Get Ready For SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ... and a New Version of FireWire Too
If you think that USB 2.0 is fast compared to earlier USB 1.1 standards, you're right. At 480 megabits per second, the current 2.0 version of USB operates at speeds up to 14 times faster than the older version. But by next year that will be, well... last year's news. Or something like that. This week Intel released the controller specifications for "SuperSpeed" USB 3.0 that will run up to 10 times faster still — up to 4.8 gigabits per second. And for fans of FireWire, last month the IEEE approved specs for the upcoming IEEE 1394-2008 that will run at up to 3.2 gigabits per second.
USB (short for "Universal Serial Bus") started out life as version 1.0 at the beginning of 1996. Two and a half years later, version 1.1 came out to address a few bugs that had been reported in the initial release. Once this happened, things took off quickly. By the time USB 2.0 came out in 2000, many of those big, fat serial (COM-port) and parallel (PRT-port) cables had already started disappearing from behind desktop computers. But what really made USB catch on was the convenience of hot-swapping devices. From portable hard drives to the now ubiquitous "thumb drive," from printers to scanners and other peripherals, USB is everywhere.
And now comes USB 3.0.
Although it was first demonstrated a the Intel Developer Forum in 2007, work on devices that work on this new standard was pretty much on hold pending standardization on the controller interface. The controller is the thing that manages traffic on the system. Most vendors have traditionally followed Intel's controller standard. This not only means they don't have design their own, it means everything works the same way, making USB much more worry free than standards such as SCSI that came before it. Initially, it seemed as if Intel wasn't going to share this time though, forcing AMD, NVidia and other to begin work on competing controller designs. Fortunately, Intel seems to have had a change of heart this week by deciding to release their "Extensible Host Controller Interface" (xHCI) standard royalty free (technically the licensing terms are known as RAND-Z, or "Reasonable And Non Discriminatory" with zero royalty) to all companies who signs the xHCI contributor agreement.
That's good news for photographers who rely on USB. By this time next year, USB 3.0 devices should start showing up in the marketplace. 4.8 gigabits per second is 600 megabytes per second meaning you will eventually be able to copy up to thirty 20 MB raw files in one second.
USB 3.0 cables will have some extra contacts in them but should be backward compatible with USB2.0 devices. To take advantage of the faster USB 3.0 speeds though, you'll need new devices and a new controller for your computer.
Even as USB has become increasingly common, some folks still prefer FireWire, technically known as IEEE 1394. Most FireWire right now runs at 400 megabits per second, but there are FireWire 800 devices that can double that. If you're a FireWire fan, there's good news for you too. In a likely effort to keep up with USB development, the IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) announced a speed upgrade they dubbed IEEE 1394-2008 last month. The IEEE has never been big on catchy names. When compliant devices start showing up by late next year, they will operate at FireWire 1600 speeds (1.6 gigabits per second) with 3200 (3.2 gigabits per second) to follow by 2010.
Thankfully, as file sizes get bigger, transfer speeds do to.