Want a laptop with USB 3.0? The few, the proud

USB 3.0 has been slow to arrive in laptops. There are a few models out there from top-tier PC makers with the high-speed connection technology. Why the dearth of systems?

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
2 min read

USB 3.0 has been slow to arrive in laptops, but there are a few models on the market that boast this high-speed connection technology.

The Dell Precision M6500 offers USB 3.0 ports.
The Dell Precision M6500 offers USB 3.0 ports. Dell

The current USB 2.0 standard, which is found on virtually all laptops today, has been around a long time. Intel laid the groundwork for widespread use on PCs and devices in spring 2002 when it put the technology in its silicon. Eight years later, the advantages of moving to a faster standard are clear for devices like digital cameras, camcorders, and hard drives: transfer rates jump from 480 megabits per second on USB 2.0 to as much as 5 gigabits per second with USB 3.0. And reviews testify to a significant speed increase.

One of the sticking points, however, of mass adoption by laptop makers is the lack of direct support in Intel chipsets, as this blog posted on a Dell-hosted Web page explains. One of the oft-cited reasons put forth by analysts for the lack of broad USB 3.0 support is that many devices, like printers, simply don't benefit from moving to 3.0. Another reason: a number of laptops already ship with the faster eSATA standard, which Intel supports in its mobile chipsets, not to mention desktop variants. (Many HP Pavilion laptops, for example, also come with eSATA.)

Moreover, other technologies lurk as potential replacements for USB 3.0--at least in its current format. Light Peak, for instance, offers even greater transfer speeds and has received support from high-profile companies like Apple and Sony. That said, Light Peak won't appear in devices anytime soon.

Ironically, USB 3.0 was promoted prominently on Intel Developer Forum bags last week. Ironic because Intel has yet to support the standard in its chipsets.
Ironically, USB 3.0 was promoted prominently on Intel Developer Forum bags last week. Ironic because Intel has yet to support the standard in its chipsets. Brooke Crothers

But USB 3.0 is certainly not dead. Jeff Ravencraft, a USB Implementers Forum board member, said during a brief conversation at the Intel Developer Forum that with the number of devices supporting USB 3.0 has jumped to well over 100. That includes desktop motherboards, external storage devices, and a host of other adapters and gadgets as this long list at USB.org shows (select "200 results per page" to see the full list).

So, what about those rare birds from top-tier PC vendors with USB 3.0 built in? Hewlett-Packard has been out front on putting the standard on some its high-end laptops. The HP EliteBook 8540p (PDF), EliteBook 8540w/8740w, and the Envy 15 are all offered with USB 3.0 options.

Asus has one of the most unusual systems with USB 3.0: A 10-inch Eee PC 1015PEM Netbook. This new model also comes with Intel's latest and greatest dual-core Atom N550 silicon and up to 500GB of hard disk storage.

Dell includes the standard on its Precision M6500 mobile workstations. Like the HP 8740w, these use Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processors and ATI FirePro or Nvidia Quadro graphics chips.

This is not an exhaustive list of laptops with USB 3.0 but, again, overall the standard is practically nonexistent on mainstream consumer systems from top-tier vendors. The question is, are eSATA or HDMI all consumers really need for the foreseeable future ?