CES 2013: USB 3.0 Super Duper Speed On The Way

Chris Zele

New spec promises to triple speeds, could threaten Thunderbolt

Now that USB 3.0 is ubiquitous and “free” on all motherboards, the industry is about to make it outdated by promising to more than double the speed on PCs by the end of 2014.

The unnamed update to USB 3.0 promises to take us from USB 3.0 SuperSpeed’s 5Gb/s speed up to 10Gb/s over copper cabling. The bonus to speed freaks is not just a doubling of speed but perhaps a tripling of speed. USB IF officials told Maximum PC the increase will come not from just clock speed increases on the ASICS but more efficient signaling protocols that will decrease the overhead greatly. The technique is similar to what PCIe 2.0 to 3.0 brought to the table when the clocks didn’t double, but speeds did thanks to more efficient signaling protocols.

Thunderbolt killer?

USB IF officials told Maximum PC the unnamed spec is imminent with parts due by the end of 2014. Officials said the new spec will require new host controllers but will use the same connectors and plugs as USB 3.0 SuperSpeed. Existing USB 3.0 SuperSpeed cables could very well work when the spec is finalized but it will greatly depend on the quality of the original cable. To hit the new 10Gb/s speeds, the USB IF will ask vendors to qualify the cables and label them with updated markings.

Officials said there has also been no decision on port colors to differentiate 10Gb/s USB 3.0 SuperSpeed from today’s 5GB/s USB 3.0. Even so, the color is only a guideline with only some PC makers voluntarily using a light blue to differentiate USB 3.0 SuperSpeed from black USB 2.0 ports. Apple, famously, has not used the blue USB ports or even the SuperSpeed icon. There have also been many different colored USB ports from black to red and orange in use by other PC makers.

Although the USB IF denies 10Gb/s USB 3.0 SuperSpeed is a competitor to Intel’s Thunderbolt technology , it’s hard not to see it putting even more pressure on the nascent Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt, originally codenamed Lightpeak, was first introduced by Intel exclusively on Apple’s Macintosh computers about two years ago. It wasn’t until last year it even made its way onto the PC and very few PC notebooks, for example, still don’t include it. Thunderbolt devices have also been difficult to find and for months, many didn’t even provide Windows drivers.

That’s not to say Thunderbolt is flopping. At CES, Gigabyte demonstrated 4K resolution material and displays being powered by its Ivy Bridge CPUs on its motherboards with dual-Thunderbolt ports and Blackmagic even has a 2.5K camera that runs over Thunderbolt. Intel has also been offering one of its Next Unit of Computing sub-mini PCs enclosures with Thunderbolt rather than USB 3.0 SuperSpeed. Why? NUC designers told Maximum PC the lack of board space in the tiny boxes made it difficult to run traces for both standards. NUC officials did say a new NUC with an upcoming Core i5 processor would ship with USB 3.0 this year.

Still, there’s no denying that T-bolt parts are few and far between when compared to USB 3.0 which has been integrated into everything from digital cameras, phones, memory card readers and $15 drive enclosures.

Thunderbolt does have some time though. With the 10Gb/s USB 3.0 spec not quite nailed down, it won’t be included in Intel’s upcoming 8-series chipset for the Haswell chips that’s due this year. That means native 10Gb/s USB 3.0 on Intel boxes are unlikely to happen until at least 2015 at this point. Most motherboard companies will likely integrate discrete 10Gb/s USB 3.0 controllers until it’s natively supported.

That gives Thunderbolt plenty of time to continue to build steam. Thunderbolt, USB IF officials also point out, is also capable of even higher speeds today as it is 10Gb/s in both directions simultaneously with more room for on tap. That’s why USB IF officials think the two could co-exist with Thunderbolt filling the needs of professionals for such things as native 4K cameras.

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