USB 3.0 vs. Thunderbolt review

USB 3.0 vs. Thunderbolt review

Summary: What's the difference between USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt? After playing with USB 3.0 for the last 6 months--and Thunderbolt for more than a year--here's what I've found.

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USB 3.0 vs. Thunderbolt is an issue for all pro users of recent Macs and, increasingly, high-end Windows systems. They're both standard on all Macs, so the issue is how much can you rely on the cheaper USB 3.0.

Bottom line: For many Mac users Thunderbolt will be overkill. But if you need workstation performance, USB is no substitute.

Availability

Thunderbolt is highly available. In the 18 months I've used my Promise Thunderbolt array, it has gone offline less than half a dozen times--and not at all since I installed Mac OS 10.8 Mountain Lion. Considering the Promise array was purchased shortly after Thunderbolt started shipping, this speaks well for the robustness and maturity of Thunderbolt's underlying Intel technology.

USB 3.0 availability is spotty. Drives drop off for no reason and it takes unplugging and re-plugging or, in serious cases, restarting the system to see them again.

As I use a four-port and a seven-port hub with different chipsets I've found that the four-port--with a newer chip set--is more reliable than the seven-port's older chip set. But I've also found with USB 2.0 that more than four ports are less reliable, which may be the issue with the seven-port USB 3.0 as well.

There are no Thunderbolt hubs; instead, Thunderbolt daisy chains up to six devices together. Overall, the ability to support multiple drives and multiple devices seems to be much more robust on Thunderbolt than on USB 3.0.

Performance

USB 3.0 performance is excellent compared to USB 2.0, which was never as good as the ubiquitous 480Mbps metric claimed. It is faster than any single hard drive and fast enough to saturate almost any single SSD as well.

I haven't been able to max out my Thunderbolt connection yet. The four-drive Pegasus array maxed out at something over 400MBps, well within the 1GBps performance of Thunderbolt. However, the ability to plug a second--and third--monitor into the Thunderbolt daisy chain gives a better idea of the total bandwidth.

Even a 10Gbps USB 3.0 will still have less than half of the total cross-sectional bandwidth of today's Thunderbolt. But tomorrow's Thunderbolt is coming soon.

Flexibility

This is why most professionals will choose Thunderbolt in addition to USB 3.0. Need Fibre Channel? SDI? PCIe slots? Genlock? RED workflow? You're the target market.

Don't know what most of those are? You aren't.

The Storage Bits take

USB 3.0--the version most systems will have for the next two to three years--is plenty fast for casual users who need an external drive for capacity or backup. It should work well for direct connection to a small RAID array as well. And, of course, it's compatible with all the USB 2.x peripherals you already own.

But if your livelihood depends on your system and you need external storage, displays, and/or specialized hardware, you'll appreciate the robustness and performance of Thunderbolt. It allows a small notebook--in my case, a MacBook Air--to be a capable desktop replacement.

Will USB 3.0 crush Thunderbolt? It's instructive to consider FireWire's fate.

While the FireWire market was much smaller, it also had a number of specialized products that worked well for professionals, many of which are still available. Thunderbolt replaces FW800 nicely and is well populated with unique products that offer performance that USB 3.0 can't match today.

Yes, Thunderbolt products cost more, but you get more. And if you need more--whatever "more" is--Thunderbolt is the way to go.

Comments welcome, of course. Check out my review of the Thunderbolt Display/MacBook Air combo or more on my experience with Thunderbolt. What say you, fellow Thunderbolt users?

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Reviews, Storage

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101 comments
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  • Thunderbolt devices are hard to come by

    IMHO the thing that will kill thunderbolt is the lack of accessories, I have thunderbolt on my Macbook Air, you know the only thing its good for? being an adapter for something else.

    I've not managed to find many peripherals for thunderbolt in my searches, and buying a portable hard drive with thunderbolt is a bit overkill for something that'll be throttled by disk spin speed.

    If Thunderbolt daisy chains then prove it by linking me 3 products for sale that I can daisy chain. I'm not one to skimp out for bragging rights, but just seems like its a buyers market and buyers want USB
    Spliff666
    • Target Audience

      Please re-read the section that describes target audience. (Hint: you are not in it.) I have a 27" Thunderbolt display with a Thunderbolt hard drive daisy chained to it. I *would* have my Thunderbolt Drobo RAID daisy chained to it too, but that model wasn't out yet when I bought my Drobo. It is now though. ;-) There are your 3 devices.

      I don't use the Thunderbolt display on my Air, but if I did, it would make an awesome combination with the built in mag-safe charger and gigabit Ethernet port, additional USB ports and a daisy-chain Thunderbolt port, it makes an Air into a real workstation, just as the article says. Can a Surface do that?
      JoeFoerster
      • Surface?

        What does Surface have to do with this? I've been a Mac user since 2007, and Thunderbolt is nice, but the number of affordable external drives is nonexistent. Maybe that's one of the reasons that Apple included USB 3 in the latest round of MacBook products.
        sjanofsky@...
        • Apple tacked in USB3

          because the Intel 7-series chipset they're using have integrated USB3, instead of the 3rd-party solution used by the 6-series (and even some bleeding-edge 5-series) motherboards. But then again, you'd know that if you built your own 1155-based system with the top-end chipsets (p67 or z68).
          Champ_Kind
        • Also...

          ... TBolt is external PCI-e, so you have a lot more factors that make it expensive. It's also fast enough to support 3, maybe 4 channels of USB3, meaning the comparing the connections is really Apples and Oranges; USB3 is going to finish fully replacing USB2 soon, and TBolt has, for all practical reasons, displaced FireWire to the point where Apple can drop FireWire and very few would shed a tear.
          Champ_Kind
          • And...

            and the sad but true fact is thunderbolt is in no way cross compatible with firewire (unlike usb 2.0/3.0 are with each other), so you're just out of luck. Not only that, in the real world most people didn't & still don't have firewire just like they won't have thunderbolt , as both of those hold a VERY small market share. Even if niche customers like JoeFoerster use it, those who do use will always be the minority by far. It's not like him or anyone else with thunderbolt can just go to a neighbors house and plug their hard drive (or thunderbolt pen/usb/jump drive in?) and transfer files. As most users have usb and/or windows (albeit android with usb 2.0/3.0, windows pc/desktop). most business settings have dells still or similar computers with plenty of usb ports and no firewire or thunderbolt (and so do their hard drives which aren't firewire or thunderbolt). Again it's a niche small market for thunderbolt but those who want it and can justify it will get it. More power to them. But i'm sure they will always carry usb 2.0/3.0 with them as again, if they ever want to share files in the most compatible way with people in a physical manner(and the highest chance of being able to) they will have a usb 2.0/3.0 device.
            baalpeteor
      • I reread the article and the comment above...

        and I have yet to find anything referring to the surface. Sure you are in the right blog?
        ScanBack
      • Surface isn't even aimed at the same target market as the Air.

        Air is meant for light to medium content production on top of being a productivity laptop, where Surface Pro (which has a MDP output) is meant for those that want a tablet and a light-duty ultrabook for the road (the processor was chosen for graphics performance, not cpu performance).

        Bringing up the Surface invalidated your argument.
        Champ_Kind
      • Yes

        The Surface Pro can.
        guinness1999
    • licensing

      licensing and the costs associated is the main problem with thunderbolt, it reduces the likelyhood of wide adoption.
      technically, display port and usb 3.0 covers all the needs that thunderbolt offers.
      warboat
  • Promise RAID write cache and battery backup

    Robin,
    Thanks for the great write up of your experiences. I like the idea of the Promise thunderbolt drives.

    Is your Promise drive RAID 5, if so how do you feel about the reliability of RAID 5 without a battery backup for the write cache? Do you feel that not having a battery backed cache is an issue in the 'real' world?

    Thanks,
    Marcus
    marcusrowell
    • BBU write cache

      Marcus,

      If I was running a busy relational database where any missed write would corrupt all my data, I'd be very concerned. But I don't.

      For large video files - my primary use case - where bandwidth is critical, the lack of a write cache is no concern at all. If the array went down in the middle of a write, I'd still have the copy I was writing from.

      Robin
      R Harris
  • Drobo

    I would be interested in seeing a good test of the new Thunderbolt 5 bay Drobo. I have heard that the Firewire Drobo was very slow, slower than Firewire 800 should be and it would be interesting to see how the speed of the new unit compares.
    rfoto
  • Technically superior but...

    Yes, I understand that based on specs and your experience with reliability, Thunderbolt is superior... I remember the Sony Beta-Vision was technically superior to VHS... and for those who bought the superior hardware, the availability of content to buy or rent was disappointing.

    The fact that I knew what USB 3.0 is but I had no idea what Thunderbolt is until I read this article tells me that the retail advertising campaign for Thunderbolt is not working.

    If one feels that a business (or technology) can thrive by focusing sales of a superior technology on the enterprise channel first, and then later think about the retail channel, look at RIM Blackberry history to see how well that works.
    jilindi@...
  • Thunderbolt limited to too macs and nothing to use it with even there

    USB3.0 will be on macs in a year. Apple always try to "elite you" and force you to use things noone else wants. Remember firewire? No flash? Seriously Apple tells you not sells you and the lambs will fight to the death saying apples right even tho they suffer thru with what they get. USB3.0/4.0 ect.. will blow Thunderbolt away as usb 2 blew away firewire(in use and finally in firewires death).
    ditkazbearz
    • It is already there

      USB 3.0 is already on Macs. The only current model lacking it is the seriously overdue for an update Mac Pro.
      lonniemcclure
    • Reality distorsion field is common with Apple users.

      Thunderbolt is "firewire"... just the new version...

      And I have two computers with Firewire. How many times have I used it?... none.

      Why? because the one camcorder with the firewire port isn't even compatible with my ports (on the two machines)
      In the last 10 years, the only time I head anything about firewire (and now thunderbolt) are from individuals that want to push it's greatness simply because they have it on their Apple machine.

      The reality is that while it's faster, as you stated, there's not really anything out there that can make use of it anyways, and compatibility ends up winning out, and with USB 3.0 being backward compatible with 2.0, all one needs is the new ports and all their older devices will work as before but new devices that are 3.0, can take advantage of the "upgrade".

      But I do enjoy the crow that these people end up eating. Sad that Apple puts in anything in their machines and their user wet themselves over it, regardless that it's pointless.
      imfallen_angel
      • You can not extrapolate your single use case to ANY generality

        Who cares how many times YOU use FW? Why do you think that matters to anyone but yourself? I use it all the time. Therefore it is indispensable. See how that works?
        Besides all that, the fact that you can't seem to get FireWire/iLink to work on your camcorder (which most likely only needs a 4-pin to 9-pin cable) says much about your technological expertise.
        Likewise with your claim that there is not anything out there that can use it. Ever heard of displayPort? You know, what HDMI is based on? Well, ALL displayport monitors work over Thunderbolt. Any number of RAIDS, drive arrays that would not work particularly well over USB, work fine on TB.
        Your Reality Denial Field has blinded you.
        .DeusExMachina.
        • Ditto...

          Funny how you believe yourself superior without a clue to who I am and what I do.

          Compared to USB 2.0 and now 3.0, Firewire never was popular and RAID is almost always SATA (or eSATA).

          IF you believe in this technology and find use for it, good for you, but the reality, very few actually does.

          When if comes to devices using firewire and now thunderbolt, the reality is that they are very few in numbers, and that, since my example was over your head, if they require having to deal with not being simply plug-and -play, they fail being user-friendly.

          And for your cable 4-9 pins comment, you again missed the point, as I did look it up, and that wasn't the issue, it was a compatibility issue. If this particular (pro-level Sony 8) camera couldn't be make "universal", it speaks volume to how people will react to it. And before you get all pompous and have to state another idiotic and childish attack, I did a lot of checking and such, got a bunch of cables and such to ensure that I wasn't missing anything.

          I can easily say that in all my years of working with video and computer systems.networks, etc. I've never seen or known a single professional that bothered with firewire.

          SCSI yes, but that's as far from SATA or USB that I've seen.

          Glad that I got your panties all bunched up, you're the type that proves how some people are so lost with their heads up their #$&^ that they need to justify using a limited technology and need to justify it.
          imfallen_angel
          • You don't seem to be very good at arguing.

            So we're supposed to believe that because you didn't use Firewire, Thunderbolt is stupid?

            By your logic, the fact that I used Firewire 800 over usb 2.0 for my external drives (for very obvious reasons, mind you) without ever having used a Mac, that immediately makes Thunderbolt superior to USB 3.0 -- and that sounds batshit crazy.

            Your debate is both anecdotal and myopic, and you seem less worried about fact than protecting your your confidence in your non-Apple investment despite their recent success.
            seraph82