HighPoint RocketU 1022A PCI Express 2.0 USB 3.0 Controller Card Review

USB 3.0 is one of those computer related technologies that has gotten off to a slow start. The technology first appeared in motherboards introduced around late 2009, but it wasn't until about two years later that you might actually see anything else supporting USB 3.0 connectivity in the average computer store. Even if you did find something supporting USB 3.0, it was likely to be expensive.

It's late 2013 as I write this review and things have certainly changed. Devices that can make ready use of USB 3.0 are everywhere, and they're cheap. Storage devices in particular are now almost always capable of working at USB 3.0 speeds. This is fine, since they're all capable of working with previous generation USB 1.0 and 2.0 implementations, though only at the lower speeds supported by those buses.

USB 3.0 represents a major jump in possible data transfer speeds, but many computers still don't have USB 3.0 built in. Fortunately, you can add USB 3.0 support to any computer with a PCI Express expansion slot, and it's cheap to do so.

How cheap? Highpoint Technologies has one of the cheapest USB 3.0 expansion cards I've ever seen, priced at around $15 if you shop carefully. I ended buying mine for a dollar, still in its partially opened box. There was a reason for that, which I'll get to later in this review.

Highpoint's RocketU 1022A (presumably named to imply that it would make everything you do go faster) gives you two USB 3.0 ports on a card that fits into any avaialble PCI Express 2.0 x1 or greater slot. Installation on most any computer should be no harder than shutting down, popping the cover, and inserting the card itself into an appropriate expansion slot. Highpoint claims that Windows and Linux operating systems are both supported, though no mention of Mac OS X support is made. I don't have a Macintosh computer with a PCI Express bus to test.

In the box you will find the RocketU 1022A card itself, a small instruction leaflet, driver CD, and a low profile bracket for those performing an installation into a computer with low profile expansion slots. Like many other PCI Express cards, this one is vanishly small and could be easily lost in your couch if you're not careful. Despite its small size, however, the card does seem acceptably well made for the most part.

The RocketU adapter itself is based on an ASMedia ASM1042 USB 3.0 controller chip. At the time of this review, ASMedia had any meaningful information about this chip hidden from public view by way of a password system on their website. This is a disadvantage for those who would like to make sure they have the latest drivers--at least for now, you will have to get the drivers from the included CD or Highpoint's web site.

If you follow the included installation instructions, you'll plug the card into a suitable expansion slot within your computer, put everything back together, power it up, install the drivers and probably discover that nothing works when you plug it in to the RocketU 1022A's USB ports.

There is a reason for this.

HighPoint RocketU 1022A Card

One of the most prominent features on the card is a "Molex" four pin power connector. It's not at all unusual to see these on various Firewire and even some USB expansion cards. They're used to get around the problem of a card needing more power than a computer's expansion slots may be able to safely provide. With every such card I've encountered, usage of the power connector is optional. In most cases, the card can get enough power from the computer's bus, as many computers have plenty of reserve power available, and don't mind if the (often less than fully populated) expansion card bus power lines are slightly overloaded. Things will work fine anyway.

That's not true for the RocketU 1022A. If that power connector isn't hooked up, the card won't even try to get power from the expansion bus. This does make a little sense--USB 3.0 offers higher power output to USB 3.0 devices and the connector fingers on a PCI Express card are smaller, imposing stricter limits on how much current can be pulled from the slot they're in. This really wouldn't be a big problem, if only Highpoint Technlogy had mentioned it in the installation manual! Amazingly, they don't say a thing about the necessity of hooking up the power connector during the installation. (Highpoint does, to be fair, mention this requirement on their website if you choose to view the product specifications page.)

If you don't hook up the power connector, nothing at all happens when you plug in any USB device (even an older USB 1.x or 2.0 device). The adapter seems for all intents and purposes to be dead, though you will probably see it listed in your system's hardware roster. I think it can be safely said that this would fool a lot of people--even some who are quite knowledgeable about computers--into thinking that the card is dead.

That's how I came to purchase mine for a dollar. Someone had tried to get it going under Windows Server 2008 and found that nothing would register when plugged in to either of the USB connectors. They most likely lost patience and threw it in the box with a note that said "Couldn't get it to work. Try your luck, $1".

"But Wait, There's More!"

Connecting power to the card once you realize it's needed is straightforward enough. You might need an extension or even a "Y" cable to be able to hook things up, but it's at least doable. There's nothing special about the connector used.

Highpoint cheaped out in more than one place with the RocketU 1022A. Not only did they not provide a means by which the card could pull some power from the expansion bus, they also put as litle effort as possible into atttaching the outboard power connector to the board. It's held in place on the board by nothing more than two plastic tabs that push through the board's surface. In other words, it's a friction fit made with smooth thermoplastic. You'd do well to hold the connector down between a thumb and forefinger as you plug in the power connector. Otherwise it is quite likely that the connector will pop free of the board and suddenly tilt backwards in a very alarming way. I don't think it's that likely to break the connector off of the board unless you were really horsing the connector in there because it fit tightly (as some power supply connectors, especially ones on cheap power supplies, do). Even so, this is one of a few ways to cause great anxiety (or worse yet, at-home detection of a heart murmur) when working on your own computer, especially if you're a novice.

Oh, but it gets better. The RocketU 1022A is intended to be installed in newer systems that have at least a PCI Express x1 slot. At least some of these systems, particularly those from name brand computer makers, won't have any of the "legacy" four pin "Molex" power connectors available. Adapters to convert a SATA power connection lead to one of the older "Molex" types seemingly do exist. Of course, you have to wait to get them, unless you live near a computer store that stocks such a thing.

Or, if you're reasonably knowledgeable about electricity and computer power wiring, you can take matters into your own hands. First, a look at the card in place, nestled in under a PCI Firewire card.

Highpoint RocketU USB 3.0 card installed underneath a PCI Firewire card.

And then, my workaround for installing it in a "legacy free" Dell OptiPlex 760 PC. Click to see the large version.

Power wiring in a Dell OptiPlex 760. Click to enlarge.


Basically, what I've done here is quite simple. I used 3M insulation displacement connectors to tap the +5, +12 and both ground wires leading to the SATA power connectors. In my case, these were available from a nearby Wal-Mart store. Other auto parts retailers probably carry them as well. The extra wiring and "Molex" connector came from a Y adapter upon my realizing that I either did not have or could not find a defunct PC power supply from which I could steal some wiring and a connector.

Obviously this approach isn't for everyone, but it will work if you need to be up and running right now. As always, be sure to make voltage meter measurements before connecting this to something valuable. A wiring error could blow up the expansion card and quite possibly your motherboard as well. (And of course, I take no responsibility if you manage to blow up your computer or harm yourself while doing this.)

So, How Well Does It Work?

I'm pleased to say that the card itself appears to work very well once the drivers are installed. Initial driver installation was a little less than straightfoward. After I'd pointed a fully updated installation of Windows 7 Professional 64-bit to the drivers, it configured the host adapter and immediately failed to configure the root ports on the card. A quick trip through the Device Manager once again rectified this. Of course, the card didn't work until I'd connected power (see above), but once that was done, everything seemed to work fine. I tested a number of USB 1.x peripherals (a floppy drive, numeric keypad, two USB to PS/2 adapters and an old digital camera), some USB 2.0 peripherals (a newer Sony flash memory camcorder, a Sandisk multi-card reader from about ten years ago, an Amazon Kindle and a waterproof Kodak digital camcorder). The only USB 3.0 peripheral I own is a Seagate 2.5" portable hard disk, and it worked just fine.

I'm not big on trying to benchmark things, nor do I imagine that I'm patient enough. I did run a few tests, starting with a backup made using the built in Windows 7 backup utility. Backing up around 55GB of data including the operating system took about 20 minutes. Crunching the numbers on this gives a roughly 45 megabyte per second transfer rate. Copying a large (17 gigabyte) file from the system's internal hard drive to the Seagate drive gave a 115 megabyte per second transfer rate that soon ramped down to about 94MB/sec on average. The Windows backup result is much slower due to the increased overhead created by having to find, open and copy many smaller files. If your work involves many smaller files, you will see a similar reduction in speed.

Reading the same 17GB test file back to the computer started at a speed of some 160MB/second, quickly tapering off to about 95MB/second as with the writing test. This suggests that both hard drives are the limiting factor and that more I/O bandwidth is available for devices that can make use of it, such as a solid-state drive. I don't own any solid state drives at this time.

Copying the whole of the computer's Program Files directory to the external hard drive gave a result of between 3-5MB/second, emphasizing once again the performance hit that having to deal with many smaller files will introduce.

Connecting the Seagate external hard drive over USB 2.0 on the same test machine gave very different results in some cases. For example, the large file copy from the internal hard disk to the external disk started off around 50MB/sec and tapered down to an even 31MB/sec or so until the copy operation concluded. Writing the file back out to the external hard drive averaged a speed of around 30MB/sec, with a few slight moves upward to a ceiling of 35MB/sec or so. (I would take this to be an indication of the drive emptying its cache while it waits on more data to come in from the USB 2.0 bus.) 30-35MB per second is about the best you can expect USB 2.0 to deliver after protocol overhead and this drive apparently gets pretty close.

Copying the Program Files directory once again with the drive connected over USB 2.0 resulted in exactly the same performance when it was connected to USB 3.0...between 3-5MB/second.

I had plans to test the adapter under Linux. As usual, Linux had other ideas when it smartly placed my cheap-o 17" LCD panel into a mode it couldn't support. (Windows 7 did this as well during setup, but it was easier to recover from. I'm sure this is really the cheap-o display's fault. It's probably reporting the wrong data to the graphics driver.) I never got around to resolving this problem under Linux. Perhaps I will try again in future.

Overall

Highpoint's RocketU is probably the cheapest USB 3.0 expansion card you're going to find if you stick with conventional retail and online outlets. If you're willing to venture out to the land of eBay, you can find cheaper options with more ports and different chipsets from more well known and longtime players in the USB host adapter market, such as NEC. Random sellers on eBay, especially high volume sellers located overseas, are not that likely to offer any sort of meaningful warranty coverage on their products. How much that matters is something that only you can decide. I have read and been told that Highpoint Technology is particularly unresponsive to technical support and warranty requests, so you may well end up just replacing the adapter yourself if it quits working.

The ASMedia chip upon which this adapter is based might be a "black box" in terms of support from its maker but it seems to work well (as least as far as Windows is concerned). Other people who have benchmarked things in more detail than I have found it compares reasonably well to USB 3.0 solutions from other vendors. At this time I don't have any other USB 3.0 host adapters to compare it with.

The power connection issue is the only potential show stopper I've seen in my adventures with this adapter. It's a minor irritation and I find it baffling that the need to connect it was left out of the installation manual. If you have a PC that does not include any "Molex" power connectors, plan to purchase an adapter when you buy this expansion card or be ready to splice into your PC's power supply wiring.

I'm unavoidably biased in that I paid a dollar for mine and got lucky. Even so, I'd generally recommend this card to anyone who is looking to enter the world of USB 3.0 and its greater speed.


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Copyright 2013 William R. Walsh. All Rights Reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce this material or to use any part of it in other creations, so long as the following terms are met: attribution to this page and its author must be supplied, no part of this page may be displayed along advertising content of any sort, no fee may be assessed to provide access to this information (except as reasonably necessary to cover connection time or printing supply expenses) and no part of this material may be used in creations that are illegal, dangerous or derogatory. Created 10/09/2013.