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Apple users are used to being on the cutting edge. When the original iMac shipped, it was the first computer to drop old-school ports in favor of USB. Since then, USB has become the de facto standard for everything from printers to cell phone chargers. Two generations later, USB 3.0 devices are emerging, offering data-transfer speeds that crush earlier versions, but Apple has been dragging its feet about bringing that power to the Mac. Of course, this isn’t entirely Apple’s fault. Intel isn’t supporting 3.0 in its chipsets, and NEC—gatekeeper of the USB 3.0 spec—hasn’t released OS X–compatible drivers, leaving Mac-o-philes lusting for that super speed. But if you just can’t wait for USB 3.0 to come natively to the Mac, LaCie has a solution—sort of.
It’s a small card, but it gets the job done.
Don’t get too excited yet; there is a catch. Unfortunately, Apple recently nixed the ExpressCard slot on all but the 17-inch MacBook Pro. But if you have that machine or an older MacBook Pro with an ExpressCard slot, you’re in business. LaCie’s card uses the same NEC components that our PC brethren have on their USB 3.0 cards, and it’s backward-compatible with USB 2.0 devices.
We tested two bus-powered USB 2.0 drives for backward compatibility and discovered that the cards don’t supply enough juice to run bus-powered drives, so you’ll need a drive that uses AC power. Meanwhile, LaCie’s 4TB USB 3.0 RAID worked fine out of the box. In testing, we achieved read and write speeds of 118MB/s and 79MB/s, respectively. Since Macs don’t offer native support for USB 3.0, we enlisted our colleagues at Maximum PC to benchmark the same RAID on their USB 3.0-equipped test bed for comparison purposes; the read and write speeds were 182MB/s and 126MB/s, respectively. That’s almost double, highlighting the key limitation of routing data through the ExpressCard slot, rather than a native 3.0 connection.
We also tested the LaCie 4TB USB 3.0 RAID with a USB 2.0 connection on a 15-inch MacBook Pro. At 25MB/s read speed, and 35MB/s write speed, it’s clear that even a bottlenecked 3.0 connection has its benefits. But you still won’t be able to reach the massive throughput that a native connection would provide. And as a final caveat, the card does not work with other makers’ drives, so you’re limited to LaCie’s offerings.
The bottom line. Until Apple decides to take the leap to USB 3.0, you’re better off waiting. But if you’re really aching for a solution, LaCie’s USB 3.0 ExpressCard will have to do.
USB 3.0 ExpressCard/34
Mac OS 10.5 or later, MacBook Pro with ExpressCard slot, LaCie USB 3.0 hard drive
Brings USB 3.0 to the Mac.
Card has a tendency to pop out when switching drives. USB 3.0 performance is bottlenecked. Only works with LaCie drives.