The USB data connectivity protocol-which connects an estimated 90 percent of all data storage devices in the world to disk or solid-state drives-hasn’t had many substantial upgrades made to it since the late 1990s. Starting Jan. 6, however, that’s all going to change.
Networking semiconductor maker Symwave will stage the first public demonstration of USB 3.0 connectivity Jan. 6 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The invitation-only demo will be held in a private suite at the Las Vegas Hilton immediately adjacent to CES, Symwave said.
The 4-year-old company will demonstrate SuperSpeed USB 3.0, which it claims is at least 10 times faster than the current best USB performance.
Symwave, in collaboration with several test, cable, components and hard drive manufacturers, says it will show USB 3.0 transfer speeds of up to 5Gb/ps for streaming data, to and from external storage devices.
“We believe that this will become the most pervasive high-speed connectivity technology over the coming years,” John O’Neill, vice president of marketing for Symwave, told eWEEK. “There’s FireWire, SATA [Serial ATA], Ethernet; when you look at the data rate capabilities of those technologies, USB 3.0 exceeds every one of those.”
USB 3.0 Is Backward-Compatible, but Theres a Hitch
USB 3.0 is backward-compatible with all prior USB devices, although there is a hitch: Actual data speeds will always revert to the lowest USB version being used in the system.
For example, for USB 3.0 to work as fast as it is supposed to, all three key components in a network-the host (for example, a PC), the connected device (say, an iPod) and the connecting cable-all need to be USB 3.0-equipped. If any one of those three is USB 2.0 or 1.0, then the component with the oldest protocol dictates the speed of the data transfer.
People have been waiting for faster USB connectivity for a long time; however, it is still going to take a while for the swift new protocol to become embedded as standard within hardware.
“It will probably take five to 10 years for this to become standardized in all PCs, handhelds and connectors,” O’Neill said. “But that’s reality in the industry. If you follow the development of Ethernet, from 100Mb to 1Gb to 10Gb Ethernet, each one of those steps came within three to five years of each other. They’ve gone, like, 100X [in speed] in six or seven years.”
The USB 1.0 standard was introduced and promoted by Intel in the mid-’90s, with USB 2.0-the most common version now used in PCs, handhelds and storage controllers-coming along in 1998.
USB 1.0, still in use on older computers, offers 1Mb, 6Mb and up to 12Mb per second data transfer speeds. USB 2.0 features 12 Mb/ps and up to 480Mb/ps speeds.
Thanks to leaner protocol code and vastly improved drivers, USB 3.0 is expected to reach speeds up to 5Gb/ps-a tenfold improvement.
Why USB 3.0 Is So Much Faster
The key to the breakneck speed of USB 3.0 is the vastly improved drivers, which are not “polling-type” mechanisms, O’Neill said.
“In a polling-type driver [which USB 1.0 and 2.0 use], every transmission had to be initiated and acknowledged by the CPU,” O’Neill said. “Basically, in USB 1.0 and 2.0, the CPU was involved in handling every packet of data that was transferred [in the stream]. So just rewriting the protocol so that the CPU initiates the transaction but doesn’t need to acknowledge every single packet-it only does it at the beginning and at the end.”
Additionally, USB 3.0 features much-improved power management, O’Neill said.
“In an enterprise, for example, let’s say you connect a PC to a USB hub with five ports, and then you connect a bunch of devices to it. Unless all those devices are asleep, the hub has to send a poll to every one of the client devices,” O’Neill said.
“It’s been a dirty little secret that USB claims to have effective power management, but in reality if you have more than one peripheral connected, the whole thing is broken. USB 3.0 has addressed that, so that each device is viewed independently from the host perspective,” O’Neill said.
“So you can’t effectively have all but one of the devices connected powered down and basically … not ‘woken up’ to poll for data. Overall, power management is going to be a huge benefit for the end consumer.”
Intel Is the Key Mover to the New Standard
About two years ago, Intel quietly began trying to rally the consumer electronics vendors and suppliers of technology to start the USB 3.0 standardization effort, O’Neill said.
“Outside of Intel, we believe Symwave has the largest contingent of engineers working on USB 3.0 and we believe it’s not a matter of, ‘Will this market happen?’, it’s really only, ‘When will it happen?'”
Symwave thinks this changeover will happen sooner rather than later, basically because there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand, O’Neill said.
“USB 2.0, which can move data at 480Mb, was standardized over 10 years ago-everything else [meaning the data itself] has grown at least tenfold, if not hundredfold,” O’Neill said. “The size of the files we use, the expectation about how fast things happen-anybody that has a digital camera or an iPod has probably endured the pain of trying to download images or sync their iPod.
“Frankly, USB has been behind the curve. That will all be changing. Everybody I know that I talk to about this says, ‘Wow, that’s so cool. Can’t wait for that!'”