Intel demonstrated a working version of USB 3.0 at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week. Here's why it will make eSATA and FireWire obsolete.
The USB 3.0 cable is substantially thicker than the USB 2.0 cable as it contains six wires rather than two.
(Credit: Reuben Lee/CNET Asia)
When USB 3.0 is expected to hit the market in early 2010, it will have been 10 years since the now ubiquitous USB 2.0 was introduced (April 2000). The current USB 2.0 specification runs at a theoretical maximum speed of 480Mbps, and can supply power (for those looking for the hard details, you can find the USB 2.0 specification here (zip file)).
According to the USB Implementers Forum, there were 2 billion USB 2.0 devices shipped in 2006 (one for every three people in the world), and the install base was 6 billion (almost one for every person in the world). In November 2007, the USB Implementers forum announced the USB 3.0 specifications, and Intel officially demonstrated the technology at CES 2009.
Now, the juice: USB 3.0 promises a theoretical maximum rate of 5Gbps, meaning it's 10 times faster than USB 2.0. USB 3.0 is also full duplex, meaning it can upload and download simultaneously (it's bi-directional); USB 2.0 is only half duplex.
Put side by side with eSATA and FireWire 800, USB 3.0 is far superior. eSATA, an external connection that runs at the same speed as the internal SATA 1.0 bus, has a maximum theoretical of 3Gbps. This makes USB 3.0 faster than eSATA and about six times faster than FireWire 800 (full duplex at 800Mbps).
USB 3.0 also provides another advantage; while eSATA is faster than FireWire 800, unlike FireWire it cannot supply power. USB 3.0 has the advantage of being faster than both, even while supplying power.
Finally, USB 3.0 has improved power management, meaning that devices can move into idle, suspend and sleep states. This potentially means more battery life out of laptops and other battery-based USB-supporting devices like cameras and mobile phones.
Of course, there are other factors to consider; the FireWire 3200 standard is also in the works and promises to allow 3.2GHz speeds on existing FireWire 800 hardware. USB 2.0 generally doesn't meet its theoretical maximum throughput, due to its dependence on hardware and software configuration, where FireWire gets much closer.
It's hard to say whether USB 3.0's updated architecture will still use more CPU time than FireWire does.
But in the age of powerful hardware (can anyone say "3.2GHz, quad-core CPUs"?), all of this means that FireWire is still not going to match USB 3.0's theoretical maximum of 5Gbps.
The ultimate signal that this war has already been won is Apple's recent decision to ditch FireWire from its consumer line in favour of USB. Previously, Cupertino had been one of FireWire's greatest advocates. And surely the company will be one of the first to adopt USB 3.0.
All in all, we can't wait for motherboard manufacturers like Gigabyte and Asus to start supporting the technology and mainstream PC builders like Dell to start integrating it into their products. Bring on the speed.