How do you know if a fancy USB4 external storage drive is really using the full speed of USB4? If you’re just looking at a box on a shelf, the answer is, “you don’t.”
As a standard, especially if you’re looking for those fast file transfers, USB4 is still a confusing mess of techno-babble that makes it easy for manufacturers to label a substandard drive “USB4” without delivering the performance that this implies. Gordon breaks it down for you in the latest PCWorld video on YouTube.
To start with, did you know there’s a difference between USB4 (no space, a copyrighted term referring to the specification from the USB Implementers Forum) and USB 4.0 (note the space)? Well there is, and it affects which controllers the circuit board inside than fancy drive is packing. To be brief, a drive labeled “USB4” (like the ZikeDrive Z666 enclosure) can’t skimp out on older parts that are merely “compatible” with USB4, while backing up to older USB or Thunderbolt standards.
But there’s another element that might prevent you from getting maximum speed, and it’s one you might have less control over. Little bitty drives aren’t the only hardware that cheaps out on USB controllers, and even an expensive laptop or motherboard that’s a generation or two old might not be able to hit USB4’s maximum speed (even if it’s certified for USB4).
Granted, we’re not talking about the huge differences in speed we had back in the USB 1-to-2 days. The delta between a true, maxed-out USB4 drive and one that falls back on Thunderbolt 3 is about 20-25 percent — not great, but not the end of the world, either. But if that difference is important to you, check out some in-depth reviews of both the external drive you want and your own laptop, desktop, or motherboard to make sure you can hit maximum speed. (Our roundups of the best external drives and best gaming motherboards can help you find great products quickly.)
Michael is a former graphic designer who’s been building and tweaking desktop computers for longer than he cares to admit. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order.