New computers have now been coming with USB 3.0 ports for years. But just how much faster is USB 3.0? Will you see a big speed improvement if you upgrade your old USB 2.0 flash drives?
USB 3.0 devices are backwards compatible with USB 2.0 ports. They’ll function normally, but only at USB 2.0 speeds. The only downside is that USB 3.0 devices are still a bit more expensive.
Theoretical Speed Improvements
USB is a standard and defines maximum “signaling speeds” for communicating across a USB port. The USB 2.0 standard offers a theoretical maximum signaling rate of 480 megabits per second, while USB 3.0 defines a maximum rate of 5 gigabits per second. In other words, USB 3.0 is theoretically more than ten times faster than USB 2.0.
If the comparison ended here, upgrading would be a no brainer. Who wouldn’t want their USB drives to be ten times faster?
In reality, this standard just defines the maximum transmission rate of data through a USB port. Devices will have other bottlenecks. For example, USB drives will be limited by the speed of their flash memory.
If you’re not sure whether you have USB 3.0 ports, just look at the USB ports themselves — USB 3.0 ports are generally colored blue inside. Many computers have both USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports. In the below photo, the port on the left is USB 2.0 and the port on the right is USB 3.0.
Nevermind the theory, let’s look at how USB 3.0 flash drives actually perform in the real world. So just how much faster are USB 3.0 flash drives than USB 2.0 drives? Well, bear in mind that will depend on the specific drive.
There are quite a few benchmarks out there, but Tom’s Hardware’s 2013 test of USB 3.0 thumb drives is particularly recent and comprehensive. The test also includes a few USB 2.0 drives, which are at the bottom of the charts at between 7.9 MB/s to 9.5 MB/s in write speed. The USB 3.0 drives they tested go from 11.4 MB/s all the way up to 286.2 MB/s.
What’s really interesting here is the huge variation in speeds. The worst USB 3.0 drive was faster than the USB 2.0 drives, but only by a tiny bit. The best USB 3.0 drive was over 28 times faster.
Unsurprisingly, the slowest drives were the cheapest, while the faster ones are more expensive. The fastest drive seems to achieve its speed by using “four channels of flash” memory instead of a single one. This is obviously more expensive.
Price is still a huge factor here. Many USB 2.0 flash drives are super cheap — for example, you can pick up an 8 GB USB 2.0 flash drive for under $10 on Amazon. 4 GB flash drives can often be found on sale for $5.
In comparison, USB 3.0 drives are more expensive. The fastest USB 3.0 drives will also be the most expensive ones. You may have to shell out $40 or more to see a really significant speed improvement.
You’ll need to ask yourself how much you want to spend and what you’ll use the drive for. Do you just want a small, cheap drive for occasionally moving documents around? USB 2.0 is fine for that. On the other hand, if you want a drive for frequent use and speed is critical, particularly if you’re transferring large files around, you’ll probably want a USB 3.0 drive.
Bear in mind that just because a drive is USB 3.0 doesn’t mean it’s all that much faster. At the moment, Amazon is selling a 16 GB USB 3.0 flash drive for just $15. However, reviews indicate that it performs at similar speeds to USB 2.0 drives. You’ll have to spend more for an actual speed improvement.
Look at Drive-Specific Benchmarks
USB 3.0 allows for much faster transfer speeds, but not every drive will take advantage of that. Other factors, such as the speed of the flash memory inside the drive, are critical.
If you’re looking for a good, fast USB drive for serious use — and not the cheapest $5 drive — you should look up benchmarks ahead of time and determine just how fast your drive of choice is. Don’t just believe the manufacturer’s quoted speed rate, as manufacturers often give you the most exaggerated numbers to mislead you — look up independent benchmarks on your own.
Bear in mind that many types of devices won’t perform faster just because they use USB 3.0. If you use a USB mouse and keyboard, you won’t see any sort of input speed improvement by moving to USB 3.0. Of course, eventually USB 3.0 will take over and all devices will use USB 3.0 or newer. There’s no harm in having such devices be USB 3.0 — especially given the backwards compatibility — but there’s no sense in paying extra for that. You can plug USB 2.0 devices into USB 3.0 ports, too.