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USB 3.0

Intel and others plan to release a new version of Universal Serial Bus technology in the first half of 2008; it will make data transfer rates more than 10 times as fast by adding fiber-optic links alongside the traditional copper wires.

Intel is working fellow USB 3.0 Promoters Group members Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Texas Instruments, NEC and NXP Semiconductors to release the USB 3.0 specification in the first half of 2008.

There'll be a one- to two-year lag between the release of the specification and the availability of the technology, so USB 3.0 products should likely arrive in 2009 or 2010.

The current USB 2.0 version has a top data-transfer rate of 480 megabits per second, so a tenfold increase would be 4.8 gigabits per second. Many devices don't need that much capacity, but some can use more, including hard drives, flash card readers and optical drives such as DVD, Blu-ray and HD DVD. The fastest flash card readers today use IEEE 1394 "FireWire" connections that top out at 800 megabits per second.

In addition, USB 3.0 will offer greater energy efficiency. It will be backward compatible, so current USB 2.0 devices will be able to plug into USB 3.0 ports.

The goal, the companies behind the specification said, is to create a version of the bus that's able to deliver files of 25GB or more.

As for the other, official features of USB 3.0, there remains quite a bit of information we don't know, and it would have been nice for Intel to have included additional information. USB has long been criticized for relatively high CPU usage. This has inevitably become less of an issue as CPU performance has improved, but devices capable of using USB 3.0's higher bandwidth capabilities could make CPU usage a problem again unless the issue is addressed during spec development. Issues like cable length, available power provided, and the number of devices per channel are all unrevealed as yet, and possibly unresolved.

As far as future market competition, its target of 5Gbps puts USB 3.0 ahead of current eSATA (3Gbps), which is really the only other device protocol under active development that might challenge it as a peripheral interconnect. Although an IEEE 1394c protocol has been developed and published as of June 8 2007, no company has announced an intent to produce a product or chipset that utilizes the standard. FireWire remains supported in certain sectors, but I'd personally be surprised if the combination of USB 3.0 and eSATA doesn't push FireWire out of the market completely. As for the nascent specification, the proposed 5Gbps speed is great and all, but hopefully the development committees will acknowledge some of the other concerns regarding the USB 2.0 protocol and incorporate solutions for them, rather than carrying them over into another product generation.


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