USB 3.0 for Mac review and benchmarks (with a LaCie 2big USB 3.0)

It took LaCie nearly a full year to ship the 2big USB 3.0 RAID drive -- a device that was announced in the fall of 2009 -- but now that it's here, it's being accompanied by a concept that actually far outshines the unit itself: USB 3.0 on a Mac. For whatever reason, Apple has refused to offer SuperSpeed USB on any of its machines, even a fully specced-out Mac Pro costing well north of $10,000. We've seen purported emails from Steve Jobs noting that USB 3.0 just isn't mainstream enough to sweat just yet, but coming from the guy who's still bearish on Blu-ray, we get the feeling that it'll be quite some time far too long before Apple finally caves and upgrades from USB 2.0. We're obviously no fans of the holdout -- after all, even a few sub-$500 netbooks are enjoying the SuperSpeed spoils already -- so we couldn't have possibly been more excited to hear that a longstanding storage vendor was about to fill the void that Cupertino continues to ignore. We were able to pick up a LaCie USB 3.0 PCIe expansion card as well as a 4TB (2 x 2TB) 2big USB 3.0 drive and put the whole setup through its paces on our in-house Mac Pro. Care to see how it stacked up against USB 2.0, FireWire 400 and FireWire 800? Head on past the break for the grisly details.

Background and tools you'll need

Just to refresh those who completely slept through November 4th, there actually is a way to get USB 3.0 on your Mac. Shocking, right? First off, you'll need a new piece of hardware: either a LaCie USB 3.0 ExpressCard/34 (on sale now for $59.99) or a LaCie USB 3.0 PCI Express card (on sale now for $49.99). Then, you'll need a free driver, which can be downloaded here. Mind you, this support only extends to OS X 10.5 (Leopard) and OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard); Tiger users and below are out of luck. This means that any Mac Pro and any last-generation MacBook Pro can gain USB 3.0 support with a relatively inexpensive piece of hardware. Thanks to a stroke of genius that may only ever be understood within the lairs of Cupertino, the newest unibody MacBook Pro units all have an SD card slot in place of the ExpressCard slot (the gargantuan 17-inch MBP notwithstanding), so for once, it pays to have yesteryear's best rather than today's. Also, we should point out that the 2big USB 3.0 used here includes the $49.99 PCIe expansion card right in the box.

In all truthfulness, we're guessing that Mac Pro owners are the real target market here; those who have to wade through terabytes of audio / video files each day to make ends meet have long since grown tired of waiting for USB 2.0 to catch up, and while there's no question that most creative professionals that own a Mac Pro also own (or yearn for) a stockpile of FireWire gear, it's just easier and more affordable to find external storage with a USB port on the rear. Furthermore, Apple provides an astonishing three USB 2.0 ports on the rear of its pricey workstation, so regardless of whether you need the speed of USB 3.0, you could probably use a few more sockets around back.

Test setup and benchmarks

In our testing, we relied on a (relatively new) Mac Pro and the aforesaid LaCie PCIe USB 3.0 expansion card. Just so we're perfectly clear, the Mac Pro used in these benchmarks is specced as such:

  • Apple Mac Pro (2009)

  • OS X 10.6.5 (Snow Leopard)

  • 2.66GHz quad-core Intel Xeon 'Nehalem' CPU

  • 6GB (2 x 3GB) DDR3-1066 ECC memory

  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 120 (512MB) GPU

  • 18x SuperDrive

  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR

  • LaCie USB 3.0 PCIe expansion card

We had four test subjects: a 4TB (2 x 2TB Hitachi 7200RPM, 3Gbps drives in RAID 0) 2big USB 3.0 drive, a 500GB Iomega Skin to handle the USB 2.0 duties, a 500GB Seagate FreeAgent Go FW to test FireWire 800, and a 160GB G-Technology Combo to measure FireWire 400 performance. Naturally, we used a FireWire 800-to-400 adapter cable in order to make the latter compatible with our Mac Pro test system. As for test files? A 225MB folder with 20 smaller folders within, each containing a mixture of text files and images, a 1.25GB file loaded with hundreds of JPEG images, and a 9.24GB file stuffed with documents, spreadsheets and multi-gigabyte applications. So, how'd the USB 3.0 rig hold up against the competition? Let's have a look.

In the write test, where these files were written to the test drives, the LaCie 2big USB 3.0 drive outperforms the group, sometimes significantly so. On the smallest test file, the USB 3.0 transfer was twice as fast as everything else, albeit the difference between five and ten seconds is essentially negligible in the real world. When looking at the 9.74GB transfer, though, we saw a 33 percent increase (189 seconds with USB 3.0 versus 284 seconds over USB 2.0). The 2big even demonstrated a 16 percent increase over FireWire 800, but of course, having a RAID 0 setup makes a big difference. The real question, however, is this: can the 2big USB 3.0 match LaCie's claims, even on a machine that was never built to understand -- let alone support -- SuperSpeed? The company claims that users can hit theoretical speeds of 205MB/sec. In our testing, we saw real-world write rates hover between 45MB/sec and 66MB/sec, compared to rates between 22.5MB/sec and 37MB/sec on our USB 2.0 rig. Let's take a look at the read side.

In general, the read rates were around the same compared to write rates. We saw similar gains percentage wise, with read rates on the 2big USB 3.0 hovering between 45MB/sec and 61MB/sec. In comparison, our USB 2.0 setup hovered between 29MB/sec and 37MB/sec. USB 3.0, in general, proved to be a hair quicker than even FireWire 800 (and definitely FireWire 400), but the gains were far less monumental there.

Qualifiers, stipulations and wrap-up

Here's what we learned through all of this. For one, installation on a Mac Pro couldn't be simpler. Pop open the case, toss in the PCIe card, and then install the free driver from LaCie's website. After a reboot, the card was recognized, as was the 2big USB 3.0. Now, for the hairy part. We plugged in a 7-port USB 3.0 hub from SIIG, which had four USB 2.0 hard drives attached. (You read that right; we're taking advantage of something called 'backwards compatibility.') Two of these were formatted as FAT32, the other two as HFS+. We never did get the FAT32 drives to show on our Snow Leopard machine when plugged into LaCie's card, and only one of the two HFS+ drives were recognized. Once we plugged the hub back into a standard USB 2.0 port on the rear of our Mac Pro, all was well again, and all four of the connected drives popped up.

There's good news and bad news here: the good is that LaCie's solution also supports non-LaCie hard drives, as well as USB hubs, despite the fact that the company told us outright that only LaCie hard drives are supported with LaCie USB 3.0 expansion cards. Here's the exact quote:

"LaCie's USB 3.0 cards + LaCie Mac driver only supports LaCie's USB 3.0 products, not other brands. LaCie did this because we could test the compatibility with our products but can not confirm interoperability with other USB 3.0 products."

The bad (or worse), obviously, is that you may run into some quirks along the way if you try to connect too many drives formatted differently, or try to use a non-LaCie product. In other words, don't go buy one of these expansion cards if you don't also have a mind to buy LaCie HDDs; it may work with your other drives, but it may not. On a slightly different note, we found ourselves yearning for three or four USB 3.0 ports on the rear of the PCIe card instead of the two that are provided. You could also spring for a hub or just buy two expansion cards, but we would've preferred an extra socket from the get-go.

Aside from being altogether bummed that the expansion card isn't fully compatible with non-LaCie hard drives, we were thrilled with how this solution worked. It's obviously a third-party ordeal, but it feels seamless to the end user. Once you reboot after the driver installation, you'll never remember that you're using a LaCie-issued driver to talk to your LaCie USB 3.0 hard drives. The speed increases are obvious and very real in use, and if you're eager to make the leap, at least you have a legitimate option now that doesn't involve switching to Windows (assuming you're a Mac user, of course). FireWire 800 still provides nearly the same speed without the need for additional hardware, but as we alluded to earlier, it's generally easier and cheaper to procure USB gear than FireWire gear. So, guess what? You can now get USB 3.0 on your Mac provided you have an open PCIe slot or an ExpressCard slot (and you dig LaCie HDDs), and we're pleased to say that LaCie's solution does exactly what it purports to. And now, we wait for Apple to catch up.