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A guide to understanding USB technology

A guide to understanding USB technology

Universal Serial Bus devices have been around since 1995. In computer years that seems like a lifetime. In that lifetime we’ve seen two distinct generations of USB technology – USB 1.0 and USB 2.0, and now we're entering the era of USB 3.0.  This article describes the history of USB, technical differences between the various iterations and the future of USB technology. It will also help you update an old computer for USB 2.0 support.

What is USB?

USB stands for Universal Serial Bus. USB interfaces peripheral devices, like a printer, with a host computer. USB features a standardized plug for attaching various devices. The plug and play nature of USB allows devices to be attached to a computer or notebook without restarting the operating system. USB has a sister technology found with many cell phones and digital cameras called Micro-USB. USB technology allows for lower power consumption and higher data transfer rates between devices.

How to identify which USB technology your computer uses

When you plug in a compatible USB 2.0 device into a USB 1.x port your computer will inform you that the device could perform faster if you had a USB 2.0 port. This doesn’t mean the device won’t work, but due to the technology differences between USB 2.0 and USB 1.x, the bandwidth between the devices would be less than adequate.

You can also figure out if your computer has USB 2.0 by opening the Device Manager from the Control Panel, click on the Universal Serial Bus Controllers, and look for the word "enhanced" to describe the controllers installed on your system. Not all of the controllers will say this but you should see at least one that says something like “Standard Enhanced PCI to USB Host Controller”. The language may vary but if you have the word “enhanced” in there somewhere then you have USB 2.0 ports on your computer. It is entirely possible for you to have USB 2.0 ports in the rear of the computer, but only USB 1.x ports in the front (or vice-versa).

Technical differences between USB technologies

The biggest difference between USB technologies exist in the data transfer rates. The earliest USB 1.x technology had a low speed of 1.5Mb per second and a high speed of 12Mb per second. This was indeed an improvement on previous technologies for data transfer, and allowed devices like external optical drives and external hard drives to perform much faster.

USB 2.0 technology was unveiled in 2000 and then made standard by the USB-IF in 2001. This version upped the speed considerably to 480Mb per second of high speed data transfer. Around the same time USB 2.0 came onto the market, they also brought out the Mini B plug and receptacle – a connector commonly found in MP3 players and other small electronic devices. USB 2.0 has stood the test of time, gaining improvements throughout the years, but staying relatively the same.

There is a technology which co-exists with USB 2.0, the certified wireless USB technology or WUSB. Imagine connecting your printer, scanner, keyboard, mouse, (etc) without any kind of cables between the devices! WUSB is an extension of the Universal Bus Protocol And it’s just a shame that consumers don’t see it implemented more often.

As computer hard drives grow in size, processor speeds quicken, and users move to more robust media like audio and video clips, so too does the data transfer technology need to advance and improve. For this reason, USB 3.0 has been in the works for some time. It is expected to hit the shelves in late 2009 – although an exact date is not known just yet. USB 3.0 will be ten times faster than the current USB 2.0 iteration. This new version will be moving data at a rate of 4.8 Gb per second– in other words, lightning fast.

Each new USB version that comes out still works with the same connectors as the previous ones. The backwards compatibility of USB 2.0 devices with a USB 1.0 port will remain true for USB 3.0. Many USB 3.0 devices and hardware are available, although a lot of motherboards and systems are still sold with USB 2.0 at this time.

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Author Name:Jason Frye
Published Date:20 January 2011
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