USB has come a long way since its humble origins as a better port for plugging your mouse or printer into your PC. And it's going to take a big step further late next year with the release of products with the technology's latest version, USB 4.
Announced this week, USB 4 will offer data transfer to 40 gigabits per second, double today's USB 3.2 speeds. And it has other improvements, too, because USB is swallowing up technology from Thunderbolt, a competing premium format that Intel decided to share freely.
"We get the one connector that works with everything, offers high-end performance and works not just on high-end systems," the premium niche that Thunderbolt never escaped, said Technalysis Research analyst Bob O'Donnell. "In the end, life will get much easier for everybody."
There are lots of details, nuances and even confusion about what exactly USB is and isn't. Let's shed some light.
What kind of speed boost will we get out of USB 4?
Today's devices usually have USB 3 speeds: 5Gbps, 10Gbps and the newest, 20Gbps. USB 4 will reach 40Gbps. That's useful for data-heavy tasks like editing video that's stored on an external hard drive or using a couple of 4K monitors. USB 4 should also improve docking stations that use a single port on your laptop to connect to monitors, drives, network cables and other devices.
But not every device will hit that 40Gbps maximum. For example, phones may only support slower speeds, which is generally OK since you aren't plugging them into multiple monitors and other devices.
But there's more than just speed?
Yes. The Thunderbolt technology that USB 4 will incorporate is adept at juggling both video that's needed to run external monitors or TVs, and data that's exchanged with external drives, flash card readers and other devices. "We now can have multiple displays running simultaneously and multiple data applications at the same time," said Brad Saunders, chairman of the USB Implementers Forum -- USB-IF -- that governs the technology.
In addition, USB 4 will be powerful enough to let you plug external graphics cards into your laptop, like you can today with Thunderbolt. That's useful for gamers, video editors and photographers who want more graphics power than laptop graphics chips can provide.
When will USB 4 arrive?
The companies that participate in USB-IF expect to release the USB 4 engineering details near the middle of 2019. It'll take 12 to 18 months for the first USB 4 devices to arrive, the group said. That calendar math means the second half of 2020.
I thought I knew what USB is -- a way to connect peripherals to my laptop and to charge my phone. But you said there's confusion. What is it?
It's that, but it's more, because USB has different facets.
USB 3.2 today and USB 4 tomorrow govern how devices identify themselves and send signals to each other -- the equivalent of "Hi, I'm an external hard drive and I can exchange data at 10Gbps."
But there are two separate standards you should know about. First is USB-C, which defines the newer physical connector that's much more convenient, versatile and powerful than the old-style USB-A ports on laptops and USB Micro-B common on older Android phones. USB-C can carry heavier electrical power loads and brings the same connector to laptops, phones and as of 2018, higher-end Apple iPads.
Then there's USB Power Delivery, which governs how devices can send or receive electrical power. For example, a high-end laptop could tell a USB battery pack that it can use USB PD's maximum power level of 100 watts. Or an interconnected phone and tablet could negotiate with each other to figure out the tablet should charge the phone. USB, USB-C and USB PD are the future of the technology.
Will USB 4 tidy up this USB-C and USB PD mess?
Significantly. All USB 4 connections will require USB-C connectors and will support USB PD, Saunders said. Legacy devices will linger on the market, but the USB 4 generation shouldn't require detailed scrutiny of product boxes to be sure things will get along with each other.
How will USB and Thunderbolt get along? Will I be able to plug my Thunderbolt drive into my laptop's USB 4 port?
USB 4 is getting a version of Thunderbolt 3 built in, and hardware makers can choose to support it. They'll even be able to certify it works through the USB trade group, Saunders said. That means they won't have to make an extra step to the Thunderbolt group. (Thunderbolt adopted the USB-C connector with the Thunderbolt 3 generation, so the physical connection problem already has been solved.)
However, device makers using USB 4 aren't required to support Thunderbolt. So if using today's Thunderbolt devices is important to you, check the fine print on your next PC. The good news is that starting this year, Intel's new Ice Lake-generation chips will support Thunderbolt 3 directly, so it's likely more laptops will be able to use Thunderbolt.
The first Thunderbolt cables were expensive "active" products that needed built-in chips. Will USB 4 be the same?
No. According to Saunders, most USB 4 cables will be cheaper passive cables up to about 0.8 meter (a bit over 2.5 feet). Active cables will be an option for people who need something longer.
What's the future of Thunderbolt?
That's unclear. Intel expects the Thunderbolt brand and its certification processes will continue. The company didn't comment on whether some faster or more capable version is in the works.
But even a more powerful Thunderbolt might not dramatically improve its prospects. USB has been catching up to Thunderbolt's power for years, and USB 4 will be the most capable version yet. Staying head and shoulders above USB 4 would mean creating a more advanced version of Thunderbolt that would likely appeal only to the highest end of the market, by definition a relatively narrow niche.
On the other hand, Thunderbolt could get a boost while we wait close to two years for USB 4 to become a market reality. In that time, Thunderbolt will become just another feature built into Intel chips, meaning that PC makers essentially get it for free. Peripheral makers, knowing that USB 4 absorbs Thunderbolt 3 technology, could warm to Thunderbolt, making it less of a rarity on the market.
"Processor integration, combined with today's announcement, is expected to drive large-scale, mainstream adoption of Thunderbolt," Intel said in a statement. "Thunderbolt developers have consistently stated that the higher bar for product capabilities, ease-of-use, and quality of Thunderbolt is good for their customers and their businesses."
The 10Gbps technology previously called USB 3.1 Gen 2 is now USB 3.2 Gen 2. Are we going to get more comprehensible names with the USB 4 generation?
It isn't clear yet. The USB-IF would prefer you use its more consumer-oriented branding -- USB SuperSpeed 10Gbps in the case above. But the reality is that many products are labeled with the engineering spec.
USB-IF is trying to clear things up. "We are working on simplifying our branding," said Jeff Ravencraft, the forum's president. "All of us struggle with trying to simply tell a consumer what the features and benefits are with any given product."
If you're worried about all those labels, though, you're in the minority.
"We've done multiple focus group studies," Ravencraft said. "The general consumer has no idea about these revision levels or specs. Nor do they care about it."