What is USB 3.0 and why you’ll see more of it

This week, Lexar showed us a whole bunch of products, most of which culminated around the concept of USB 3.0. While everyone knows that USB appears in most parts of their lives – phones, media players, keyboards and mice – the third iteration promises to bring more to the table.

Available for well over a year now, USB 3.0 isn’t exactly new. Gadget aficionados have probably seen it in the marketplace since it started appearing in selected computers and motherboards in 2010, but the new format still hasn’t found its way into every computer.

In fact, even today – two years after the products launched with the new version of USB – we’re still seeing laptops released that only feature USB 2.0.

So what does USB 3.0 offer?

Most notably, the format offers a speed improvement for data transfer, roughly ten times faster than USB 2.0, in fact.

While USB 2.0 maxed out at 480Mbit/s – roughly 60 Megabytes per second – the new USB 3.0 standard is capped at 5Gbit/s, or roughly 628 Megabytes per second. These are maximum speeds and not guaranteed, but you can expect faster data transfer rates, meaning that moving files to and from USB 3.0 thumb drives and hard drives will be faster.

How do I know if I have it

There is an easy way to find out if your computer supports USB 3.0, and that’s by looking at it.

While USB 2.0 has predominantly arrived with a black plastic connector, it’s also been made in white for Apple’s iPhone charge cable.

USB 2.0 traditionally uses a black connector, while USB 3.0 uses a blue one.

In USB 3.0, the connector is blue, allowing you to quickly see whether you’ll receive the full speed experience that is the new USB.

To get the USB 3.0 speeds, both the connector on the device and the USB port on the computer need to be blue, otherwise you’re connecting USB 2.0 to USB 3.0.

Backwards compatibility

One of the primary reasons why USB 3.0 is important is the speed at which it brings to the table, a much faster transfer rate that’s sure to impress the most data hungry individuals.

But one other important factor is that it’s backwards compatible with the existing USB format.

In USB 3.0, the port stays the same, but the technology improves, meaning you can plug in all your old USB devices and they’ll still work, drivers permitting.

Devices with USB 2.0 connectors can plug into the blue USB 3.0 connections on computers, and vice versa, but you’ll only receive USB 2.0 speeds.

These two USB 3.0 flash drives look like ordinary USB 2.0 drives and can be plugged into USB 2.0 connections.

More USB 3.0 in 2012

In 2012, you can expect to see the blue USB 3.0 connection on more desktops and laptops, as companies start to integrate the technology across platforms.

While only a few of the Ultrabooks support the technology, many of these were designed last year, and we’re expecting USB 3.0 port availability to increase in 2012.

Part of the problem is Intel’s Thunderbolt technology, previously named Lightpeak. Included on Apple computers, Intel is betting more on its technology than the USB 3.0 standard. Comparatively, Thunderbolt offers faster speeds through a connector based on the Mini-DisplayPort connection.

This year, Intel has opened up its Thunderbolt port to more than just Apple computers, with upcoming laptops supporting Intel’s Ivy Bridge also grabbing Thunderbolt connections.

Manufacturers will likely support both USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt this year, so we should see more devices for each format on laptops in the next few months.