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Benchmark Battle: USB 3.0 vs. Thunderbolt (Results May Surprise)

usb 3 thunderboltBoth USB 3 and Thunderbolt leave the transfer rates of yesteryear in the dust, with doubled speed in the works for USB 3.0 for a current-Thunderbolt equivalent 10Gb/s and doubled speed coming for 20Gb/s Thunderbolt rates. But in the meantime, the question stands: how does USB 3.0 compare in actual performance to Thunderbolt, and should you be in a rush to upgrade? Thanks to the guys over at Macworld, we now have some practical benchmark tests pitting the protocols against each other. Click below to see how USB 3 measured up.

Macworld asks the question, “How fast is USB 3.0 really?” — and thanks to their work, we may now have a better idea given some real-world working conditions. The same series of tasks (more details below) were run first on a 2.5″ Hitachi 7200 RPM 750GB spinning drive, then an OWC Mercury Extreme Pro 6G SSD (actual models may vary), through the following connections:

[We] ran a series of tests with it connected over USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 directly to our MacBook Pro. We ran the same tests again, but with the USB drive attached to each of two hubs. (We used StarTech’s 6 Port USB 3.0 / USB 2.0 Combo Hub with 2A Charging Port with two USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, and a seventh USB port used for charging devices; and Belkin’s $50 SuperSpeed USB 3.0 4-Port Hub.) We then ran the tests with the drive connected over FireWire 800 and via Thunderbolt with different enclosures.

And, as for the heavy lifting:

Our tests included timing how long it took to copy a 10GB file to the external drive (in other words, to write the file) and then to copy that file back to the internal drive (read the file). We ran a similar test with 10GB worth of smaller files and folders. Finally, we ran Aja Video Systems’ Aja System Test, a free benchmark that’s meant to see how fast your system is and how it would perform under different video-editing circumstances. We used the 2GB File setting with 1920 by 1080, 10-bit, RGB frame sizes.

As you may imagine — and as Macworld’s findings confirm — the spinning drive topped out a lot lower in MB/s than the theoretical top speed of USB 3 or Thunderbolt. What came as a bit of a surprise to me was that raw USB 3 actually beat TB in a number of places (again, these are the results from the spinning-drive tasks):

macworld usb 3 thunderbolt firewire 800 benchmark test transfer rates interface protocol

We recommend that you check out Macworld’s full post for the rest of the figures and details. As you might expect, Thunderbolt fared better than USB 3 working from the SSD, without the read/write ceiling of the spinning drive. That said, TB didn’t fare that much better than USB 3, in some cases by a margin of about 12 MB/s. The other stipulation that may further weight these results is whether or not you own/work on any solid state or RAID drives. When first reading Macworld’s writeup, I was waiting for the part where USB 3 got creamed by Thunderbolt (which kind of never came), only to realize I’m stuck at 7200 RPM 99% of the time anyway — and not often fortunate enough to be working in RAID 0.

This may not be the case for you, as it’s becoming easier and easier (and more affordable) to invest in flash media and RAID drives — slowly but surely at least, bit by bit (or byte). And, as we all know, data transfer can be quite painful, so when it comes to bandwidth, every little bit helps — even the difference of an added 12MB/s can start to add up pretty quickly in time saved-not-wasted. Once again though, that difference won’t grace many of us still relying on (even high-grade) traditional drives: from the looks of things, that portion of us won’t gain very much in rushing to upgrade to Thunderbolt hardware. Unless, of course, it’s solid state or a G-RAID.

Once again, be sure to check out all the info over at Macworld. The data rate chart appears courtesy Macworld.

Were you guys surprised by any of the results? Do they differ from your experiences, or confirm them? Which of the latter-day protocols have you stood by, and what has made you stick with your decision?

Link: How fast is USB 3.0 really? — Macworld


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Description image 37 COMMENTS

  • john jeffries on 05.30.13 @ 1:36AM

    usb 3.0 changed my life

  • Single drives, even SSD are not able to take advantage of USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt speeds. But there will be a difference when RAID arrays are setup that can maximize the speeds and this is where Thunderbolt will be much faster.

    You mentioned that USB 3.0 will be doubling its speed, but did not mention that Thunderbolt will be doing the same. So Thunderbolt will be capable of 20Gbps when it is upgraded this fall.

    The read/write speeds also change if your boot drive is a SSD. I noticed a big increase when I installed the OWC SSD in my iMac, about 40MBps boost.

    The spinning Hitachi drive they tested on was also a slower drive. I use a Seagate Barracuda 6G 7200RPM drive and on the black magic speed test I get around 200MBps. This isn’t exactly the same as testing on a real file, but it’s about 80MBps faster than their results.

    • While I find the test results interesting, you’re exactly right — no single drive is maxing out the connection. I have a Pegasus R6 Thunderbolt RAID that gets 600MB/sec… so clearly the interface is not the bottleneck. It is interesting that USB3 did better than Thunderbolt with the single 7200RPM drive, but those differences amount to a rounding error.

    • Dave Kendricken on 06.2.13 @ 11:59AM

      Julian — you bring up several great points and I’ve updated the post to reflect them. Look at me living in the past in my own way, ey?

  • Anthony Marino on 05.30.13 @ 1:48AM

    Wait till the end of next year, super speed USB 3.0 is coming. (I think its doubled)

  • Paul Russell on 05.30.13 @ 3:17AM

    So we finally reach the era that realises ram isn’t everything, that the weakest link in data throughput isn’t 32bit os’s or ram, but reading and writing data.

    Who knew? Emmm

    Would be interesting to see how the connections perform with spinning and ssd raids. Might it be that system bus speed become the next performance focus now that fast ssds are reasonably attainable?

    • Anthony Marino on 05.30.13 @ 8:04AM

      The ssd/hhd mixed raid is only as fast as the slowest drive. Might as well just use the fastest hdd you can buy in one raid scenario (0, I don’t recommend, 1,3,5,6 or 10) and the ssd’s for another. The SSDs seems to be dropping in price however the price per GB ratio is still considerably higher vs hdd.

  • I get 180MB/s write and 205MB/s read (with Blackmagic Disk Speed Test) with a USB 3 Icy Box IB-RD4320StU3 RAID enclosure with two Seagate 3TB 7200rpm drives set to RAID 0. It’s good enough for me for a ‘budget’ external USB 3 RAID for Macbook Pro in terms of performance.

    Here’s my initial Amazon review of the enclosure and performance:

    Now having used it for a few months I’m still very happy with the performance and reliability.

  • I got a Thunderbolt sled for a new SSD recently, and did a bunch of testing. I had never noticed just quite how slow USB2 is. In real world use, it seems less obvious. Rotating drives did turn out to be the bottleneck. And as a result I began to wonder if I should just use USB3 drives for editing. They are cheaper. I have more ports. It’s a no brainer. Except – actual editing was perceptibly worse. Editing with USB2 is awful. USB3 seemed a bit slow and sticky compared to FW800 with a Thunderbolt adaptor. That was using FCPX. The new approach: USB3 gets all the storage, and FW800, transitioning to TB, gets the editing.

    One other peculiarity for the future: while the SSD is *way* faster than the drives, it doesn’t like being used to edit, at least with a sled. (It’s a BMCC drive.) It disconnects when the computer goes to sleep and then freaks out. Once when the SSD did this, it caused a kernel panic. After that, Thunderbolt refused to acknowledge it. I assumed the drive was damaged. It was unrecoverable. Until I connected it via a USB interface. I tested it and it was perfectly fine. I then connected it via TB and it was perfectly fine. I believe TB/MacOS blacklists devices that cause problems. Connecting via USB reset it. Something to keep in mind if you have trouble with a camera SSD.

    Your milage may vary. It may be a FCPX thing.

  • What’s the point of using thunderbolt with drives that speed?

    USB3 I’ve seen big improvements between consumer USB2 and 3 drives, but single spinning drives have limitations which makes their use with Thunderbolt pointless.

    You need fast professional RAIDs to take advantage of Thunderbolt. Then you get the 300MB/s to 600MB/s range of the G-RAIDs, Regasus R6 etc.

  • David Chapman on 05.30.13 @ 8:11AM

    I can definitely attest to the fact that Raid 0 drives (7200rpm) can be extremely fast. G-Tech’s current 4TB or 8TB G-Raid with Thunderbolt topped read/write around 300MB/s with my Black Magic Design Disk Speed Test. It was something I definitely needed on a project where a few of my smaller USB3 GoFlex single drives weren’t close to cutting it at 160MB/s (about the same as internal SATA drives at 7200 rpm).

    G-Tech’s new G-Drive Pro coming out this summer is supposed to get speeds of 400MB/s with Thunderbolt. It’s marketed as “SSD performance without the cost.”

    I think most companies that shoot for speed use Thunderbolt over USB3, at least for the time being.

  • But is it faster than my Zip disk?

  • Does anyone remember installing “Kings Quest V” from a stack of 7 floppy disks?

  • While Thunderbolt was designed so that a notebook can be used as stand-alone workstation, it still should be faster than USB 3 on single drive scenario. This reminds me of a test between USB 3 and FW800 using a card reader, and the FW800 reader offloaded CF card data faster than the USB 3 drive.

  • I have a Seagate TB drive sled, and use it for FCP7 & FCPX editing. I find FCPX particulary, very usable editing HD footage but usb2 or fw800 causes problems (all with a variety of 2.5″ spinning platter drives).

    Additionally, using CopyCatX to dup a drive (500GB) from MPB pro internal via TB to a spinning drive (1-2 hours) I have found to be much faster than the same task on usb2 (3-4 hours).

  • Artemis Jaen on 05.31.13 @ 8:19PM

    Those figures look to be drive speed limited rather than interface limited. It would be interesting to see a comparison with faster drive(s), e.g. SSDs rather than conventional HDs which typically max out at around the transfer rates mentioned even when locally connected via SATA.

    I actually often edit over the LAN here which is gigabit ethernet, with a server that has mirrored (spinning) drives, lots of RAM and that runs Linux. It actually works pretty well, and I can run Lightwave on the server under Wine (it has 8 nodes with two quad core CPUs each, so it works pretty well — the electricity bill is painful though). It would be nice to go to something faster, comms-wise, but I built the server for about $2500 total thanks to Unix Surplus in Mountain View CA. Not bad for 64 fairly fast cores.

    • Artemis Jaen on 05.31.13 @ 8:22PM

      Oops, hit enter a bit soon. I was just about to add that the speed I get over the gigabit ethernet is around the 85-90mb/sec mark, I think, which is good enough for 2k unless you’re running something nearly uncompessed. We did it so two of us could work on the same project over the LAN. It’s actually been fairly successful. Not perfect, but a lot easier than having to copy large amounts of data back and forth in order to both be able to work on the same projects.

    • Artemis Jaen on 05.31.13 @ 8:25PM

      (I should also mention hearing through the grapevine that an order of magnitude increase in drive speed with the next generation of SSDs is getting close — SATA is getting toward the end of its life. I could tell you who I heard this from, but then they would have to shoot me. It was a very reliable source at a major computer company.)

  • You better know how to run a benchmark…..
    Thunderbolt is way faster

    • Daniel Lord on 09.10.13 @ 3:26PM

      Thunderbolt can carry 3 USB 3 channels at once—it’s PCI-Express on a cable. This benchmark was limited by the device and didn’t let those I/F ones run. Hookup a RAID array and watch T-bolt deliver ~600 Mbps while USB gets ~200 Mbps. USe Google—others have done it and have the stats to back up what I say.

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  • “Data transfer can be quite painful.”


    First world problems, indeed.