Twice the data with USB4

March 21, 2019

A new era of USB is dawning and it’s set to offer double the data transfer and a whole lot more versatility.

Known as USB4, the new protocol will be soon be readily available in cables and devices, doubling the bandwidth of USB and enabling one cable or port to handle multiple data, display and power functions at the same time.

So, what exactly is USB4 and why does it matter?

A quick recap of some USB basics

First up, it’s important to note when discussing USB, there are two elements commonly referred to: The USB Standard and the USB Type.

Video by ThioJoe

USB Standard

The USB Standard relates to the speed and type of data that can be transferred through the port and the cable. Over the years there have been numerous generations of the USB Standard and the specifications are overseen by the USB Implementors Forum. The generations so far are:

  • USB 1.0 – Released 1996, with a full speed of 12Mb per second
  • USB 2.0 – Released 2001, with a high speed of 480Mb per second
  • USB 3.0 – Released 2011, with a SuperSpeed of 5Gb per second
  • USB 3.1 – Released 2014, with a SuperSpeed of 10Gb per second
  • USB 3.2 – Released 2017, with a SuperSpeed of 20Gb per second

USB Type

The type relates to the connection method (as in the shape of the connector plug and the port) and this too has changed over the years.

Until recently most laptops, and computers featured USB-Type A connectors and ports, which are long flat and rectangular looking.

However, there is now a shift under way to USB-Type C. The benefit of USB-Type C is that the connector allows cables to be plugged in up or down and permits either end of the cable to be plugged into a device.

USB-Type C also supports bi-directional power charging, so you can charge into your tablet, or use your tablet, smartphone etc to charge other devices.

As USB-Type C much smaller than USB-Type A, it is increasingly found in tablets and smart phones.

USB 4.0

On March 4, the USB Implementors Forum announced the pending release of the USB 4.0 specification. This latest generation is based on the Thunderbolt protocol devised by Intel and is to feature twice the speed of USB 3.2, meaning cables and ports will feasibly be able to transfer up to 40Gb per second.

It also comes with amazing versatility as Tech Crunch explains: “USB 4.0 will support charging speeds of 100W of power, transfer speeds of 40 Gbps and enough video bandwidth for two 4K displays or one 5K display. USB 4 should also be backward-compatible with USB 3.x, 2.x and 1.x devices.”

Announcing the new protocol, USB Promoter Group Chairman Brad Saunders said the main aim was to provide a superior experience that combines data, display and power delivery into a user-friendly and robust cable and connector solution.

For the technically minded out there the USB Implementors forum also noted the key characteristics of the USB4 solution include:

  • Two-lane operation using existing USB Type-C cables and up to 40 Gbps operation over 40 Gbps certified cables
  • Multiple data and display protocols to efficiently share the total available bandwidth over the bus
  • Backward compatibility with USB 3.2, USB 2.0 and Thunderbolt 3

So what does it actually mean?

For the average user, the introduction of USB4 means there’s a good chance the laptop, smart phone or tablet you purchase in the coming years will feature a USB-Type C connection with USB4 speed and versatility, allowing you to do more things with fewer ports.

For example, you can use one port to charge your device, transfer images, plug in an external display, and charge other devices. Importantly, USB4 means you will be able to do some of these tasks simultaneously, at a much faster speed than in the past.

When is it coming?

The USB Implementors Forum released the new standard for USB4 on March 4. Now they’ll work through the process of meeting with manufacturers. That means it’s a while off yet, but it will be worth the wait as it’s set to make our lives a whole lot simpler.

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