USB 3.0 Adoption Moving at Parallel Port Speeds

It's amazing how fast technology moves when the people developing it have enough motivation and caffeine. Unfortunately, we might have to send a case of Jolt Cola to some of the biggest technology companies, because they seem to be moving at a snail's pace when it comes to implementing USB 3.0, the latest and best port, on their devices. Isn't technology supposed to be advancing at a rapid pace? What in the name of Moore's Law is going on here?

The spec for USB 3.0 was finalized in 2009 and the first notebooks and storage devices with USB 3.0 appeared over a year ago. There's no doubt that USB 3.0 is a valuable standard that everyone should have access to. With a USB 3.0 port and peripheral, you can get speeds up to 5 times those of USB 2, allowing for much faster backups, and a whole world of new peripherals. For example, USB 2.0 couldn't keep up with Kingston's speedy external SSD.

Better still, USB 3.0 can carry more power (900 milliamps) than its predecessor (500 milliamps), allowing for more and better bus-powered devices. I've had a USB 2.0 refrigerator sitting in a drawer for years and I can't use it because it can't keep even a single can of diet coke cold. But with USB 3.0, I could probably keep a couple of cans cold or do something more practical like charge a tablet directly from the computer instead of having to plug it into the wall. Of course, the tablets themselves would have to have USB 3.0 ports, and that's exactly the problem -- lack of adoption.

I'm not sure what Intel and AMD are thinking, but neither company has built a USB 3.0 controller on its standard chipset yet. This means that notebook vendors have to buy special controller cards to add USB 3.0 ports to their systems, an expense and design hassle they don't have to go through with USB 2.0. For the end user, this means that only a handful of notebooks today come with USB 3.0. We've heard rumors that both major chip-makers may finally add USB 3.0 support to their chipsets in 2012, just in time for the end of the world by flood, zombie apocalypse, or economic collapse, depending on which movie you watch.

While we wait for Intel to share its plans for USB 3.0, last week the company introduced Thunderbolt, a new high-speed connector, that promises 10 GBps connections (double the 5 GBps of USB 3.0)  and the ability to deliver 10 watts of electricity to bus-powered devices. While Thunderbolt sounds like it could be a USB killer, Intel says it is a complimentary technology that is meant to work alongside USB 3.0. In fact, Apple will be the only company using Thunderbolt until 2012. This makes the technology sound a lot like FireWire, another high-end connection that's used by creative professionals and largely ignored by mainstream users.

Unlike Thunderbolt, USB is and always has been the people's connection, because it is inexpensive, ubiquitous, and backward compatible. As USB Implementor's Forum COO Jeff Ravencraft wrote to us:

[USB 3.0] is designed to be backward compatible, which is a win-win for consumers as it allows consumers to continue to utilize their existing USB peripherals with a SuperSpeed USB-enabled computer and SuperSpeed USB devices with a legacy computer. SuperSpeed USB is a very low cost, competitive solution, and consumers do not have to reinvest in all new products. Consumers love USB because it is a safe purchase; it’s absolutely easy-to-use.

While Intel and AMD are biding their time, device makers are dragging their feet. We've seen our share of USB 3.0 hard drives and flash drives, but we have yet to see a phone or tablet with a USB 3.0 port or a desktop monitor with a USB 3.0 hub built-in. DisplayLink has shown off USB 3.0 capable video controller chips, but we have yet to see a monitor that gets its signal from a USB 3.0 port.

What's amazing about the go-slow approach vendors are taking with USB 3.0  is that it doesn't match the torrid pace at which other technologies roll-out. Intel and AMD launched their latest chips in January and immediately scores of notebooks began rolling out with them. When a new version of Windows ships like Windows 7 did in October 2009, all of the new notebooks come with it preloaded. Pretty soon you won't be able to buy an Android tablet with less than Android 3.0, but over a year after USB 3.0 products began shipping, an entire industry is stalling its adoption.

Avram Piltch
Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master's degree in English from NYU.