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

So why has Intel been such a stick in the mud? Well, Intel has its own high-speed interface agenda to push: Thunderbolt, formerly known as Light Peak, which Intel first showed at the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) in September 2009.

Thunderbolt is a fiber optic wire connection. It uses the same size connector as USB but even thinner wires. Unlike USB 3.0, which in theory can reach out to three meters with Gbps speeds but in practice goes to about two meters, Thunderbolt can transmit data up to 50 meters.

Thunderbolt can also be used with PCI Express and DisplayPort. Thus, it can be used both for devices and for display high-definition video. Intel also promises that you'll be able to power devices through it.

On top of that, Thunderbolt, although it's not here yet except in labs, can transmit 10Gb of data per second bidirectionally, twice that of USB 3.0. Need I add that it too is going to be included on the Ivy Bridge chipsets?

Unlike USB 3.0, though, which is an industry wide standard, Thunderbolt is Intel specific. So, while in many ways Thunderbolt does sound like it will better than USB 3.0, you'll only be able to use it with Intel equipment and with hardware that's been manufactured by vendors under an Intel license. Historically, proprietary inputs and outputs don't do well in the mass-market. You'll recall that, FireWire, Apple's take on the IEEE 1394 High Speed Serial Bus, never really took off even though it was far faster than its competitors.

So what's a user to do? Well, even though USB 3.0 has not taken off as quickly as many of us thought it would, I believe in the long run it will win out and become the next universal PC input/output (I/O) system. While Apple, Intel, and Microsoft have all failed to support it properly, it's still the most flexible, high-speed and open I/O out there and I foresee trouble ahead for Thunderbolt getting the kind of universal support that earlier versions of USB have gotten.

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