USB3 for Macs – Thunderbolt killer or simple step up?

I’m a dyed in wool Mac User, so for me USB3 hardly came into view. I do remember watching a USB3 demo on a Mac where it displayed sub- FW800 performance – and decided to leave it at that. However, the continuing need to pass on my video work to PC users for archive, and the achingly slow performance of USB2, forced me to at least check it out for myself. At least it would give me something to do whilst waiting for sensibly priced Thunderbolt storage and cables.

After all, the Mac world is still full of USB2 devices: cheap, slow hard drives and computationally undemanding stuff like mice and keyboards. Little USB sticks for storage to perpetuate ‘sneakernet’ file sharing. There is of course, that funny USB3 sticker on most PC drives that claims high performance and that may be good enough for our PC using brethren, but we’re Mac users – why not sidestep the USB3 ‘upgrade’ for the super fast world of Thunderbolt?

That’s the mindset that Apple appears to want us to hold.

But the new set of Ivy Bridge equipped Macs will get, courtesy of their new chip set, USB3 functionality. Will Apple connect this functionality into the OS? Or will they find a way to block it? Should we care?

The world of PCs has been using USB3 for quite a while, scratching their heads over the Mac user’s obsession with FireWire and the ‘Unicorn poop’ status of Thunderbolt. Why are Mac users so precious about FireWire? USB3 blows it out of the water! They want Thunderbolt speeds – for what? And connect them with $50 cables? If the devices are blessed with pass-thru ports – which so many aren’t? (see sidebar below) USB3 has hubs!

I purchased the CalDigit USB3 card which fits into the ExpressCard slot of my MacBook Pro 17” – the choice of CalDigit is significant, as it’s the only one that’s touted to work with pretty much any USB3 drive – other manufacturers of USB3 cards tend to only work with their own drives and thus missing the meaning of the U in USB.

I’m used to working on FW800 drives, and so intended to use cheaper USB3 bus powered disks for backup and for handing over to clients, who could use them on their PCs. However, when used as the main working drive with a disk intensive application like Final Cut Pro, it was obvious that the USB3 drive was a lot faster. FCPX was running far better on USB3 than on FW800.

Enthused by this, I did a quick series of tests of drive performance with the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test app, available for free from the App Store. And so, in reverse order, here are the results:

Drive Write (MB/s) Read (MB/s)
Slow, cheap USB2 drive 21.6 26.2
Western Digital Passport SE (USB2) 30.1 32.8
LaCie Quadra 7200rpm 2TB on FW800 46.6 44.5
Crucial 256GB SSD on FW800 75 81.6
Western Digital Passport SE (USB3) 96.3 108.4
Internal 512 GB SSD in MacBook Pro 17” 88.8 167.0

Of course, what’s missing from this test is the ultimate: SSD in Thunderbolt drive, but these are still eyewateringly expensive.

The £75 Western Digital drives represent the kind of value we’ve been used to with spinning disks, and I can affirm that they work very well with Final Cut Pro 10 – the WDs on USB3 have been my drive of choice for onsite editing, with the added advantage that they’re cheap and compatable and can be passed over to the client without too many caveats (having archived to other drives).

Is USB3 better than Thunderbolt? No – it’s a different beastie. Should we give up on Thunderbolt for USB3? Of course not.

Should Apple now accept USB3 as a non-competitve alternative for non-specialist media use? Of course.

In the days of Steve Jobs, I’d fear that USB3 would be disabled in the new Macs in a fit of pique. The adoption of USB3 in the new Macs would demonstrate a more universal approach from Tim Cook et al.

At least CalDigit offer the option to MacBook Pro 17” users – and for everyone else, there is, of course, the Thunderbolt adaptor for Express Cards. Oh the irony.

Side bar: Thunderbolt devices can be powered via the cable from the host, but only one device per port. So, Thunderbolt powered devices do not have a passthrough port. Powered devices can have passthrough ports, but these are a rarity as most manufacturers seem to feel a single Thunderbolt port is enough.

However, when you’re paying top dollar for a new technology, the idea that a device will only work as the single device on the chain is frankly anathema. Video ingest device with no pass through to a storage device? Storage device with no pass through to a display device? No wonder Thunderbolt is taking its time to get accepted when device manufacturers assume their product will exist in its own lonesome prefecture.

Papa’s got a brand new drive

I’ve upgraded the internal hard disk of my main MacBook Pro this week, and whilst it’s not the most stunning upgrade in the world, it has left a rosy glow on things. It’s also left behind a very useful little disk drive that will be a constant travelling companion. It has also given me absolute faith in Time Machine as a backup system. You simply MUST use Time Machine – it’s so easy and works so well…

Here’s why:

Two years ago, I had an internal hard disk drive fail the day before going on a job abroad – thankfully it didn’t happen on the job, as I needed to offload SxS cards whilst on site. The only solution that would work for me was to just go out and purchase a whole new MacBook Pro, and ‘restore’ my old identity onto it. That’s when having backups really saves the day – but I learned the value of REGULAR backups after that.

Now, before the failure, I have to say I did notice some tell-tale signs. The hard disk was louder in operation, I had a few odd things happen with software suddenly not working, or losing preferences. But the sound – the sound of a hundred mice tap-dancing in clogs inside my hard disk – will stay with me for a long time. I listened to that sound as I tried to reboot my machine over and over again…

So when I heard my internal hard disk on THIS new machine begin to get louder, and for a couple of FCP plugins to misbehave all of a sudden, I remembered. I tried out SMART Utility

and it didn’t like my hard drive either. It reported it as ‘FAILING’. Now, SMART is, and I quote: “Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology … a system built into hard drives by their manufacturers to report on various measurements(called attributes) of a hard drive’s operation.”

It can tell you that your hard disk is working. Yay. It can tell you if your hard disk is broken. Boo. But some would say that diagnosing anything in between is a bit of a crap shoot. SMART Utility has a go, by looking at a variety of reports on read errors and some technical stuff I don’t understand. It also knows how old your hard disk is, and quite frankly I think this is its most reliable feature – a bit like a weatherman who reports rain when his corns hurt.

So, with a two day lull in procedings, and a religiously up-to-date Time Machine backup on hand, I took my MacBook Pro to the Mac Daddy in North London

who took my old disk out and replaced it with a Western Digital Scorpio Black 320GB 7200RPM drive

whilst I tried to purchase some more disks at a local emporium. But that’s another blog.

Back home, I attached the Time Machine drive to the Mac, booted up off the original DVD-ROM and rather than install the OS, I opted to use Time Machine to restore my hard disk. This reformats the entire drive so you start from scratch, so don’t bother doing anything to it beforehand.

The process is simple: select the Time Machine backup you want to restore from (latest, or any other stages in the past), select which drive to restore to, and hit the button. The time it thought it would take varied from three to six hours, but it took two and a bit.

Everything worked straight away, except for Mail where I mistook its desire to reimport – it sounds contradictory, but let Mail do this. If it goes wrong, just use Time Machine to restore the Mail folders in the Library and try again. A couple of FCP filters needed reinstallation (probably because they were damaged).

Totally without drama.

And now I’m left with my old hard drive. It still works. Maybe not trustworthy as a day to day drive, and in its post upgrade state, pretty useless.

Aha! No! Buy, for about a tenner (maybe £15 in your local store), a USB-2 enclosure for a SATA 2.5 inch drive. Pop it open, snap in your old hard drive, plug in a USB cable, and…

No, don’t format it. This is far more exciting:

Shut down your MacBook Pro. Restart with the option key down. Your old hard disk and your new hard disk appear to boot from. Select your USB drive, and lo – your Mac boots from it. Everything functions as it did.

That excites anyone who has faced the nightmare scenario of working on-site and your main machine develops a fault – I’ve had PCs get killer viruses, hard disks fail, machines get dropped, stolen, soaked – and the time involved to ressurect a sick machine, reinstall OS and software, iron out the problems make for stomach churning stuff.

So should you need to bring in a backup machine in a hurry, your little magic drive enables you to imprint it with your apps, documents and plug-ins and work as before – if a little more slowly – until you can make more permanent arrangements.

And I hope I NEVER have to use it.

PS: Update – the MacBook Pro feels a bit snappier and alert – like it’s had the second cup of coffee in the morning. A combination of 7200RPM and having 15-20% free space has improved the general responsiveness of launching apps, working with big files, system stuff and so on. However, I still work with external 7200RPM drives for all footage, assets, project files and renders.

In the future, I will order MacBook Pros with 7200RPM internal disks. And I’ll clone the drives to bootable externals too.