USB, or Universal Serial Bus, is an agreed-upon standard that makes sure if you buy kit with USB technology built in, then it’s all going to work happily together. While we have a certain amount of dongle hell to deal with today, it’s nothing compared to the early 90s, when computer peripherals used all kinds of weird and wonderful connectors, and it took at least half a morning to install and configure your latest purchase.
The big computing beasts Compaq, DEC, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, NEC, and Nortel started work on the USB standard in 1994, with the original USB 1.0 specification arriving in January 1996, with its blazing standard speed of 1.5 Mbit/s.
USB 2.0 followed in April 2000, ramping up speeds to 480 Mbit/s—not all that important for a joystick but invaluable for an external hard drive. Another significant upgrade arrived in November 2008 with USB 3.0, upping the potential data transfer rates again to 5 Gbps while keeping backwards compatibility with USB 2.0 gear. If you have the latest USB 3.1 installed today, then you have the potential for up to 10 Gbps of data transfer, even if most consumer peripherals don’t get close to that. There’s also support for providing 100W of power, which is why laptops can now be charged via USB.
The USB standards as set out by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) cover a host of technologies: Not just the protocols for shifting data, but also the cables you can use, and the connectors on the end of those cables. The USB-C port we’ve been hearing so much about lately is linked to, but technically separate from, the USB standards for data transfer. It was also developed by the USB-IF, and it was announced around the same time as USB 3.1, but it also works with USB 2.0 cables and gear.
USB-C has been designed as the port and connector of the future, one that will work with everything from phones to laptops (and work both ways up as well, as an added bonus). We’re not there yet, but over the next couple of years USB-C and USB 3.1 will become the standard on electronics gear, at least until the next spec rolls around...
USB 3.2 is (as the name suggests) the next step up from USB 3.1, though it won’t be appearing in your local Best Buy any time soon—it’s only just been announced by the USB-IF, and its headline feature is its support for what’s called multi-lane operation, where two lanes of 5 Gbps or 10 Gbps can run together in tandem by utilizing extra wires inside USB cables. The theoretical maximum transfer rate therefore gets bumped up to 20 Gbps.
The USB 3.2 spec is expected to be finalized in September but how soon we start seeing in consumer electronics depends on a number of factors, including market trends, manufacturing schedules, and profit margins. At least having just a minor upgrade this time around means the USB ports on our gadgets won’t need to be significantly retooled to get the standard supported.
The good news for us humble consumers is that older USB standards tend to stick around for a long time, and newer standards are often backwards compatible—new cables will work with old computers and phones, just with some of the performance perks dialled down. To put it another way, you don’t necessarily have to upgrade your microUSB smartphone just to get on the USB-C bandwagon, because microUSB is going to be supported for a long time yet.
The bump to USB 3.2 means some existing cables will potentially be able to double their data transfer rates. If you’re using USB 3.0 or USB 3.1 cables with USB-C connectors, they’ll be able to send twice as much data—either 2 x 5 Gbps or 2 x 10 Gbps—thanks to the multi-lane technology in USB 3.2. You’ll need equipment that supports the new USB 3.2 standard at each end of the cables, but the cables themselves don’t need to be replaced to get the extra speeds.