Comdex: USB 2.0 looking good in Vegas

OK, OK, so you've heard it before, but this time it's true? USB 2.0 is on the way

Peripherals based on version 2.0 of the USB (Universal Serial Bus) standard are likely to appear by the middle of next year giving both PC and Macintosh users more bandwidth. Lots more bandwidth.

Currently users get around 12Mbits/sec for external peripherals: USB 2.0 promises up to 480Mbits/sec as well as all the plug and play convenience associated with USB technology and full backwards compatibility with USB 1.1.

The first Comdex Fall of the new millennium provided a showcase for USB developers, and a chance to assess USB 2.0 against another apparently competing high-bandwidth I/O bus technologies such as IEEE 1394 or FireWire.

USB devices will now be described in one of three ways, depending on the bandwidth available: High Speed peripherals will utilise the maximum 480Mbits/sec of USB 2.0, older USB 1.1 devices will either be Full Speed (12Mbit/sec) or Low Speed (1.5Mbit/sec). The familiar USB logo has been adapted to reflect this new classification.

For now peripheral manufacturers are waiting on USB chipset-makers, who are putting the final touches to the controllers that will enable USB 2.0 on upgrade cards and motherboards. Leading players in the USB controller market such as Lucent, Texas Instruments and Cypress all reported that sampling of USB 2.0 silicon was well under way, with full production likely in Q1 next year.

Another bottleneck in the USB 2.0 pipeline is driver support: Microsoft is working on USB 2.0 drivers in tandem with the chipset-makers, and expects to deliver support under Windows 2000 first, followed by Windows ME, and then Windows 98 SE.

What new kinds of products can we expect to see under USB 2.0?

Whereas USB 1.1's maximum data rate of 12Mbits/sec is sufficient for devices such as mice, keyboards, low-end printers, Webcams and Internet telephones, it has tended to be a bottleneck for more demanding peripherals like scanners, high-resolution digital cameras, high-end printers, portable CD-RW, magneto-optical and hard disk drives.

Expect many more high-bandwidth peripherals under USB 2.0 next year.

As it happens, the most interesting USB peripheral we saw at the Comdex USB showcase is currently a 1.1 device, although it will migrate to USB 2.0 next year. The Digital Wallet from Minds@Work is an external 6GB hard disk drive. What's unique about the Wallet is that it has its own processing power (Motorola's ColdFire), embedded OS and source of battery power (rechargeable NiMH cells).

Why? Because the unit also features a PC Card slot, allowing you to download and store data from all manner of flash memory cards -- from digital still or video cameras, or digital audio recorders, or whatever -- without the need to carry a notebook PC around. When you return to base, just attach the Digital Wallet via a USB cable and transfer the data to its permanent home.

Six gigabytes of portable, PC-independent storage looks like a winner for digital camera users. The good news is that the Digital Wallet will shortly ship in Europe, at a price yet to be announced. The device supports Windows 2000 and 98, as well as MacOS 8.6 or higher.

Finally, does all this USB 2.0 activity mean that IEEE 1394 (FireWire) is on the way out? What's more likely to happen, according to a spokesman from Lucent -- which is heavily involved in both camps -- is that 1394 will find its niche in the consumer electronics space, connecting audio-visual equipment, whereas USB 2.0 will become the dominant PC peripheral connectivity technology.

This wasn't necessarily the original plan when Apple invented FireWire and Sony became its main champion in the PC arena (i.LINK being Sony's version of FireWire/IEEE 1394). However, Intel, in particular, declined to pay the licence fees that Apple demanded for FireWire, and decided to take ownership of the PC peripheral connectivity sector by developing USB. As the Lucent spokesman pointed out: "We all know it's all politics."

See full coverage at ZDNet UK's Comdex Special.

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