The USB 3.1 Gen 2 standard is finally here, supporting data transfer speeds of up to 10 Gbps – that’s twice as fast as USB 3.0 and the confusingly named USB 3.1 Gen 1. We can expect to see a wide range of systems, components and cables popping up through the year that take advantage of the refreshed technology. There’s a choice of connectors, in the shape of the traditional Type-A and new, reversible Type-C and, when paired with the USB Power Delivery v2.0 specification, USB Type-C ports can also charge devices requiring 100 W or less of power.
However, before you jump into this brave new world, you’ll need to be on your toes to ensure you’re not bamboozled by strange naming conventions. In their infinite wisdom, the USB Implementers Forum – the organization that promotes the standard – decided to rebrand USB 3.0 as USB 3.1 Gen 1. Seriously.
“Proper” USB 3.1 – i.e. that supporting the 10 Gbps throughput – is officially known as USB 3.1 Gen 2. I know, it’s bonkers. Better still, as you’ll have predicted, not every manufacturer is using the same naming convention, so when you see USB 3.1 labelled on a device, double-check it’s really USB 3.1 Gen 2. Here are the logos to look for:
So, let’s take a look at some of the brightest and best USB 3.1 Gen2 products hitting shelves this year.
Dell XPS 15 Notebook
Of course, the easiest (but most expensive) way to bump up to the latest USB standard is via a brand new computer. The Dell XPS 15 notebook offers a great excuse to upgrade. Like it’s smaller brother, the XPS 13, the 15″ model is compact, light and packed with goodies. Dell claims it’s the world’s smallest 15-inch laptop, but those sleek lines wrap around a powerful engine.
Available in touch and non-touch variants, the XPS 15 is available with a choice of sixth-generation Intel Skylake processors, with the Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 all supported. 8 GB RAM is standard, with 16 GB shipping on the top of the line model. You can opt for integrated graphics or add in a discrete NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960M with 2 GB RAM for a gaming and graphics processing boost.
The USB-C port onboard supports Thunderbolt 3 as well as USB 3.1 Gen 2, so is truly versatile. Power, video, storage with speeds up to 40 Gbps? They’re all available. There are two additional USB 3.0 ports alongside HDMI out and an SD card reader, so the Dell XPS 15 is stacked with connectivity options. As it’s such a slim device, there’s no room for Ethernet, so you’ll need to take advantage of a USB to Ethernet adapter for wired network connections. However, with an unusually powerful 3×3 802.11ac wireless adapter on board (2×2 on the entry-level model) you should benefit fast network access when you’re cable-free.
The Dell XPS 15 is priced from $999 and is shipping now.
HP Elite X2
While the Dell XPS 15 is sleek and light enough to take on the road, if you’re looking for a 2 in 1 device, then the new HP Elite X2 boasts a kickstand plus keyboard cover design (much like the Microsoft Surface) and is also equipped with a USB-C port, supporting USB 3.1 Gen 2 and Thunderbolt 3.
Starting at $899, the 12″ device is available with a choice of Intel Skylake Core-M mobile processors (m3, m5 and m7) with a maximum of 8 GB RAM supported. Internal storage utilises an M.2 SSD with SATA (up to 512 GB) and super-fast PCIe (256 GB) connections available.
Alongside the powerful USB-C port, you’ll find an additional USB-A port supporting USB 3.0, microSD slot and an optional micro SIM slot on some models. Audio is boosted by Bang & Olufsen speakers, while a dual microphone array,2 MP FHD 1080p front-facing webcam and 5 MP FHD 1080p rear-facing model will ensure your Skype calls are crystal clear.
Again, there’s no room for Ethernet, but HP has equipped the Elite X2 with a dual band Intel Wireless-AC 8260 Wi-Fi adapter with 2×2 antennas, supporting 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.2.
ASUS Maximus VIII Hero Alpha
If you’re seeking to upgrade a desktop PC, then you have a range of options – and costs – to choose from. You may feel that now is a great opportunity to replace your PC’s motherboard and processor, for a new Intel Skylake Z170 model supporting the latest technologies.
I’ve just built a brand new gaming PC around the $299 ASUS Maximus VIII Hero Alpha (see my review) and have found it to be a first-class motherboard. The Maximus VIII Hero Alpha is equipped with 2×2 802.11ac MU-MIMO Wi-Fi for enhanced network performance (with speeds up to 867 Mbit/s), alongside USB 3.1 Type-A and Type-C ports, powered by an Intel USB 3.1 controller for super-speed data transfers.
On the storage side, there are dual NVM Express (NVMe) U.2 sockets and M.2 for extreme 32 Gbit/s SSD data transfers and up to three-way RAID setups. According to internal ASUS lab tests, the Maximus VIII Hero Alpha has achieved write speeds of 3386 MB/s and read operations clocks at 3575 MB/s – your mileage may vary, as ever.
ASUS are no slouches when it comes to USB 3.1 Gen 2 – in fact, their TUF Sabertooth Z97 Mark 2 was the first motherboard to ship with the technology in the middle of 2015. You’ll see USB 3.1 Gen 2 popping up on more motherboards throughout 2016, for sure.
ASUS USB 3.1 Front Panel Kit
Of course, budget may dictate a more circumspect entry into the world of USB 3.1 Gen 2 – the good news is that there are simple upgrade kits for enhancing your desktop PC. The ASUS USB 3.1 Front Panel Kit ships in two variants – one offering twin USB-A ports and the second with two USB-C ports.
The kit it designed to slot into a free 5.25″ drive bay, with the cables connecting to a spare SATA Express port on your motherboard. Obviously, given the 10 Gbps transfer rates involved, your motherboard needs a fast connection, so standard SATA 6 Gbps ports are out of the question. Note too that the motherboard must also support Intel’s latest Z170 chipset.
These ASUS front pane kits are also versatile – if you want to switch from front panel access to rear, simply open up the case and you’ll find it’s powered by a removable PCIe card. Slip it directly into a spare slot on your motherboard, and you’re good to go!
StarTech 2-Port USB 3.1 (10Gbps) Card – 1x USB-C, 1x USB-A
If you’re seeking to mix and match ports, StarTech is offering a two-port USB 3.1 Gen 2 PCIe 3.0 card that includes both a USB-C and USB-A port.
Available online for under $50, the card supports PCIe x4 lanes, ensuring you’ll benefit from the full 10 Gbps transfer speeds on offer. The USB-C port is also compatible with Thunderbolt 3, but speeds will limited to that same 10 Gbps maximum.
There are a couple of watchouts to be aware of with the card. Older motherboards may not be able to hit that maximum 10 Gbps figure. It’ll need to support PCIe Gen 3.0 for maximum throughput. PCI Express Gen 1.0 maximum throughput is 2.5 Gbps, while PCI Express Gen 2.0 throughput tops out at 5 Gbps.
Also note that the bandwidth is shared across the two ports. A single connection will happily push data at the maximum 10 Gbps, but connect both ports and you’ll find your speeds are halved.
StarTech.com USB 3.1 Gen 2 Dual-Bay Dock
Once you’re up and running with USB 3.1 Gen 2, you can start to take advantage of the fast data transfer speeds on offer. StarTech’s USB 3.1 Gen 2 Dual-Bay Dock connects to your PC via a USB Type-A to B cable and allows you to access 2.5” and 3.5” form factor solid-state and hard drives.
Obviously, as the dock supports SATA drives, maximum data rates are limited to the hard drive’s 6 Gbps connector, but you should find that sufficiently speedy for data backups and large file transfers.
You’ll find the StarTech.com USB 3.1 Gen 2 Dual-Bay Dock available online for around $80.
Akito NT2 U3.1 RAID Storage Enclosure
If you’re seeking a high-speed external storage enclosure, then the Akito NT2 may well fit the bill. It’s a compact, two-bay enclosure packing a hardware RAID controller, with JBOD, RAID 0, RAID 1 and spanning configurations available.
The enclosure is predominately designed for traditional, mechanical 3.5″ hard drives but can be used in conjunction with Akito’s Neutrino Bridge 2.5″ to 3.5″ drive adapter to add 2.5″ hard and SSD drive support.
According to company tests, you can anticipate RAID 0 read/speeds up to 443/399 MB/s for HDDs and 658/865 MB/s with SSDs, although your mileage my vary depending on configuration and drives used.
The Akito NT2 U3.1 RAID Storage Enclosure is shipping now for $99, without disks.
Think premium storage and the LaCie brand is probably at the top of your list, so it was no surprise to see the company announce one of the first USB 3.1 Gen 2 external storage solutions at CES this year.
Designed by long-term collaborator, Neil Poulton, the $1,100 LaCie Chrome is an external SSD drive with twin 500 GB SSDs configured in RAID 0. As you’d expect, it’s speedy, with file transfers hitting 940MB/s.
It connects to Macs, PCs and other devices using USB-C, with LaCie labelling the device as a “trophy for tech connoisseurs.”
It’s shipping later this year at an eye-watering $1,100.
SanDisk Extreme 900
Fortunately (for your bank manager), the LaCie Chrome isn’t the only USB 3.1 Gen 2 storage option in town. The SanDisk Extreme 900 offers an alternative, with 480 GB, 960 GB and 1.92 TB options available from $299.99 up to $799.99.
Targeted at imaging professionals, the Extreme 900 offers read/write speeds up to 850 MB/s with a temperature and impact-resistant case that allows it to take a knock on the road. It’s shock resistant up to 800G and vibration resistant (5.35gRMS, 50-2000 HZ).
BlueEye ThunderDisk USB 3.1 mSATA SSD
Here in the early days of USB 3.1 Gen 2 adoption, you won’t find many USB flash drives on the market supporting the latest standard. Even extreme models, such as the Kingston HyperX Savage are limited to USB 3.1 Gen 1 support. So, you’ll need to wait a little longer to see Gen 2 adopted by the major storage manufacturers.
What I did spot online was a device called the ThunderDisk USB 3.1 mSATA SSD. It’s actually a small form factor SSD rather than a thumb drive, but the latest version of the device does indeed support USB 3.1 Gen 2.
Available in 128 GB, 256 GB and 512 GB capacities, the ThunderDisk is equipped with a USB-C connector and offers transfer speeds up to 300/400 MB/s (read/write). If youre interested in learning more, check out this review.
As we progress through 2016, you can expect to hear much more about USB 3.1 Gen 2, with a wide array of devices coming to market that support the new standard. For those that like to stay on the cutting edge, however, there are plenty of options available today to check out though – whether you’re happy to invest in a brand new PC, or simply upgrade an existing device.
We’ll be keeping an eye out for more USB 3.1 Gen 2 devices through the year, so stay tuned for more!