USB 3.0: Great technology, but hard to find

USB 3.0 offers data transfer speeds that are five times faster than USB 2.0, so why hasn't it caught on?

By , ITworld |  Networking, USB 3.0

But it's not. It's still a fair amount of trouble to find computers with USB 3.0 built in. Today, HP, Sony, and Dell offer only a handful of PC withs USB 3.0.

Why USB 3.0 hasn't caught on

USB 1.0 and 2.0 ports and devices were interchangeable. Of course, any such combination would only go as fast as 1.0's 12Mbps. But with USB 3.0, even though the plug and PC connection look the same at a casual glance, they're not really compatible with the older models.

Instead of four wires, the USB 3.0 cable has eight wires. One is power, one is for the ground, two for USB 2.0 data ), and four wires for SuperSpeed data. If you take a closer look at a USB 3.0 cable you'll see that one edge of the plug is colored blue. The end that plugs into your USB 3.0 drive, scanner, printer, or camera, however, is not the compatible with a USB 2.0 device. So, while you can plug a USB 2.0 device with a USB 2.0 cable into a USB 3.0 port or a USB 3.0 device with a USB 3.0 cable into a USB 2.0 port, you can't use a USB 3.0 cable to connect a USB 2.0 device. Got that?

In short, you can't switch out USB cables willy-nilly if you're using USB 3.0. Since, at a quick glance you may mistake a USB 2.0 cable for a USB 3.0 one, it's a small, but vexing, problem.

By itself, that's not a big deal. Far more important is that Windows 7, even with SP1, still doesn't natively support USB 3.0. You can use USB 3.0 ports and devices of course, with the right device drivers, but in 2011, what Windows user worries about device driver compatibility? Mac users have the same problem. Even Snow Leopard doesn't have built-in USB 3.0 support. It's another annoying hitch. Ironically enough, Linux, which is always getting grief for not supporting this or the other device, is the only operating system with USB 3.0 support baked in.

On top of that, even though Intel was a member of the USB working group that helped create the USB 3.0 specification, it was only at Computex in Taiwan on May 31st 2011 that Intel finally committed to supporting USB 3.0 on an actual product line. Intel will ship the "new" USB on its Ivy Bridge chipset.

Don't get too excited yet though. Ivy Bridge, the successor to Sandy Bridge, has just had its release date moved back to March 2012. If you want a motherboard with USB 3.0 already built in sooner than next year, you can look to AMD. The other CPU chip giant has announced that its A75 and A70M Fusion chipsets will include USB 3.0. These chipsets are already shipping.

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