Apple is a funny company, happy to go their own way even as the rest of the industry piles on to the latest trend. Such is the case with storage, with Apple ditching floppy drives, optical drives, and even hard disks. On the expansion side, Apple was an early and aggressive proponent of USB but stubbornly ignored eSATA. Now that PC makers are turning to USB 3.0, many are wondering when Apple will follow suit. My sources tell me that “Super Speed” USB 3.0 is indeed coming to the Mac, and very soon!
The Limits of Expansion
USB has served Apple well, with the company abandoning their proprietary peripheral ports in favor of mostly-USB approach starting with the original iMac. Those needing faster I/O always had FireWire – although it is uncommon in the PC world, Mac users relish the high performance and daisy-chain ability of FireWire 800, found on most high-end Macs.
But increasingly-speedy peripherals post a problem for Mac users. Hard disk drives can now top 100 MB/s, and RAID units and SSDs are even faster. Iomega recently introduced a 300 MB/s portable SSD with USB 3.0, for example, but Mac users are left out in the cold, poking along at 1/10 the speed. Apple is phasing out ExpressCard ports on MacBooks and most desktop Macs lack any sort of expansion at all: Only the Mac Pro has PCI-Express slots. This forces I/O- or expansion-hungry Mac users to resort to extraordinary means to add expansion to their machines.
Apple desperately needs something faster than USB 2.0 or FireWire and more flexible and integrated than eSATA. They need USB 3.0! “SuperSpeed” USB 3.0 boasts fast 5 Gbps signaling for real-world performance about equal to SATA.
When Will USB 3.0 Arrive?
So when will Apple embrace USB 3.0? My sources say very soon! I’ve been pestering every vendor I know with that question, and one finally broke down and admitted that Apple contacted them about USB 3.0 compatibility testing. Considering that a new line of MacBooks is about to be introduced, along with a major new revision of Mac OS X, I think this points to an early-2011 release, as Intel brings USB 3.0 to their chipsets. The Fall 2010 Macs might not include USB 3.0 hardware, but it should arrive soon after the new year.
Update: Steve Jobs himself reportedly said Apple is waiting for Intel and others to support USB 3.0
On the software side, I’m told that OS X 10.7 “Lion” includes the necessary drivers to enable USB 3.0 on Macs with appropriate adapters. This will include future models (perhaps not including the MacBook Air, which arrives too soon), and could also be good news for existing MacBook Pros equipped with an ExpressCard slot and Mac Pros. Note that one company, CalDigit, already offers a USB 3.0 PCI-Express card for Mac Pros with OS X-compatible drivers, and there are a number of adapters available for Windows users.
USB 3.0 can’t come soon enough. I’m going to assume my sources are accurate, though I could end up with egg on my face. Although Apple is a bit late to the party, USB 3.0 is not yet a mainstream feature on the Windows side either. It’s nice to hear that they’re concerned about interoperability testing, too. Hopefully we’ll all be cruising along with 5 Gbps USB ports soon!
Update: To answer some questions I’ve gotten, I must first say that this is all hearsay. I have no direct evidence that Apple is including USB 3.0 drivers in OS X 10.7 or that future Macs will include USB 3.0 hardware. To protect them from Apple’s wrath, I won’t reveal the source of the hardware test information, but the Lion software driver info came from a separate source. I consider these two pieces of information enough to convince me that this is true, but folks have cause to be skeptical. Finally, I imagine that a USB 3.0 driver won’t merit mention in the Lion keynote, though USB 3.0 hardware might make a Jobs speech eventually.