As one may have noticed, we are doing an industry survey of USB 3.1 to 5GbE network adapters. Our third review is of the Sabrent NT-SS5G USB 3.0/ 3.1 to 5Gbase-T network adapter. For our purposes, we think this is likely the best-in-class solution on the market right now. In this review, we are going to show why.
USB 3.1 to 5GbE Video
Update: Since we have this series, we made a video talking about the three units and what we saw when testing:
You can check out a summary of the three options we tested in that video.
Sabrent NT-SS5G Hardware Overview
The Sabrent USB to 5GbE adapter is a relatively simple unit. On one end, we get a RJ45 port labeled “5GbE” which it is, but we will discuss it later.
In terms of cables, something we get that is different from the StarTech USB to 5GbE Adapter and the TRENDnet TUC-ET5G USB Type-C to 5GbE NIC is that instead of a hardwired cable, we get a USB Type-C port. Sabrent supplies both USB Type-C to Type-C and Type-C to Type-A cables. As an added benefit, one can use the leftover cable for other applications such as an extra phone charging cable. We like this flexibility and cable length over the other two options we tested.
Something that we wanted to note is that the outer casing of the Sabrent unit is metal even though the port sides are plastic. Still, this is a much more robust feel than the StarTech or TRENDnet units. There is another impact. The Sabrent unit utilizes this large metal surface area to dissipate heat. One can even see groves on the two sides of the chassis to increase surface area. As a result, we get a unit that does not have the same perforated plastic design that we see on StarTech and TRENDnet adapters.
Overall, this is physically quite a bit different than the other adapters and is something we prefer. We will state that and let our readers decide if they prefer this metal design to the perforated plastic design of the other more expensive units.
Sabrent NT-SS5G USB to 5GbE Network Adapter Setup
In Windows 10, the NT-SS5G is not as simple to set up as the Realtek based 2.5GbE USB 3 adapters. The NIC uses the Aquantia AQC111U which is now a Marvell offering. This means it utilizes the Aquantia AQtion drivers and our test systems did not work out of the box. This was a bit surprising. Indeed, inserting the NIC has an auto-mounting (in Windows 10) storage solution that has 32/64-bit drivers. On one hand, this can be very useful if this is your only Internet connection. Our security-minded readers may cringe a bit at this solution. In either case, the drivers become out-of-date and one can get newer 18.104.22.168 (as of this writing) drivers from Marvell. We were able to download and have the new Marvell drivers work out of the box. Marvell acquired Aquantia but we still have an Aquantia branded installer here.
This is the same setup process as the StarTech unit while the TRENDnet unit utilized its own driver dated from 2019.
Once we got the NIC installed, everything worked as expected. Still, this is not the best user experience. There are a number of features such as VLAN tagging and Jumbo Frames that one may want to change after setting up the NIC in the standard network adapter configuration, but everything was where we expected.
Sabrent USB 5GbE NIC Performance
The performance was, let us just say, not as we would expect as a normal consumer, but it is what we would expect now that we have tested a number of these NICs. We tried this in a number of different configurations including TinyMiniMicro nodes from Dell, HPE, and Lenovo. We tried ThreadRipper based systems, Core i9 systems. We tried USB 3.1 Gen1 and Gen2 ports. We tried going through Netgear and MikroTik switches. We also tried multiple targets. The results remained fairly consistent. Our iperf3 results topped out around 3.44-3.45Gbps. This is common for these solutions.
Our Jumbo frames (9K) performance was around 1-2% better but did not make enough of a difference for us to recommend changing a network for that.
We saw slightly higher CPU utilization with this unit versus the StarTech with 10% here instead of 9% with the StarTech. Our test system for this screenshot was hitting clocks of 3.87GHz with the StarTech and 3.8GHz with the Sabrent runs so while we have to report that the StarTech was 1% lower, it may just be a test system clock speed variation. While using the Marvell drivers with the Sabrent/ StarTech units we saw 9-10%, the TRENDnet unit which used its own drivers from 2019 was around 17% here.
The big question for many is why we have a 5GbE adapter that is only delivering 3.2-3.5Gbps of performance. This seems to be a USB 3.1 Gen1 adapter only, not a Gen2 device. We tried on over a dozen different systems and this only linked at USB 3.1 Gen1 speeds. We have some that suggested that we may not have had enough test system diversity even using over a dozen different systems on different platforms and vendors, however here is the block diagram for the AQC111U which shows it only has a USB 3.1 Gen1 PHY:
Practically, the overhead from a USB link that is only running at 5Gbps itself means that we are limited to the performance range we are seeing. It does seem as though we are getting better offloads in this StarTech and the Sabrent units using the Marvell driver versus the TRENDnet solution. We included this is in the previous review, but we want it here to explain what is going on with all of these adapters.
Since we get similar performance to what we saw with the StarTech unit, and better than what we saw with the TRENDnet unit, we understand the performance angle. We also need to consider factors beyond performance such as physical attributes and pricing.
We like the mostly metal casing. This added weight but it also makes the unit feel more robust and sturdy. It may look similar to but is larger than we saw with the Realtek-based Sabrent 2.5GbE USB Network Adapter NT-S25G. Having the cabled USB connectors has a downside. There are two potential spots where a cable can be disconnected (three including the RJ45) instead of one. At the same time, we like this flexibility of being able to use the adapter with Type-A or Type-C devices. One may wonder, for example, what to do with the extra cable. If you are using the Type-C to Type-A connection and have the Type-C to Type-C cable leftover, that cable can be used elsewhere to charge a phone or connect other devices. It is a small bonus.
In terms of pricing, at around $60 street pricing, it is around $42 less than the StarTech unit and around $30 less than the TRENDnet unit. Given that this is the most robust/ flexible physical design, and uses the higher-performing Marvell drivers, and that it is the lowest price, we think this one gets our current recommendation. It will be up to our readers to decide if adding ~1Gbps is worth paying twice what we see many 2.5GbE adapters sell for. The limitations of Gen1 USB 3 make this a much less clear picture than it would be if these were Gen2 devices.