Speedy USB 3.0 Spec Quickly Becomes a Consumer Reality

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In some ways, the wait for USB 3.0 and its faster bandwidth speeds has felt interminable over the past year, as hard drives slowly began to ship, and system adoption appeared to lag. But judging from what I'm seeing and hearing here at CES, USB 3.0 adoption is actually proceeding ahead of where its 2.0 predecessor was a year after launch.

The beauty of USB 3.0 is its speed and the promise it holds in easing the management of high-def video, music, and digital imaging applications between devices. But another USB 3.0 improvement is energy conservation. USB 3.0 only transmits data to devices that need it, so devices can go into low power state when not needed (such as an idle flatbed scanner. Because of this USB 3.0 spec now uses one-third the power of USB 2.0.

Kingston Digital USB 3.0 product roadmap for 2011 includes USB 3.0 flash drives
The speed boost offered by USB 3.0 is dramatic -- a theoretical 10X jump over existing USB 2.0 hardware. USB 2.0 maxed out at a theoretical 480Mbps, while USB 3.0 can theoretically handle up to 5Gbps. Mind you, applications like storage will still be limited by the type of drive inside; so, for example, you can expect better performance from RAIDed hard drives or fast solid-state drives (SSDs) than from, say, a standalone single drive connected to the computer via USB 3.0.

"The big thing is, a little over a year ago, we only had one certified product, and it was a [component] piece of USB silicone from NEC/Renesys. In the last year, we have released over 165 certified product, including notebooks, motherboards, support for add-in cards, and hard drives. And there are more products in the market that don't get certified," says Jeff Ravencraft head of the USB Implementers Forum.

Samsung introduced a new line of speedy USB 3.0 external hard drives this week at CES
At last year's CES, 17 USB products debuted. Now, with a second certified host controller chip in the mix to enable USB on devices-this one from Fresco Logic--there's more choice in suppliers, and more competition in price.

Ravencraft says NEC was on track to ship 20 million controllers in 2010. Gigabyte shipped 5 million USB 3.0-enabled motherboards (destined to be on desktops/notebooks?) by the end of 2010.

"Market adoption has been phenomenal. This is the fastest adoption of any technology I've been involved with, and is ahead of USB 2.0's adoption pace," Ravencraft says.

In 2011, expect the higher price for USB 3.0 products (compared to USB 2.0 products) to erode and disappear to parity entirely. That's because the price curve for the components required to enable USB 3.0 have fallen: Initially, it cost $7 for manufacturers to integrate USB 3.0, whereas now it's sub-$2. That pricing is actually three years ahead of what In-Stat had predicted.

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In my survey of hard drive makers, those that didn't already announce an intention to shift to USB 3.0 in the last quarter of 2010 (Iomega, LaCie, Western Digital), are transitioning to 3.0 by the end of first quarter of 2011. Watch for big box retailers to move USB 2.0 product off the shelves in the coming shelf reset that they do in the first quarter of the year, says Verbatim's Charles Klinker, director of marketing.

D-Link launched a USB 3.0 HD media router this week at CES
Meanwhile, at the CES show, PC and laptop support for USB 3.0 is clearly increasing. Many manufacturers offering Intel Sandy Bridge-based systems are also now adding USB 3.0 support. Whereas it was a challenge to find a laptop with USB 3.0 in 2010, you won't have near the same difficulty in 2011.

As for other devices -- such as cameras, camcorders and HDTVs -- be patient, advises Ravencraft. Regardless of what may or may not be discussed at the show, Ravencraft expects we'll be seeing more USB 3.0 soon.

"We always knew storage would be first out of the chute, along with PCs and laptops," he says. "There will be products that don't [rush a] move to 3.0-like keyboards, mice, printers--because they're not high data rate devices. But I think as we get to the back half of the year we will see more products come online, like HDTVs, cameras, and camcorders. They have that rich, high data rate content that needs to move quickly, and USB 3.0 can do that."

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