Thursday, January 14, 2016

Should I Buy an ExpressCard with USB 3.0? BENCHMARKS! (UPDATE!)

My birthday happened recently, and just before, I thought about what I would want. There is not too many things that I desperately need, and many of the things I may want seemed to expensive for me at the moment. My oldest laptop had an empty ExpressCard slot, as just about everything else is upgraded to the fullest (or quite close). So I decided to fill my ExpressCard slot with a pair of USB 3.0 ports. Here is what I discovered...

USB 3.0 Uses
I do not have a variety of uses for USB 3.0. I do not have any phones that would utilize it, nor any other special devices. What I do have--and a lot of--is external hard disk drives (HDD). I probably have at least 10. Two of which use USB 2.0. However, one of those also has eSATA capabilities, and since I have an eSATA port on the front panel of my desktop, it uses that instead.

But my oldest laptop, which is still working like a champ, does not have any USB 3.0 ports. I do have external HDD's connected that are USB 3.0, but are utilizing USB 2.0 transfer speeds. This has never bothered me except on a few occasions when I need to move massive amounts of large files to another drive.

Because my "old" laptop has an ExpressCard slot, I decided it might be nice to have USB 3.0 when I truly needed it (or not!).

ExpressCard is the successor to PCMCIA. They can allow more connections and speed for a laptop. However, it has been noted because it is now an aging technology, it will never truly have USB 3.0 speeds, and cannot support newer connections like Thunderbolt. This may be why you do not find them on newer laptops...

I decided to do a bit of research before making my purchase. I immediately found a few reviews, most had little useful information. But one review did some benchmarks and revealed some decent performance boosts.

The review essentially used a generic 54mm ExpressCard with two USB 3.0 ports. As with most (if not all) ExpressCards with USB 3.0, it had an external connector to power the USB 3.0 ports. Without that extra power, they would act as standard USB 2.0 ports.

They found their sequential writes for a standard USB 2.0 port between 20-25MB/s. With USB 3.0 through the ExpressCard they were able to achieve about 55MB/s. Quite a big jump! Yet, this also conveyed that it was not close to USB 3.0 speeds...

Express Card NEC Chipset Adapter Converter Card
The card I bought was not only the cheapest, but the best reviewed on Amazon. The only headache most people found was getting the drivers to work. Initially, the product came with a small CD that had drivers, but most found it would not work for the ExpressCard. I read the reviews beforehand, so I knew to go to the following link to get the proper drivers.

I should also note that this card is a 54mm ExpressCard and will not fit into a 34mm ExpressCard slot. The reverse is true, but always ensure that you have the right type of slot. The 54mm is almost 1/3 of the size of a CD-ROM slot.

And finally, this card sits perfectly flush. Like other ExpressCards, especially 34mm ones, they will usually have the ports on the end in a huge bump that is not flat with the rest of the card. This one does, and it can simply be left in the laptop for later use.

If you get this card, or one like it, and see that it seems to have no way of being pulled out, do not worry. Most should be able to pop out by pushing the ExpressCard in (much like how micro SD cards work in phones). Also, trying to unplug the external adapter, or any USB device connected to it, will force the card to come out. This is somewhat of a disadvantage because it can disturb other devices in the second port, and be a real pain if it that port is busy transferring files or whatnot.

Each test was done 3 times using AA SSD. You can find the author's homepage here with the download. If that program is in German, find the English version here. I only recorded the sequential read and write speeds as that is what most people will want to know.

There were several tests, many done for comparison purposes. I used a generic 64GB USB 2.0 flash drive, two Seagate external HDD's [a 5TB & 8TB @ 5900RPM] with USB 3.0 connectors, an older internal Western Digital 500GB 5400RPM HDD, circa 2010, and an older internal Samsung 500GB solid state drive (SSD), circa 2010. Both internal drives came with the laptop.

The generic 64GB USB was about half-full. The 5TB was almost full and the 8TB was about a quarter full. The 500GB HDD was almost empty, and the 500GB SSD was closing in on half-full.

The tests were all averaged after 3 passes had been completed and rounded to the nearest thousandth, if applicable. The following results will be those averages.

64GB USB 2.0
USB 2.0
READ - 17.72MB/s
WRITE - 3.85MB/s
USB 3.0
READ - 18.39MB/s
WRITE - 3.91MB/s

5TB Ext. HDD USB 3.0
USB 2.0
READ - 27.73MB/s
WRITE - 19.78MB/s
USB 2.0 (ExpressCard)
READ - 83.903MB/s
WRITE - 89.283MB/s
USB 3.0 (USB)
READ - 93.616MB/s
WRITE - 94.176MB/s
USB 3.0 (Outlet)
READ - 92.03MB/s
WRITE - 91.73MB/s
USB 3.0 (ChargeDr)
READ - 101.667MB/s
WRITE - 100.427MB/s

8TB Ext. HDD USB 3.0
USB 2.0
READ - 29.90MB/s
WRITE - 20.88MB/s
USB 2.0 (ExpressCard)
READ - 102.76MB/s
WRITE - 100.706MB/s
USB 3.0 (USB)
READ - 103.533MB/s
WRITE - 100.693MB/s
USB 3.0 (Outlet)
READ - 105.476MB/s
WRITE - 104.773MB/s
USB 3.0 (ChargeDr)
READ - 99.947MB/s
WRITE - 100.213MB/s

READ - 72.786MB/s
WRITE - 66.23MB/s

READ - 200.40MB/s
WRITE - 97.746MB/s

READ - 199.88MB/s
WRITE - 121.32MB/s

First I will explain what each test is for. USB 2.0 is for connecting to a native USB 2.0 port. USB 2.0 (ExpressCard) is for connecting to a USB 3.0 port in the ExpressCard without a power adapter. USB 3.0 (USB) is for connecting to a USB 3.0 port through the ExpressCard by using the supplied USB power adapter. The adapter connects to an available USB port for "necessary" power for the ExpressCard. USB 3.0 (Outlet) is still using the supplied adapter, but connected to a Quick Charger that is inserted directly into a wall outlet. The Samsung SSD had two readings because on one of the first three passes one write speed was so low that it definitely pulled the average far down from what I thought it should be.

To get it out of the way, let's look at the 64GB USB results. This was about what I would expect. Part of the reason they are not as high as possible is because it is a generic USB, not something a brand name might sell at faster speeds. I picked it up at a store when it was on sale for an introductory price, all the brand names I would have chosen otherwise were 1.5x-3 times more expensive. It is good to notice that, albeit slight, an increase does occur from using a USB 3.0 port.

On the 5TB external HDD, the USB 2.0 results were right where they should be. The write speeds definitely trounce that of the 64GB USB, and have a significant increase over read speeds. When moving to the USB 3.0 port we find the read and write speeds maxing out to near-identical findings. The least quickest, but still incredibly quick, occur with no external power adapter, followed by the outlet, and then topped by the USB external power adapter. This seems a bit strange since the outlet can provide much more power, but they are close enough to not matter.

With the 8TB external HDD, my findings using the USB 2.0 port are similar to that of the 5TB. Notice that the read and write speeds are all at least about 10MB/s more than the 5TB. I account this towards the amount of space the 5TB has left in comparison to the 8TB. These write speeds are near what most external HDD's should be able to do with a native USB 3.0 port! In addition, the outlet writing has a 4MB/s boost when examining the other two USB 3.0 test results! Each read speed here looks to be topping out just above 100MB/s, also very close to what a native USB 3.0 port could do.

I did perform some tests later where I decided to use the external adapter and a ChargeDr, which is a USB device that can allow faster charging for Quick Charge 2.0 devices. You can read more on my ChargeDr experience and testing here. As you can see, the 8TB did not benefit from the ChargeDr. However, during this test, the 8TB was almost entirely full. The write speed is almost identical to that of not using an external adapter, or when it is used with a USB 2.0 port. The read speed was only a few MB's off from the slowest result. Considering that it was only a quarter full when I ran the other tests, this tells me that using the ChargeDr may not give faster speeds when closer to empty, but will keep speeds very high when the drive is near-full.

The 5TB did much better. While there was little difference in the storage capacity remaining when tested, it did have more gigabytes used when this test was performed. It gained nearly 10MB/s in both read and write speeds! This helps confirm that the extra power draw it gets from the ChargeDr keeps speeds fast when nearing full capacity.

The Western Digital 500GB had the next worst findings after the 64GB USB. It is by far better than using an external HDD on USB 2.0, but still lags behind what can be done with an ExpressCard USB 3.0 port. It cannot even match the 5TB using no external power adapter. My thoughts are that because it is 5400RPM, this has a large impact on how fast it can read or write, and incorporating its age, makes the 5TB and 8TB @ 5900RPM over a USB 3.0 port win hands down.

The Samsung SSD 500GB worked better than I thought given its age. I had been worried because I had read someone bad mouthing it and thought it gave poor performance because of its build quality. Thankfully, it did not. The SSD is the surefire winner of the group (which it should be as it is an internal SSD). It's read score was almost twice as much as any score given by the 8TB, and even it's lowest write score can almost match the 8TB findings. If you use the latter finding, the write speed cannot even be touched by the 8TB!  

What Does It All Mean?
The biggest interpretation is that despite what many people believe, you can almost get USB 3.0 read and write speeds from an ExpressCard. The write speeds are unsurprisingly diminished if compared to a SSD, but more than acceptable for most normal (and even intensive) tasks.

Essentially, using an ExpressCard will bump up your read and write speeds to just about what everyone else could achieve with a native USB 3.0 port. Your read and write speeds will dramatically increase over USB 2.0, but may be just shy of par with a native USB 3.0 port. On top of that, the speeds are still much better than what my internal 5400RPM HDD does! It would be interesting to see what an internal 7200RPM HDD will achieve against my external HDD's...

And finally, giving the external power adapter more power (with either an outlet or ChargeDr) should not only give higher speeds, but help maintain the highest speeds possible when an external hard drive is, or almost is, full.

Do I Need A USB 3.0 ExpressCard?
Definitely not, if you do not have an ExpressCard slot. If you already have native USB 3.0 ports, then probably not. But if you have several USB 3.0 devices and do not want to strangle your USB bandwidth with a USB 3.0 hub, it could come in quite handy to maintain high speeds across-the-board.

The biggest advantage is for circumstances like mine where you have no USB 3.0 ports. And spending less than $12 for it is analogous to spending money on your car's exhaust system to get more horse power for the least amount.

Maybe most important (at least to myself) is that despite every article I read on ExpressCard USB 3.0 ports, the speeds did not degrade to USB 2.0 when not using the external USB power adapter. This is truly amazing in my eyes. It is even more helpful now that I know can avoid wasting a USB 2.0 port, as well as being able to leave the ExpressCard in the laptop as if it is just a part of it. Granted, the speeds do seem to dwindle slightly, much moreso when a HDD is close to being full, but the speeds it can still attain are more than worthy enough for me to not be worried if I ever lose the USB power adapter.

Because this may not be the case for everyone, I should state that I am using an Alienware M17x R2, with an unlocked Intel CPU, and 16GB of DDR3 RAM. This may be important because high-end specs will likely provide better results than a low-end system, and maybe Dell did something different for the 54mm ExpressCard slot. Or maybe, I am just lucky!

Or not so lucky, as it turns out. About two weeks after constant use of the USB 3.0 ports, the ports have finally become faulty without the external power adapter. As elaborated below, the ports would only work for a minimal amount of time. Since using the external power adapter, this issue has not come up again. If I use the external power adapter, it also takes care of the VMware problem noted below.

In summation, my laptop does not require the external USB power adapter to give great performance boosts. But this does not mean a different laptop will not require it. You can only test with the external power adapter and see. The good thing is that it should be included with the ExpressCard (as with my purchase), so you will not be paying extra to get one.

Downsides (UPDATE)
The most obvious disadvantage was stated earlier, in that it will seem that the ExpressCard will pop out when trying to take out the external power adapter or a USB device connected.

During one instance, while doing something on the computer, I noticed the drives I had connected suddenly disappeared. I had to reinstall the drivers in order for them to reappear again.

But the biggest problem I have observed so far was when working with VMware. I needed to create a virtual machine (VM) and did so with VMware. It was not until later that I saw that every time I ran a VM, my USB 3.0 drives would go offline. What is worse is that a simple reinstall of the ExpressCard drivers would not fix it. I would have to do a full reboot of my laptop in order to get them recognized and running again. I am not sure if this is just a VMware problem, but I would be careful using any virtualization software. There was no problems if the drives were plugged into my native USB 2.0 ports.

This is by far the worst problem, but I am unsure if it is unrelated to the prior paragraph because it started happening during my time using VMware. Once I stopped using VMware and just wished to access my drives, I noticed that regardless if they were showing, they would suddenly stop after about 15 minutes. I would reboot and use them again, and again 15 minutes would go by before they would abruptly stop. I tried not doing anything to the drives, and also using the drives, but no matter what I did they would go offline without warning... This stopped for a small period of time, but began happening again. The ONLY solution to this was to use the external power adapter. This brought an additional cable to my setup that I did not want, but, on the plus side, my speeds should be marginally faster.

A more minor issue is that on my laptop the ExpressCard is on the left side. Because my mouse is also on the left side (as I suspect most people have it), the USB 3.0 wires stick out close to my hand and are often touched accidentally. While the wires for USB 3.0 are sturdier than what I find on most USB 2.0 devices, they have affected the connectivity of the drives at times. At first I could bump the wires without ensuing problems. But only about two weeks into this setup, my drives seem to go offline when my hand brushes up against them.

ExpressCard Send-Off
The ExpressCard solution is on its way out, but can still be very useful in situations like mine. While it will never be able to get USB 3.1 or Thunderbolt speeds, it will be some time before USB 3.0 is finally put out to pasture (heck, you can still find USB 2.0 ports on new devices!).

While many may not be able to enjoy this upgrade, there are still enough powerful laptops out there that were made with an ExpressCard slot. I am a person who loves older technology that can still be used in an advantageous manner in modern times. This is one of those things where older technology can be helpful in adapting to the present.

For now, I am greatly satisfied with my findings, and am happy that I can now take advantage of my external HDD's through my primary laptop.

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