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Adding USB3 to an older Macbook Pro

I’ve been looking for ways to add USB3 to an older Macbook I have - see how I got on here.

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I have a late 2011 17” Macbook Pro that I love. It’s quite a beast spec wise: Quad Core i7, 16Gb RAM, 500Gb Samsung SSD & a 750Gb spinning hard drive - I removed the DVD. It’s a stunning machine to use - very fast, and the screen estate at 1920x1200 is brilliant for working on multiple windows/apps etc. Of course with the advent of the retina units they stopped making the 17” units....and I’m kinda attached to it.

Anyways, there are some annoyances with the machine - namely, ports. It’s only got USB2. I spend a lot of my time working with Virtual Machines and having to shunt 50Gb+ images out over USB2 is a little painful - it’s far less painful on USB3.

In addition to the USB3 issue, I was getting irritated at constantly having to disconnect/reconnect my home stuff - multiple USB2 drives, firewire drives, and various other things.

I’ve tried a few ExpressCard units but there’s no true Mac OSX compatible drivers out there from what I can see - although I know a few people have had success with the Lacie drivers.

So, something
Jon Honeyball mentioned got my interest - why not try using a Thunderbolt dock? One like this for example:

Belkin Thunderbolt Express Dock

This seems to solve a number of problems - it brings USB3 to my USB2 equipped late 2011 MBP, and also provides numerous additional ports that means I would only have to plug in
one cable - the Thunderbolt one - in to my laptop. OK, I admit the last one may seem a little frivolous (certainly at 180 quid) but the main driver for me was the USB3 access.

The dock as the following ports:

  • One Gigabit Ethernet port
  • One FireWire 800 port
  • One Thunderbolt port
  • One 3.5 mm headphone output Jack
  • One 3.5 mm audio Input Jack
  • Three USB 3.0 ports

...and
doesn’t come with a Thunderbolt cable. How irritating is that? Physically, the unit is quite big (needs to be, to house the ports) and has a separate large power supply - so this is no portable docking station.

So, does it work? Well, fundamentally yes, yes it does. It gives me my 3 USB
3 ports as well as offering connections for all my other Firewire stuff as well. On my Mavericks 10.9.1 unit, the USB3 ports show up like this:


USB3Thunderbolt

You can see where I’ve plugged in my USB2 hubs, and you can also see an SSD unit connected at USB3 (AS2105, highlighted).

So it does give me USB3 capability. What about performance? Well, here’s where it gets interesting (honest). Let’s look at the performance of that SATA-2 SSD, when connected to a USB3 port (on the left), and a USB2 port (on the right). Click the image for a larger version.

USB2USB3SideBySide


So it is significantly faster on the USB3/Thunderbolt dock. What about compared to a native USB3 port, like that on my late 2013 Retina? Well, see here - click on it to see a larger version:

USB3Native

...so it’s not as fast as USB3 native port then? It’s a lot faster than USB2 however.

So what’s that mean in the real world? Well, the table below shows the the read/write out of a 3.37Gb file to/from an external SSD. It’s coming FROM my internal 500Gb SATA-III SSD:

USB2USB3Comparison

So just on that throughput, native USB3 was averaging about 7.45 times better than USB2, but the USB3 on the Thunderbolt dock was ‘only’ 4.26 times better. So you do lose some performance going through the Thunderbolt bridge, but on the other hand I’m still getting 4 times the performance of USB2. Firewire 800 was showing as 1.74 times better than USB2.

On the performance front it is far, far quicker than USB2 however it doesn’t feel as fast as the USB3 on my Retina unit - the figures also bear this out.

A little disappointed on that front, however it’s still a worthy upgrade. Worthy of 170 quid however...? Well, that’s a tougher question. It’ll give me far more use out of my workhorse late 2011 MBP that’s for sure, so it’s a winner on that front.






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