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Next-gen USB SuperSpeed to eliminate power cords

Lucas Mearian | April 23, 2013
USB SuperSpeed will move from 5Gbps bandwidth to 10Gbps in the coming year, but it's also leaping from 10 watts to 100 watts for charging, which could power monitors and even HDTVs.

Consumers toss out millions of battery chargers every year. In fact, cell phone chargers account for almost 100,000 tons of trash annually in the U.S. In the E.U., chargers represent about 51,000 tons of landfill waste.

The need for speed

For Thunderbolt, this is the first speed increase since its initial release in 2011.

Based on copper, the Thunderbolt specification contains two protocols: PCI Express (PCIe) and DisplayPort. The Thunderbolt chip switches between the two protocols to support varying devices. DisplayPort offers HD display support as well as eight channels of HD audio. The current Thunderbolt connector has two full-duplex channels; each are bi-directional and capable of 10Gbps of throughput.

While the upgrade to 20Gbps maintains Thunderbolt's significant edge over USB 3.0 in terms of bandwidth, the USB specification is the de facto industry standard peripheral interconnect. Thunderbolt has been mainly adopted by Apple.

"We have over 865 USB SuperSpeed products today," Ravencraft said. "That's well over double what we had a year ago."

SuperSpeed USB is optimized for power efficiency. It uses only 1.5 amps of power for charging devices, or about one-third of the power of its predecessor Hi-Speed USB (v2.0).

Thunderbolt will get its performance boost from a new controller chip, code-named Falcon Ridge. Intel introduced that chip at the NAB Show earlier this month. The controller chip is slated to go into production by the end of this year.

The new USB SuperSpeed 10Gbps specification is scheduled to be completed in July.

"I think we'll see products in the market by the Christmas season in 2014," Ravencraft said. "The companies have to build silicon - device, host, bridge and hub silicon."

Along with the power improvements, the upgrades to USB and Thunderbolt lend themselves to higher-definition displays, as well as supporting more external drives based on NAND flash technology.

Currently, USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt can keep up with the consumer-grade solid-state drives (SSDs). However, some current enterprise-class SSDs have read/write speeds approaching 6.5GB/s. In the future, consumer SSDs will follow suit, so a speed increase for peripheral connections like Thunderbolt and USB is necessary, according to Gregg Potter, an analyst with Multimedia Research Group.

The increased bandwidth will bode well for Macs as they begin to support 4K displays, which have a resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels -- four times today's standard high-definition resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. Thunderbolt ports are also available in a few PCs from Acer, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo and Dell.

"As manufacturers begin to look at 4K video for laptops and desktop computers, a USB DisplayLink or Thunderbolt port becomes an option," Potter said.

An uncompressed 4K video runs at roughly 7.6Gbps, so a speed increase -- at least for USB -- is needed there. With the new USB power delivery standard supporting up to 100W, USB docking stations for laptops will need the increased bandwidth to support both video and data simultaneously, particularly when using multiple monitors and peripherals.

The new SuperSpeed 3.0 specification will increase power to 100 watts and offer bidirectional data and audio/visual transfer, meaning a laptop or monitor with a USB hub could power many other devices, including an HDTV.

 

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