USB3 has been talked about in the tech world for a couple of years now, but it has only been in the last few months that products have finally appeared on the market. We are finally seeing mature products with affordable prices, but how does this effect the post-production world? With a maximum bandwidth of 500MB/s it has a similar signal speed to a single channel of PCI-Express 2.0, which theoretically should be sufficient for uncompressed HD video data, even dual-link 4:4:4 signals, and possibly 2K frame sizes.
External hard drives will be the area of the market that will see the biggest immediate benefit from USB3 implementation. Up until now there has been competition between many competing interfaces including eSATA, Firewire, and USB2 among others. USB3 is clearly superior to all of those in almost every regard. It is as fast as eSATA with better hot-swap support and intergrated power, and it clearly surpasses both Firewire and USB2 in regards to bandwidth. It hasn’t reached the Mac world in a significant way yet, but that will have to happen soon, as a step towards full adoption as the industry standard, which I anticipate taking place within a year.
I was prompted to begin testing USB3 drives after reading an article on tomshardware.com a while back, and I agree with their assessment that Western Digital has delivered the best USB3 storage products. I have used many of their 1TB and 2TB MyBook 3.0 drives over the last few weeks, and have had stunning results. The first few drives even came with PCIe host cards in the box, but they are well worth the expense, even if you have to buy them separately. I can sustain transfer rates of 150MB/s on a clean drive with Windows 7, and routinely backup a Terabyte of data in two to three hours now. This used to be an overnight task, using USB2 or Firewire based drives. Even more impressively, I have gotten nearly identical results from using an ExpressCard based USB3 adaptor in a Dell Precision M6400 as well as from the integrated USB3 ports on the HP 8740w Mobile Workstation. Western Digital’s 2.5inch My Passport line sustains 90MB/s without needing a separate A/C power source, ideal for making backups onset and in the field, when shooting with tapeless acquisition formats.
These transfer rates are clearly a limited by the speed of the disks themselves, so ideally we will see external drives with two disks running nearly twice as fast in the near future. One sign that that may not be the case is that when copying for one drive to another on the same USB3 controller, I am only getting 50-60MB/s. That implies that the original 150MB/s may also be limited by the interface, not just the drive, meaning it may not be as simple as adding more disks to extend the capabilities of USB3 attached external drives. Also I have occassionally run into an issue with the Western Digital drives where I can’t mount more than one at the same time due to a disk signature conflict. Hopefully that is just a default software configure issue that will disappear in the near future, but I have been able to get around it fairly easily for now.
Blackmagic has tried to take advantage of this bandwidth potential with a number of products including the Pocket Ultrascope, the Intensity Shuttle, and the UltraStudio Pro. They seem to be a bit ahead of the curve because I have tried all of these in the last few weeks, and have not been able to get them to work. I tried them on both laptops and desktops without success, even after applying the firmware and driver updates that Blackmagic suggests. Most existing USB3 host devices are not capable of the maximum bandwidth that USB3 offers, which is required for any HD Video I/O device to function correctly. Hopefully the coming months will bring improvements in that regard, but until then I expect Blackmagic will have difficulty finding a strong market for their USB3 based products.
In all of these cases it is apparent that more optimization in the host devices and drivers are needed before we can realize the full potential of USB3 for realtime uncompressed HD video work, which is why there isn’t a large selection of external RAIDs being advertized as alternatives to SCSI, Fiber, or eSATA and SAS. But until that optimization happens, I will be content with my 150MB/s transfers, which are at least 5 times faster than anything I was getting with Firewire or USB2. And since a lot of what I do involves onset media management and systems administration for editing workstations, USB3 has already made my life much easier, and was well worth the investment.