The next great (and possibly confusing) version of USB is on its way. In early September 2019, the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) published the USB4 specification paving the way for blazing-fast USB connections comparable to the speeds of Thunderbolt 3.
The Specification Is Ready
That Thunderbolt comparison isn’t a coincidence. Intel contributed the Thunderbolt protocol specification to the USB Promoter Group. (The Promoter Group is an industry organization charged with developing USB specifications, while the USB-IF advocates for the advancement and adoption of USB technology.)
When USB4 ports start showing up in laptops and elsewhere, it promises maximum speeds of 40 Gigabits per second (Gbps). That’s double the maximum of current USB 3.2 Gen 2×2. As with other versions of USB, USB4 will be backward compatible with USB 2.0 and up, and in some cases, those USB4 ports will even work with Thunderbolt 3 gear.
Unfortunately, Thunderbolt 3 isn’t mandatory. Some USB4 devices may omit it.
It sounds like a pretty good upgrade, but if there’s anything we can say about the people behind USB, it’s that they sure know how to confuse everyone. USB4 may be no different. Let’s dive in.
USB4 won’t be just one single standard that you can expect to work the same across all devices. Instead, it will come in two different speeds. In addition to the potential for a maximum 40Gbps speed, there’s also a 20Gbps speed. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also a third option of 10Gbps in the USB4 spec. However, the USB-IF told us that this is simply a fallback speed to support backward compatibility. In other words, don’t expect to see USB4 devices limited to that lowest speed.
It’s currently unclear what the two major USB4 speeds will be called when they hit store shelves. Behind the scenes, the 40 Gbps USB4 speed is called Gen 3×2, and the 20 Gbps speed is Gen 2×2. Those are technical terms for device makers and not something for the signage at your local computer store.
The USB-IF says its branding guidelines will be announced in early 2020. At that time, “there will be a focus on clearly indicating performance levels to the general consumer,” according to a USB-IF spokesperson.
That’s good news as it’s confusing enough right now with USB 3.2, which comes in Gen 1 and Gen 2 and Gen 2×2 flavors. Yes, it’s pretty confusing.
As with other versions of USB, this one is backward compatible with its predecessors. Specifically, USB 2.0 and up. That means if you have a USB 2.0 external hard drive for backups, you can still connect it to a USB4 port. To make that work, you’ll need an adapter to go from USB Type-A (standard USB) to USB Type-C, and our imaginary drive will still be limited to the speeds of USB 2.0.
Also, those USB Type-C cables you have right now are probably not going to be good enough for USB4. It will still support the older speeds, but if you want to see that transfer rate increase, you’ll need new cables and new gear.
Thunderbolt 3 Backwards Compatibility
The USB-IF says that USB4 can be backward compatible with Intel’s Thunderbolt 3, which also uses Type-C connectors. That makes sense since USB4 incorporates Thunderbolt 3’s specifications. Thunderbolt 3 support is not mandatory for USB4, however. While Intel gave the USB-IF free use of the Thunderbolt 3 spec, it did not offer free use of the Thunderbolt 3 name.
Any device manufacturer that wants to advertise its USB4 ports as backward compatible with Thunderbolt 3 will need to be certified by Intel. That’s why Intel’s data transfer technology isn’t particularly widespread.
In practical terms, we don’t expect the situation with Thunderbolt 3 to change very much for PCs. You can forget about seeing official Thunderbolt 3 compatibility on AMD-based machines, for example—just like before USB4.
There will probably be a few Intel-based motherboards rocking USB4 ports certified for Thunderbolt 3, but for the most part, PC builders will rely on expansion cards to support Thunderbolt 3 devices.
Laptops are slightly different. Thunderbolt 3 isn’t widespread, but it is more common on clamshells than on desktops. Thunderbolt 3-capable laptops are popular for use with external graphics card docks, for example.
When it comes time to replace an old laptop with a new one packing USB4, the critical issue will be to make sure it supports your old Thunderbolt 3 gear. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to either dump your old peripherals or look for a laptop that does support the older standard via USB4.
Dynamic Bandwidth Sharing
One of the best parts of USB4 is that it’s going to pay attention to how much bandwidth devices need when they’re sharing resources. The most common example of this is if you’re running an external storage device and a display at the same time.
USB4 is smart enough to keep the frame rates high for the display while giving the external drive what it needs to transfer data.
USB Power Delivery Everywhere
All USB 4 devices will include USB Power Delivery technology (USB PD), which can deliver up to 100 watts of power through a USB port. The idea is to allow more than just the slow drip charging for phones through the USB ports on a laptop.
USB PD uses intelligent charging to make sure the device being charged gets as much power as the charging device can muster. The two devices will negotiate charging rates so that the charge is not too fast or too slow, depending on the device’s need.
One Type of Port
USB4 is supposed to be the port-sized revolution that makes USB more universal in everyday usage. Currently, we 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 so bad.” Then there are micro-USB ports used mainly for charging on phones, and the new Type-C ports with more speed choices than a mountain bike.
This is all to point out that USB is a mess of cables and confusion. Since USB4 is sticking with the Type-C connectors, we may finally see a single type of port suitable for any sized-device, and a single cable connector for everything.
We wouldn’t expect that universal revolution to happen anytime soon, however, as laptop makers will likely continue to include Type-A ports in laptops to provide dongle-free backward compatibility to enterprises and home users.
Plus, even if Type-C eventually becomes universal, there will still be a ton of speed variations between the various flavors of USB.
USB4 Sounds Great, But When?
We’re not quite clear when USB4 will start rolling out. Device makers are usually willing to adopt new USB technologies relatively quickly compared to other standards, such as the currently lagging SD and microSD Express. We’re probably looking at mid- to late-2020, and possibly even 2021 before USB4 really takes off.