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Everything You Need to Know About USB 3.0

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Without the Universal Serial Bus standard we’d live in a world that Apple, with its infinite variations of specialized port formats and cable changes, would love to make possible. Think of the margins! But even the design-centric Apple has succumbed to the lure of USB, that ubiquitous little port that connects our gadgets to our computers. Proprietary on one end and universal on the other, USB has the highest consumer success rate — getting shipped on over 3 billion devices in 2008 — according to research firm In-Stat. And now there’s an upgrade to USB on the way. Here’s what you need to know about the coming USB 3.0.

  1. It’s fast: Dubbed Super-Speed USB, it will offer transfer speeds of 4.8 Gbps compared with High-Speed USB 480Mbps transfer speeds.
  2. It’s backwards compatible: Your existing USB 2.0 stuff will also work on the 3.0 ports and vice versa, although you won’t get the “super speeds.”
  3. It’s coming soon: Vendors will ship some boards at the end of this year, so mainstream consumers should see them on their computers and certain devices starting in 2010.
  4. It’s powerful: Like USB 2.0, it will transmit electricity, which means you can still use it to charge your gadgets.
  5. It’s energy efficient: It supports reduced power operation and an idle power mode, but it will still make your CPU work like crazy to help it reach those fast data transfer speeds.
  6. It’s backed by all vendors: Early on, both AMD (s amd) and Nvidia (s nvda) were kind of miffed at Intel (s intc) for holding back on some of the specification details, but that’s all over, and everyone’s now on board.
  7. It will end the longing for FireWire’s resurrection: The faster speeds will mean that sending data to an external hard drive isn’t as grindingly slow.
  8. Or will it instead keep the FireWire flame lit? Without the threat of FireWire competing against USB products, it’s possible we won’t see prices for technology drop as rapidly as they did with previous generations.
  9. Devices that generate big data will be the first to appear with the standard. Large flash drives, hard drives, video cameras and high-end cameras will be the first to have the technology because they can benefit from faster data transfer rates.
  10. It’s a way to create the anti-cloud: Instead of accessing everything online either through downloads or streaming, you can store gobs of content on hard drives, and have relatively fast access to it with USB cables. That might be handy if strict data caps are implemented or you think you’ll be without broadband for a while.

image courtesy of Andreas Frank

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33 Responses to “Everything You Need to Know About USB 3.0”

  1. Chris Cooper

    Is it possible to convert 2.0 devices to 3.0 devices by taking away the old slowness and putting in some new goodness?
    I have a professional quality scanner that I would love to upgrade.


  2. John De Meyer

    One of the strongest markets today for FireWire is storage for computers. The best hard drives with FireWire 800 can move data almost three times as fast as the best hard drives with USB 2.0. Also, FireWire provides much more electrical power than USB, so FireWire-equipped hard drives can operate without an AC adapter, and at high rotational speeds. USB hard drives can fail to work from USB power, or require a second USB cable for power, or use the lowest-performance drive mechanisms because so little power is available.

    With S3200 this power advantage for FireWire is fully preserved. S3200 also makes FireWire so fast that users will see no advantage from eSATA. Both interfaces are much faster than any modern hard drive mechanism, but eSATA does not provide electrical power to operate a drive. On a computer, an eSATA port is far less flexible than a FireWire port, because many more devices can connect to FireWire. For these reasons, S3200 makes FireWire the superior choice for future external storage products.

    let us all hope FireWire makes it ….
    we all know that usb2 never get’s even close to the speed it claims, usb3 will be the same all over

  3. Wow 4.8Gbps. That is amazing. I worked on USB 1.0 with its 10Mbps while working for Polaroid. USB was brand new and our printer was one of the first devices using USB 1.0 (we actually worked with Intel to make it work). With speeds like this USB 3.0 will make multiple external hard drives having multiple OS’s on one PC feasible. This will help application testing on multiple OS using the same hardware configuration.

  4. Additionally, concerning USB versus Firewire, I do want to point out that Firewire is a technologically superior solution to the problem of peripheral control than USB is. USB is a CPU-polled technology at its core, meaning that even when the bus is totally idle, your PC or Mac’s CPU still is involved with the periodic scheduling of frames on the USB bus.

    Firewire, in contrast, literally is a counter-rotating token-ring network with packet-insertion-multiple-access (faster than early token release) semantics. Implementing the hardware for this kind of network requires only a handful of gates in VLSI or FPGA hardware. The layer-3 protocol is essentially burst-mode bus transactions serialized onto the medium, making it so simple to implement that you don’t even NEED a computer to deal with the packets. Just to prove that it’s a genuine networking standard, folks have implemented TCP/IP on top of it.

    It’s a pity that marketing ultimately killed the technology. Firewire will be sorely missed as a general purpose interconnect. However, Firewire will not die — it will continue to live in niche environments where latency issues prove significant (even USB 2.0’s micro-frames, at 125us periods each, can be too much for real-time data acquisition needs). It’ll likely also remain popular in the professional music industries for this same reason.

    • bernie burnalot

      Couldn’t have said it better myself.

      My studio has so many different kinds and types of connectors, and it has nothing to do with the be all end all. Each one serves it’s purpose that the others cannot, all of them are still readily available parts at Radio Crap. (It’s Darwinism.)
      I don’t need a Firewire mouse!
      I don’t need an HDMI cable to plug my guitar in either!
      USB3? Great! I’m sure it’ll end up in my studio in some shape or another.
      nuff said.

  5. Stacey wrote, “Without the Universal Serial Bus standard we’d live in a world that Apple, with its infinite variations of specialized port formats and cable changes, would love to make possible. Think of the margins!”

    As any hardware engineering firm or vendor would be able to tell you, these different connector formats have engineering tradeoffs that, considering WHEN they were first put into service, becomes more important than mere ease of use. They did not exist for the sole purpose of vendor lock-in.

    Take, for example, video. Video signals today often sit quite firmly in the UHF to EHF frequency ranges, and requires specialized cables at the very least, if not specialized connectors. Why? Because without them, your radio and television will encounter a massive amount of “hash”, snow or other visible or audible effects that take away from the intended user experience of these devices.

    Thanks to the know-how of actually making such high frequency circuitry work, we’re blessed with a different application for this technology: transmission of purely digital signals. Using the same connector techniques, impedance matching techniques, and so on, we are able to achieve serial streams with greater throughputs than comparable parallel interfaces. I know it sounds strange, but dollar for dollar, that’s the truth today.

    Yesterday, however, it wasn’t the truth. It was merely a dream.

    You had a PS/2 connector, ADB connector, VGA connector, Amiga video connector, etc. all were unique precisely because (1) these connectors solved only ONE problem, and (2) these connectors were the cheapest available AT THAT TIME. Vendor lock-in occurred relatively infrequently — Commodore never pushed anyone around for someone else using the Amiga’s video port hardware. Likewise, IBM saw others using the DBC-15 connector as _helping_, not hurting, their marketshare. Apple perhaps was the anomaly, but even here, I distinctly remember numerous after-market contrivances utilizing Apple-compatible hardware ports. These folks apparently didn’t get sued.

    So, as someone who’s not only studied this field a lot, but also quite literally has grown up with this industry, I ask that you be more careful about issuing ill-informed blanket judgements about how things “were” without actually considering their historical context.

    Thank you.

  6. I agree with John M. I have been using Macs since the LC 475. In fact I would have been happier to see FireWire survive THAN USB, not because its an Apple product but because it lets me do things like network two computers, target disk mode, better data streams etc.

    not that I mind USB.

    what I felt sad about was the completely unwarranted remark about Apple. Its of course made to just boost up comments and controversy about the otherwise plain-jane article, to increase traffic. but its not something I had expected from GigaOm. In fact I have had a very high regard for Om Malik and GigaOm, but these cheap tactics to gain traffic (they are actually effective, see I am typing this comment!) should be left to other sites lesser dependent on their brains.

  7. Stacy:

    I don’t know how long you’ve been doing tech journalism, but my guess is you started after the release of the first Bondi Blue iMac.

    Besides dispensing with the floppy drive, the only real output port the original iMac came with was this new thing called USB. While a few other computers at the time had this port, virtually no one used it. Until Apple made it the only way to print from an iMac. Then HP (who had virtually stopped producing printers for the Mac) and others started building USB into their devices.

    Intel invented USB but Apple made it. And Intel would be the first to say so. In fact, they did.

    Gratuitus apple bashing in the tech press is getting a little tiresome, don’t you think?

    • Mishan Aburted

      “the only real output port the original iMac came with was this new thing called USB”

      Huh? Here’s the original iMac’s ports. I see USB, Firewire ™ and Ethernet (but thankfully no RS-422-based Appletalk/”virtual slots”):

      Apple belatedly realized that the Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) was a dead end, not unlike Appletalk or, say, Quickdraw 3D, and needed a way to hook up a keyboard and mouse, so they went USB. No doubt they would have preferred Firewire mice, but that might have taken the retail price of a one-button mouse above even what Apple’s market would bear. And 400mbps is a little faster than is needed by a mouse or keyboard.

      Gratuitous Scientologist/Mac Cult defensiveness was tiresome about twenty years ago, don’t you think?

      • I think the point he was making is that apple was one of the first major computer maker to incorporate usb with the imac, which contradicts the point that stacey insinuated.

        Apple could have continued using the adb ports, which was no more ‘dead end’ than the ps/2 ‘standard’. i’m sure it wouldn’t have cost them more than using usb. I sure liked being able to turn on my computer from my keyboard. Firewire is very much appreciated by most mac users and has been since before usb made i’s first big entry on the imac.

        Calling mac users cultist and comparing them to scientologists was tiresome about twenty years ago, don’t you think?

      • Mishan Aburted

        “Apple could have continued using the adb ports, which was no more ‘dead end’ than the ps/2 ’standard’.”

        And Apple could have stuck with the burgeoning 68000 family of processors. ADB lacked one minor thing: a wide selection of third-party mice and keyboards. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play? Take it from someone who spent a solid week trying to find an ADB->PS/2 converter box that worked right so I could hook up a Mac and PC to a KVM switchbox. But admittedly, the ability to power on a computer from the keyboard instead of reaching over to the box was a miracle breakthrough.

        Apple’s adoption of USB is an instance of a good outcome in their never-ending internal battle between industry standards and proprietary NIH — a disease that also afflicts Microsoft and formerly IBM — so Stacey’s point was admissible. Now Mac hardware is internally indistinguishable from PCs — aside from the sprinkling of fairy dust — and Apple today does most of its wall-building in software and with stuff like the App Store’s approval process, which sounds a lot like Sarah Palin’s healthcare Death Panel.—obama-death-panel-debate#s-p4-st-i1

      • @Tofino:
        “I think the point he was making is that apple was one of the first major computer maker to incorporate usb with the imac,”

        That’s absolutely false. Everyone had USB on their PCs in 1998 when the iMac debuted. My roommate had a low end Acer at the time that had USB everything, keyboard, mouse, and speakers (yes, speakers) in 1998.

      • Cynical N

        Mishan – WTF…”Gratuitous Scientologist/Mac Cult defensiveness”

        acting like a dumbass is no excuse for not paying attention..!

        Stacey – i’d barely call this “Tech Jounalism” research your facts before you let yourself loose on a keyboard..

  8. Yes, but what about latency? My biggest beef with USB is that when using USB audio cards one has to jack up the latency so high as to make it quite painful to use. I might be one of five composers/audiophiles who care about this, but it’s something to consider.

    • bernie burnalot

      Obviously, you have never used a Firewire soundcard. Latency is non existent on something like the MOTU Ultralite. I play piano, and I’m a shredder on guitar. Latency is a non issue while tracking.