September 29, 2009, 5:08 PM — It seems as if we've been writing about USB 3.0 forever, but it has really been only about two years since Intel and other parties formed a promotional group for USB 3.0 in 2007. The spec was completed in November 2008, at which time the standard's backers said that a glut of devices would hit the market late this year. Well, that statement turned out to be almost right: Devices are coming very soon, but the glut won't be until next year.
SuperSpeed USB (as USB 3.0 is called) supports a maximum data rate of 4.8 gigabits per second, compared with 480 megabits per second for Hi-Speed USB (USB 2.0). That amounts to a theoretical maximum of 600 megabytes per second--it's way faster than most hard drives, and it's coming just in time for a wave of newer and speedier solid-state drives. To give you an idea of how fast that is, it's the equivalent of moving almost one full CD's worth of data in 1 second.
USB 3.0 achieves those speeds with a new plug and cable format, but it's all backward-compatible with USB 2.0 and USB 1.1. Plug in your old device, and it will still work (at the older speed). Plug a USB 3.0 device into a USB 2.0 port, and it will run at the slower speed.
What's more, the USB 3.0 protocol is now full-duplex: Devices can send and retrieve data simultaneously, which wasn't true with USB 1.1 and 2.0. Lower operating voltages and the elimination of broadcasting and polling (methods that the previous USB standards used to communicate with all attached devices) should make USB hosts draw less power, but a higher maximum carried voltage should help you charge your portable devices more quickly.
It sounds great--and recently it seemed poised to make its debut. Asus was scheduled to ship the high-end P6X58 Premium motherboard with USB 3.0 ports provided by NEC's host controller (for the uninitiated, the traffic cop for external devices), but the company announced a slight delay. NEC's host controller just obtained the first USB 3.0 certification of any host on September 21, however, so that Asus board should see the light of day before long.
A few more motherboards equipped with USB 3.0, all using NEC's host controller, should crop up later this year, and Fujitsu is close to releasing a laptop with USB 3.0 ports. USB 3.0 ports will become far more common on laptops and desktop PCs throughout 2010.