Do we need 10Gbs USB 3.0?

The USB 3.0 Promoter Group announced plans to double USB 3.0 bandwidth to 10Gbs. That would make more sense if anyone was complaining about current USB 3.0 speeds.

I've been using USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt for the last six months. I'll write in more detail about my experience with USB 3.0, but my key finding is that it is not nearly as robust as Thunderbolt.

Also, there aren't that many devices that can make use of the performance of USB 3.0 today. Its 400 to 500 MB per second bandwidth far exceeds that of any single hard drive, and is fast enough for almost any single SSD.

So what is the purpose of this announcement?

What's the rush?

The announcement is surprisingly light on any detail about why faster USB 3.0 is needed. After all, the original USB 3.0 has been incorporated into Intel chipsets only in the last year. Most devices still use USB 2.0, which is plenty fast enough for Blu-ray burners, scanners, printers, and many thumb drives.

However, the announcement is not about the adoption of a new specification. It is an announcement about the intent to create a new specification that should be finished later this year.

And when might it be seen in products? No word on that, but the v1.0 USB 3.0 spec was released in November 2008 and took almost four years to get wide adoption on PCs.

The only clue to why and why now comes from a quote attributed to a Microsoft manager: "These updates will enable higher data rates and allow combining of disk, high-definition audio/video, and networking traffic on a single cable — all while maintaining compatibility with billions of existing devices"

Sounds like Thunderbolt. Except that Thunderbolt today supports 2 full-duplex 10Gbs channels, which is what enables it to support external RAID arrays or PCIe card cages--among other things--and a concurrent 2560x1440 display.

Even with the update, USB 3.0 will have half the bandwidth of Thunderbolt today.

Head 'em off at the past!

To recap, the USB 3.0 Promoter Group has announced a plan to double the USB 3.0 data rate spec, with no use case, no timetable for product,s and a requirement that users buy new USB 10Gbs computers and hubs. And they still won't have the capability that Thunderbolt has today.

Smells like a pre-emptive strike against Thunderbolt 2.0, which, as I noted last year, is expected this year. Perhaps it will debut on the semi-announced new Mac Pro.

The Storage Bits take

The slowdown in PC sales is up-ending old verities. As desktops and laptops become professional tools rather than lowest-common-denominator game/email/browsing devices, they benefit by having ultra-high-performance options like Thunderbolt.

As tablets become the consumer computing device of choice, desktops and laptops have to migrate upmarket to remain relevant. Even though volumes may drop, average sale prices can rise if they provide functionality that professionals require.

I suspect that the USB Promoter Group realizes that USB 3.0 is not needed on tablets, and must compete with Thunderbolt to have a continuing critical mass of adoption and devices. But Thunderbolt is engineered to reach speeds of 100Gbs by the end of this decade.

There is no way that USB 3.0 can compete with Thunderbolt head-to-head over the long term--and they don't need to. But I commend them for trying.

Comments are welcome, of course. Are you using USB 3.0? How do you like it?