USB 3.0 vs. USB 2.0 for Photographers. Is It Really Faster?

by Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen on October 9, 2011

USB 3.0 is the newest thing. It’s supposed to be  much faster than USB 2.0 in transferring data between a computer and a hard drive or card reader. Let’s see what it can do for photographers.

As a travel photographer, I spend a lot of time in the field photographing and way too much time back at the hotel uploading photos from my cards to my computer. If USB3 can reduce that time, it’s well worth purchasing. And USB 3.0 is faster. If you’re in a hurry, jump right to the test results. (Sorry if I spoiled the suspense).

Superspeed USB Logo

What is USB 3.0?

USB – which stands for Universal Serial Bus allows computers to connect to hard drives, CF card readers, keyboards and all sorts of other devices via a single cable that sends data and provides power. It’s been around since 1998 in one form or another according to Wikipedia.

Your computer probably has connections (or ports) for USB2 – currently the most common type of connector found on computers. The new kid on the block is USB3 – also known as “SuperSpeed USB” to differentiate it from the older “Hi-Speed USB” (a.k.a, USB2).

USB 3.0 vs. USB 2.0 Advantages

USB3′s big advantage over USB2 is speed. Theoretically, USB3 is ten times faster with a top speed of 625 Megabytes per second (MB/s).

USB 3.0 Cables

USB 3.0 & 2.0 Cable Ends

You’ll be hard-pressed to find any USB 3.0 device that can take full advantage of USB 3.0’s top speed, but there are real-world speed gains which I’ll discuss in a moment.

Another advantage of USB  is that USB3 devices draw less power than their USB2 counterparts. USB devices such as card readers generally draw their power from your computer’s USB port. So, if you’re running your laptop computer on batteries, you’ll be able to do a lot more work before your battery dies.

One final advantage is that USB 3.0 and 2.0 co-exist peacefully: You can plug a USB3 device into a USB2 port and vice-versa and everything will work perfectly. So your older USB2 equipment will not become obsolete once you upgrade to USB 3.0. And there may even be a speed advantage (see “Surprising Results” below).

USB 3.0 vs USB 2.0 - Cable Differences

Different USB 3.0 Connector

One final note: USB3 devices use a different cable than USB2, so the cables are not interchangeable. One end of the USB 3.0 cable looks just like it’s USB 2.0 counterpart – but with a blue insert rather than a white one – and it will plug into either type of USB port. But the other end is completely different, so you’ll get a USB 3.0 cable with any new USB3 device you buy.

How I Tested

I spent a lot of time testing. I won’t bore you with all the details, but here are the basics of how I tested:

  •  USB 2.0 speeds were tested on three different computers: my fast, custom-built Windows 7 desktop computer; my old and slow Sony Vaio laptop; and a new Macbook Pro. None of these had USB 3.0 ports. I used a SanDisk Imagemate USB 2.0 Multi-card reader to test USB 2.0 speed.
  • I then installed an adapter card (the Startech) inside my desktop computer to add three external USB 3.0 ports and plugged in a Lexar Professional USB 3.0 Dual-Slot reader to test USB 3.0 speed.
  • Three media cards with different speed ratings were tested: a 16GB SanDisk Extreme Pro CF card rated at 90MB/s, an 8GB SanDisk Extreme CF rated at 60MB/s and an 8GB SanDisk Extreme SDHC card rated at 30MB/s. Each contained several megabytes worth of raw images.
  • Using a stopwatch, I measured the time it took to upload the files from each media card to the computer. Each test was repeated several times to eliminate errors.
  • I did a little math and calculated the results in Megabytes per second (MB/s). The higher the MB/s, the better.

Test Results – USB 3.0 is Faster

The results are in: USB3 is faster than USB2.

I measured a top speed of 52.7 MB/s for USB 3.0. The best I could do using USB 2.0 was 20.3 MB/s. That’s 2.6 times faster.

To put this another way, I was able to upload a morning’s worth of photographs from my 16GB SanDisk Extreme Pro CF card – 372 Nikon raw files totaling 4.32GB – in only 82 seconds using USB3 as opposed to 213 seconds with USB2. That’s 160% faster.

Lexar Pro USB3 CF/SD Card Reader

Lexar Pro USB 3.0 Reader

The 16GB CF card is supposed to be capable of 90MB/s transfer speed while the 8GB CF card is only rated at 60MB/s, so I’d expect the 16GB card to transfer files at a higher rate. But that didn’t happen: both cards performed identically. Why was that?

It turns out that, even though my computer’s hard drives are fast, they weren’t fast enough to work at 90MB/s. I tried a slightly faster hard drive and got slightly higher speed: 54.7MB/s.

So, you’d need a really fast hard drive to take full advantage of the SanDisk Extreme Pro’s 90MB/s speed. I’ll bet one of the new, and expensive, solid-state hard drives would perform better, but I didn’t have one available for testing.

For those of us using conventional hard drives, we’d be better off buying slower and less expensive CF cards rated at 60MB/s. (For more about CF card speeds, read my article, “Compact Flash CF Card Speed Comparison: How Fast Is Fast Enough?”).

If your camera uses SDHC instead of CF cards, you won’t get the full benefit of USB 3′s speed. That’s because the fastest SD card currently on the market is rated at 45MB/s (the SanDisk Extreme Pro SDHC).

Most SD cards top out at 30MB/s like the SD card I used in my tests. That card reached transfer speeds of 24.6MB/s using USB 3 and only 14.7MB/s with USB 2. But that’s still a 67% advantage for USB 3.

Surprising Results

In my testing, there were a couple of surprises. I found that plugging a USB3 card reader into a USB2 port on my laptop actually resulted in a performance improvement over using a USB2 reader in a USB2 port.

The USB 3 reader was 34% faster when using my slowest card, the 30MB/s SD card. I’m not sure why, but it’s probably due to improved circuitry in the Lexar Pro USB 3.0 card reader I used. Why the faster CF cards didn’t show any significant improvement is anyone’s guess.

On my desktop, with a USB 2 reader plugged into a USB 3 port, there was similar improvement: 13% for the SD card and 21% for the faster cards.

If you have some ideas about these unexpected results, I’d like to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Why Speed is Important

If you’re a travel photographer like me, you don’t want to stay up all night in your hotel room uploading photos to your computer. The faster you can finish that task, the sooner you can get to bed and be ready to shoot again the next morning. So, increasing that upload speed by 160%, is a welcome improvement.

After I upload the photos, I always back them up to two external hard drives just in case one gets stolen or breaks down. Using a USB 3.0 hard drive, that wouldn’t take much time at all. I couldn’t test this because, as I mentioned, my laptop has only USB 2.0 ports.

And think about what this speed would mean when it comes time to back up an entire computer (you do make regular backups, don’t you?). I have a lot of files and photos on my desktop computer, so backups take hours.

Let’s say, I’m backing up a terabyte of data. With a USB2 external hard drive, that would take me over 13 hours. With USB3, it would take about 5 hours. With a solid-state drive, it would be even faster.

When I upgrade my computer gear, I’ll update this article with new results. If you don’t want to miss it, subscribe to PhotoCitizen. It’s free.

Upgrading to USB 3.0

If you buy a new computer, it will probably include USB 3 ports. Or you can upgrade to USB 3 by installing a new adapter card which will provide a few USB 3 ports on the back of your computer. I use this one made by Startech.

Upgrade to USB 3.0 with a Startech PCI-Express Card

Startech USB 3.0 Adapter Card

You’ll need an unused PCI-Express slot in your computer. You’ll have to open your computer’s case to check for an empty slot and to install the card. If you’re not comfortable poking around the innards of your computer, let the resident geek at your local computer store take care of it for you.

Once the adapter card is installed, you can use it with any USB 3 or USB 2 device. For transferring photos, I recommend the Lexar Pro USB 3.0 card reader.

If you are using a notebook/laptop computer, the USB ports are not upgradeable, so in order to get the benefit of USB 3.0, you’ll need to buy a new computer. There are several new notebook computers available that include a USB 3 port. I recommend considering a Sony Vaio or ASUS laptop.

USB 3.0 Buyer’s Guide

To take advantage of USB 3 speed, you’ll need a USB 3 card reader. You can plug it into an existing USB 2 port on your computer and still get faster speeds. But for the maximum speed, you’ll also need a USB 3 port on your computer.

Since they are still pretty new, USB3 products are not easy to find. Below, I’ve listed several that are available from respected online merchants that I buy from all the time myself.

Prices listed are correct as of the date this article was published. Click the links to check current prices. The products marked “PhotoCitizen Recommended” are the ones I use.

Support PhotoCitizen by using these links to make your purchases. Every little bit helps to keep PhotoCitizen going. Thanks.

External USB 3.0 card readers

An external USB 3 card reader will work with any computer that has a USB port whether it’s USB 2 or USB 3. For maximum speed, plug the reader into a USB 3 port.

I use one from Lexar because it’s small and I like the pop-up design. It only reads CF and SD cards. If you need to read other formats, go for the SanDisk or the Delkin.

Internal USB 3.0 adapter cards for desktop computers

To add USB 3 ports to your desktop computer, you can install one of the cards below. You’ll need an empty PCI-Express slot inside your computer. If you don’t like the idea of opening your computer, order the card and have your local computer store install it for you.

I use the StarTech because, in addition to the three external USB 3 ports, it has one built onto the card so, sometime in the future, it may be possible to plug in some other internal USB 3.0 device without a cable sticking out of the rear of the computer.

New laptop/Notebook computers with USB 3.0 ports

I’ve been using a Sony Vaio laptop for years now. It’s nearly time to upgrade and  I’ll probably buy another Vaio. Whichever brand you get, look for at least one USB 3 port.

External USB 3.0 Hard Drives

At USB3 speeds, transferring folders full of photos is a breeze. But you’ll need a USB3 hard drive to get the most bang for your buck. I’ve been a Western Digital fan for years because of their good value and their excellent replacement policy.

Conclusion

USB 3 offers significant improvement in speed over USB 2. And that’s going to make life easier for us photographers.

Although, there are other fast connections for computers such as Firewire and e-SATA, no one makes a  media card reader that uses them. The one Firewire card reader ever made is now discontinued. That makes USB 3 the king of the hill.

Upgrading to USB 3 can be a fairly inexpensive while the benefits are great. If you take a lot of photos, you’ll love it.

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