Big things are coming in 2008, and one of them is USB 3.0. At least we can expect the specification to be released in 2008. We likely won’t see USB 3.0 on the shelves for consumers until 2009 or 2010. But, until then, we can drool over the promise of it.

History Lesson of USB

USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, and most of us know that it is the de facto standard for connecting perihperals to your computer today. The major benefits of USB are:

  1. Allows connection and disconnection while the PC is running (hot swappable)
  2. Provides low-level power to peripherals to avoid the need for external power. This is adequate for things like keyboards, mice, low-power speakers, etc.

The USB 1.0 spec started out in 1995, with the 1.1 spec coming out three years later. USB 1.1 provided maximum bandwidth of 12 Mbits/sec. The USB 2.0 spec was finalized in 2001, providing 480 Mbits/sec – roughly 40X faster than the original spec. USB 2.0 is what most PCs are using today. USB 2.0 is fully backward compatible with the original 1.1 spec.

We are seeing hardware today that stretches the limit of USB 2.0.

Firewire hasn’t always been faster than USB 2.0. The bandwidth cap used to be 400 Mbit/sec. Apple released Firewire 800 in 2008, with bandwidth just under 800 Mbit/sec. A coming S3200 spec will have Firewire hitting 3200 Mbit/sec. So, as it sits now, USB 2.0 is indeed outshined by today’s versions of Firewire. This is a leading reason why so many video cameras and other bandwidth intensive devices are using Firewire primarily.

Bigger, Faster, More Manly

USB 3.0 is going to 10X the current USB 2.0 bandwidth. It will do this by adding fiber optic wires alongside the copper wiring in the USB cable. Fiber optics, of course, use light rather than electrical current to transfer data. That means speed.

A USB 3.0 spec, working at nearly 5 GBps, will be the fastest method of connecting peripherals available. It will beat the coming Firewire spec as well as the current versions of eSATA, which operate at about 3 GBps. This will make USB 3.0 the leading connection type for devices like video cameras, external hard drives, card readers, etc.

We don’t yet have many more details on USB 3.0. The spec was introduced by Intel in September 2007 as a prototype. So, it is still a work in progress and a lot of information is still missing. For example, how many devices will be able to be connected? Will the CPU usage remain high (a fairly common complaint with USB 2.0)? We don’t know yet.

One thing I can say is that USB 3.0 is shaping up to kill Firewire. With a working USB 3.0 spec and eSATA, why would anyone use Firewire? Perhaps our existing Firewire devices will become obsolete.