Ask LH: Do I Need USB 3.0 In My Next Computer?

Dear Lifehacker, I really would like to replace my old computer with a new one, but the one I want doesn’t support USB 3.0. I don’t want to buy a machine that’s already somewhat outdated. If my next machine only has USB 2.0 ports, will it be incompatible with USB 3.0 external hard drives and accessories a few years down the line? Is USB 3.0 so important that I should wait until it’s available in a computer I want, or should I just buy what’s available now? Thanks, USB Confused

Photo by Maximum PC

Dear UC,

USB 3.0 is fantastic. Not only does it run at 5Gbps — 10 times faster than its predecessor, USB 2.0 — but it also corrects a lot of performance issues as well. It’s all-around better, so if you can get it you should. USB 3.0 devices and ports are also backwards-compatible with USB 2.0, so you don’t have to worry about a USB 2.0 machine being obsolete.

While USB 3.0 is great, you shouldn’t have to worry about your computer becoming obsolete just because it doesn’t have it. For example, you can use USB 3.0 hard drives with your current USB 2.0 ports. They’ll work just fine, but at USB 2.0 speeds. Hopefully that puts your main concern to rest, but when it comes to buying the USB 3.0 question gets a little more tricky. In some cases, it may not be worth the wait.

The main reason you wouldn’t want to wait is if you’re buying a Mac (with the exception of a Mac Pro, which can have USB 3.0 ports with the help of a PCI Express card). Apple just added Thunderbolt to its new Macs, which is twice as a fast as USB 3.0. This would be great if any Thunderbolt devices actually existed. The first machines with the super-fast port were announced at the beginning of the year, and yet no devices exist. Device support will likely be paltry until Apple’s exclusive hold on the technology expires in early 2012.

Chances are Apple will want to give Thunderbolt an opportunity to grow before allowing the competition of USB 3.0, so it’s probably a safe assumption that you wont see any USB 3.0-compatible Mac laptops or desktops for quite a while. My guess would be about two years. Many people believe it will never happen. If you want a Mac, don’t wait.

Or build a hackintosh, like this Hack Mini. It has USB 3.0 support and costs very little to build. Whether you’re building a hackintosh or a Windows- or Linux-based PC, most commercial motherboards sport USB 3.0 ports.

If you’re buying a non-Mac laptop or desktop and have your sights set on something specific that currently doesn’t offer USB 3.0 in any way, you have a couple of options. You can wait, as USB 3.0 support in a newer model is probably right around the corner. Alternatively, buy a machine with an ExpressCard slot and get a USB 3.0 card. That may not be an ideal solution, but it’s better than nothing.

All in all, definitely get USB 3.0 if you can get it. If you can’t, or just don’t want to wait, you’ll still survive. You’ll just be moving a little bit slower.


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