Why we don’t need USB 3.0 ports on our smartphones or tablets
The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 has a somewhat unusual USB port on it. No, it’s not reinventing one proprietary connector into another proprietary connector like Apple recently did with their “you can plug it in upside down” Lightning connector. Instead, Samsung opted to go with a standard port, albeit an ugly one: USB 3.0.
Some are touting the inclusion of this new port as “revolutionary” or “a step in the right direction”. To be frank, it’s kind of silly. To find out why, let’s take a look at the USB 3.0 standard and see what benefits it brings — and why they aren’t all that important on a tablet or smartphone.
Everyone could use more speed, right? USB 3.0 was first introduced in 2008 and added a new transfer mode called “SuperSpeed”, and enabled data transfers of up to 5Gbps — that’s more than 10 times faster than USB 2.0, which maxes out at 480 Mbps. As a side-note, USB 3.1 was released in July 2013 with promises of 10 Gbps speeds and wielding the moniker “SuperSpeed+”. The Galaxy Note 3 doesn’t include the faster “plus” version, just the “regular” 3.0 version.
Even still, at 5Gbps, that’s a lot of data you can transfer. But what are you going to transfer? Most music is stored off-device in the cloud — the Note 3 even comes with 50GB of Dropbox storage. Movies are generally delivered by Netflix, Hulu+, Amazon, YouTube, or some other streaming or delivery service, and its done directly to the device for DRM reasons rather than from your computer to your tablet over USB.
The only real advantage to the extra speed is transferring data off your tablet and onto your computer. However, since your tablet is likely to be connected to your wireless network, it may be just as easy to wirelessly transfer your data as it would be to hook it up using wires. The Galaxy Note 3 comes with 802.11ac which is capable of 1Gbps, which approaches the speed of USB 3.0, but falls a little short.
USB 3.0 provides up to 900mA. USB 2.0 can only provide 500mA. It follows that charging your USB 3.0 device can be done in almost half the time of a USB 2.0 device (or the same device connected to a 2.0 port, or to a 3.0 port with a 2.0 cable, but I digress).
Another interesting side-note: USB 3.0 includes a higher power mode: 1.5 amps, but enabling this mode is for charging only and prevents any kind of concurrent data being sent across the cord.
Unfortunately, this too doesn’t paint the whole story. Most wall chargers today provide at least 1 amp of current. Many have standardized on 1.2, and some even go all the way up to 2 amps — and they does so without requiring a special cable or a special port on the device.
The first drawback to USB 3.0 is that you need to have a USB 3.0 port on your computer to make use of it. My computer, Vera (Firefly fans will get the reference), has a whole bunch of USB ports on board. I’ve got two up front on the case, I’ve got another one on a multi-card reader. I’ve got another 6 or 8 on the back. And I still have empty headers on the motherboard. At any given time I only have four or five ports filled. Of those, how many do you think are USB 3.0? Two. Guess what I have plugged into them? Let me do the math here… nothing into nothing, carry the nothing… still nothing.
My USB 3.0 ports (both of them) are all the way in the back of the computer. They’re hard to get to, and other than a single USB 3.0 flash drive and an external hard drive down in the server closet, I don’t have anything to plug into them. I suppose it’s another chicken and the egg problem.
You have to use a special cable. Even if you are plugging into a USB 3.0 port, you’ve got to use a special USB 3.0 cable to get any advantage at all. Add that and the necessity of a special port together and you get one big ball of inconvenience.
What do you get for all that inconvenience? Data rates that you’ll probably never use and charging times that you could have had by using a 1-amp wall charger.
However, looking on the bright side of things, USB 3.0 has been out for quite a while and devices haven’t adopted it. Seeing it being utilized on a flagship device is certainly welcome. Well, USB 3.0, thanks to your inclusion in the Galaxy Note 3, my days of not taking you seriously are certainly coming to a middle.