.

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16 responses on “How does USB 3.1 Compare with Other Interfaces?

  1. Ryan Khatib says:

    simple USB 3.0 the U in usb says it all Universal just one hell off transfer speed

  2. Mickey_Berkal says:

    My mother board dosnt have usb3 – which will be the best adapter:

    Express PCI to USB3
    SATA to USB3

    I have the ECS – H61H2-M2 motherboard.

  3. Rick Graham says:

    USB 3.0 seems the way to go. I have to stream live samples for music and of course I need mega HDD and RAM… connectivity speed is a make or break for performance. Good article and I feel a little better about ordering a laptop without Firewire.

  4. Devin Bitz says:

    No matter what apple does, usb will always trump. The fact of the matter is the usb port is backwards compatible. Even if your device is 3.0 a 2.0 cable will still work. Obviously you wont get the speeds but at least you can still use the device. Lets be honest here. Everything uses usb. Soon they will be installing usb ports on wall outlets.So many things use usb. Apple needs to suck it up and just put USB 3.0 ports on their computers. Yes thunderbolt is cool, But lets be honest, unless you are building an external raid, there is no point to have one device on it. SATA6 is 6gbps. Even at FULL speed, thunderbolt would be a waste. Firewire is good for transferring videos off a analog video camera. But usb can do that too.

  5. Richard Walker says:

    Author- Thanks for explaining the options. The only hang-up for me was going back and forth btwn MB & Mb. I’m getting better at paying attention- but still have to read over and convert up or down when reckoning bit/data rates (throughput) vs capacity with respect to time domain (ie, /sec= lowest common factor, for me).

  6. nate says:

    On my windows 7 64 bit machine with a core i7 and 16gb Ram.
    I tested A sandisk 16gb udma 60mb/s card with 2.45gb worth of raw images, in the front ports. Both card readers are non brand name.

    1) usb 3 reader in usb 3 port – 45 seconds
    2) usb 3 reader in usb 2 port – 1 minute & 27 seconds
    3) usb 2 reader in usb 3 port – 2 minutes & 33 seconds
    4) usb 2 reader in usb 2 port – 2 minutes & 41 seconds

  7. MojoRaider says:

    @ Mario the first 13 in aluminum macbook has no firewire. I have one and its a pain…

  8. @ Noah L

    “While I haven’t seen all MacBooks and MacBook Pros ever made, I highly doubt any of them didn’t come with Firewire.”

    You just gave yourself reason to doubt what you just stated, and simultaneously projected the image of a Mac fanboy.

    All earthly knowledge didn’t start with any one of us, neither will it end there. Do some research, and then you will be able to make claims that don’t sound like an Apple apologist without his facts.

    Thank you 🙂

    • Bogtrotter says:

      MacBook Retina has dumped Firewire, you should apologise for your insulting message

      • Jasper Compliments says:

        Bogtrotter, you should improve your English. Mario realizes that, which is why he decided to highlight Noah saying “I highly doubt any of them didn’t come with Firewire”.

        If you need a translation it means that Mario doesn’t think they all come with Firewire.

    • JLB says:

      Much better to be a ‘fanboy’ than a blind iHater.

  9. Noah L says:

    Where in the world did you get your information about Firewire on MacBooks? I have yet to see a rendition of the MacBook (or MacBook Pro) without Firewire. The old white MacBooks had the old Firewire 400 ports, but with all new MacBook Pros come with the Firewire 800 ports. While I haven’t seen all MacBooks and MacBook Pros ever made, I highly doubt any of them didn’t come with Firewire. Of course if you were looking for the old Firewire 400 ports, and not the newer square Firwire 800 ports, you certainly would have thought there was no Firewire to be had.

    You also failed to mention that Firewire devices still abound in the professional audio and video community.

    While I certainly believe that Apple is putting their hopes on Thunderbolt, they haven’t completely given up on Firewire. Get your facts straight so you don’t look like an idiot when your statements turn out to be untrue.

  10. Greg Zeng says:

    Big desktop-type mains-powered computers have easy access to all input-output interfaces, but battery-powered devices (my Notebook, netbook, tablet & smartphone computers) far outsell the old-fashioned green-unfriendly computers.

    My latest notebook has esata, USB2, Bluray r-w, I7, 8GB DDR3, etc … but not USB3.  There claims to exist esata-to-USB3 converter gadgets around, but I’ve yet to locate any for sale.  USB3 devices far outnumber Firewire, Expresscard, esata, etc.  But esata external RAID boxes are aroud, but seem to yet receive good user reviews.