The tech behind the simple USB port on our computers and devices is always advancing. Coming from the USB Promoter Group, USB4 has been announced as the next evolution of port technology, promising significantly faster speeds.
Just how fast are we talking? Well, USB4 will support data transfer speeds of up to 40Gbps, using two-lane operation of 20Gbps each. That matches the speed of Thunderbolt 3, the crown jewel of port technology. Compared to the previous generation of USB, that’s double the bandwidth.
The last big step was USB 3.2, originally announced back in 2017. Though it’s only now being rolled out, USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 supports 20Gbps at 10Gbs per lane. That generation was only recently renamed, adding to the confusion of the timing of this new announcement. That’s especially since USB4 is said to be compatible with all previous standards including 3.2 and 3.1. The naming scheme of USB has been notoriously unclear, but the clarity of “USB4” should clear the air a bit.
As with previous USB specifications, USB4 isn’t specific to a certain port type, though these kinds of speeds will only be achievable in USB-C cables.
“The primary goal of USB is to deliver the best user experience combining data, display and power delivery over a user-friendly and robust cable and connector solution,” said Brad Saunders, USB Promoter Group Chairman. “The USB4 solution specifically tailors bus operation to further enhance this experience by optimizing the blend of data and display over a single connection and enabling the further doubling of performance.”
Simultaneous display and data over a single port is a great thing, especially given the push for single-cable solutions in new monitors. Details about its video output support, however, were not shared.
Although the USB Promoter Group is made up of the biggest players in the space, including Apple, Microsoft, and HP, Intel is the key figure in these advancements. USB4 is based on Intel’s Thunderbolt protocol, which is now being shared among the USB Promoter Group and was contributed to USB4. Intel also says it enables “other chip makers to build Thunderbolt compatible silicon, royalty-free.”
“Releasing the Thunderbolt protocol specification is a significant milestone for making today’s simplest and most versatile port available to everyone,” said Jason Ziller, General Manager, Client Connectivity Division at Intel. “By collaborating with the USB Promoter Group, we’re opening the doors for innovation across a wide range of devices and consumer experiences to maximize adoption of Thunderbolt compatible products.”
Intel says that it wants Thunderbolt in more and more devices in the future. Between its contribution to USB4 and the implementation in future Ice Lake processors announced at CES 2019, it looks like that’s coming true.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t make the distinctions in USB any easier to parse out. Thunderbolt 3 still has its own designation, with unique features like support for external graphics and docking multiple high-resolution displays. But with USB4, even the ports that don’t feature the Thunderbolt logo will be a bit more capable.
USB4 is the future, but given the time it took for USB 3.2 to roll out, don’t expect it to show up in devices anytime soon. The actual specification itself will be detailed at the USB Developer Days conference later this year.
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