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Why USB4 is Different and Why it Matters

by Abubakar Musa Usman

The next major (and perhaps confusing) USB edition is on its way. The USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) issued the USB4 standard at the beginning of September 2019 paving the way for blazing-fast USB connections equivalent to Thunderbolt 3 speeds.

The Specification Is Ready

The link with Thunderbolt is not a coincidence. Intel contributed to the USB Promoter Community with the Thunderbolt protocol specification. (The Promoter Group is an industry group responsible for developing USB standards, while the USB-IF promotes the development and acceptance of USB technology.)

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As USB4 ports begin to appear in laptops and elsewhere, it offers maximum speeds of 40 Gigabits per second (Gbps). That’s twice the current USB 3.2 Gen 22 limit. USB4 will be backward compatible with USB 2.0 and up, as with other USB models, and in some instances such USB4 ports will even work with Thunderbolt 3 devices.

Unfortunately, it’s not necessary for Thunderbolt 3. This may be missed by certain USB4 phones.

This sounds like a pretty good update, but if we can tell anything about the people behind USB, it’s because they know how to annoy everyone. USB4 may not be the other way around. Let’s dive into it.

The Speed

USB4 won’t be just one default that all users should expect to work the same. It’s going to come with two different speeds instead. Besides the potential for a maximum speed of 40Gbps, there is also a speed of 20Gbps. If that wasn’t enough, the USB4 spec also has a third 10Gbps option. The USB-IF, however, told us that to maintain backward compatibility, this is simply a fallback rate. In other words, don’t expect that USB4 devices will be limited to the lowest speed.

usb4

What will be named the two big USB4 speeds when they reach store shelves is currently unclear. The 40 Gbps USB4 speed is called Gen 3 range behind the scenes, and the 20 Gbps speed is Gen 2 range.

These are technical terms for device makers and not the local computer store’s signage.

The USB-IF says it will announce its branding guidelines in early 2020. At that time, according to a USB-IF spokeswoman, “there will be an emphasis on specifically communicating performance levels to the general consumer.”

That’s good news because at the moment it is frustrating enough with USB 3.2, which comes in the flavors of Gen 1 and Gen 2 and Gen 22. Yeah, it’s quite frustrating.

Backward Compatibility

This one is backward compatible with its predecessors, as with other USB models. USB 2.0 and up in general. Which means you can still attach it to a USB4 port if you have an external hard drive for backups. You will need an adapter to go from USB Type-A (standard USB) to USB Type-C to make that work, and our hypothetical drive will still be limited to USB 2.0 speeds.

Remember, the USB Type-C cables you’ve got right now may not be good enough for USB4. It will still accommodate older rates, but you will need new cables and new gear if you want to see the transfer rate increase.

Thunderbolt 3 Backwards Compatibility

The USB-IF states that USB4 can be backward compatible with Thunderbolt 3 from Intel, which uses Type-C connectors as well. This makes sense because USB4 integrates the features of Thunderbolt 3.  Nevertheless, support for Thunderbolt 3 is not mandatory for USB4. Although Intel gave free use of the Thunderbolt 3 standard to the USB-IF, the Thunderbolt 3 branding was not offered free use.

Any device manufacturer will need to be accredited by Intel to advertise its USB4 ports as backward compatible with Thunderbolt 3. That’s why the data transfer software from Intel is not especially popular.

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Practically speaking, we don’t expect the Thunderbolt 3 situation to change drastically for PCs. For example, you might forget to see official compatibility with Thunderbolt 3 on AMD-based machines— just like before USB4.

Perhaps there will be some Intel-based motherboards rocking USB4 ports approved for Thunderbolt 3, but most PC builders will focus on expansion cards to power Thunderbolt 3 devices.

Laptops are a little different from each other. Thunderbolt 3 is not commonly used, but on clamshells it is more popular than on desktops. For example, for external graphics card docks, Thunderbolt3-capable laptops are common.

Dynamic Bandwidth Sharing

One of the best parts of USB4 is that when they share resources, they must pay attention to how much bandwidth devices they need. When you run an external storage system and a monitor at the same time, the most common example of this is.

USB4 is smart enough to keep the screen frame rates high while supplying the external drive with what it requires to transfer data.

USB Power Delivery Everywhere.

All USB 4 phones will be fitted with USB Power Delivery (USB PD) technology that can provide up to 100 watts of power via a USB port. The idea is to allow more than just slow drip loading on a laptop for phones via USB ports.

USB PD uses smart charging to ensure that the charged device is as efficient as the charging system can mount. The two systems must discuss charging levels so that, depending on the device’s need, the charge is not too fast or too slow.

One Type of Port

USB4 should be the port-sized innovation that makes USB more common in day-to-day use. We actually have a boatload of standard USB Type-A ports with data transfer speeds between “I’m questioning my life choices” and “well, that wasn’t that bad.” Then there are micro-USB ports that are mostly used for phone charging, and new Type-C ports that have more speed options than a mountain bike.

All this is to find out that USB is a mystery and a mess of cables. Since USB4 sticks to the Type-C connectors, we can finally see a single port type appropriate for any size computer and a single cable connector for all.

Nonetheless, we wouldn’t expect universal revolution to happen in the near future, as laptop manufacturers are likely to continue to include Type-A ports in laptops to provide businesses and home users with dongle-free backward compatibility.

Therefore, even if Type-C finally is standard, there will still be a lot of variable speeds between the various USB varieties.

Sounds great for USB4, but when?

If USB4 starts rolling out, we’re not quite sure. Generally, device manufacturers are willing to adopt new USB technologies relatively quickly compared to other formats, such as the lagging SD and microSD Express. We’re probably looking at mid-to late-2020, and perhaps 2021 before USB4 actually starts.

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