PC Building: Has Intel given up on USB?

PC Building: Has Intel given up on USB?

Opinion: Last week Intel demonstrated its new optical connection technology, Light Peak, running through a modified USB 3 port. Is this the end of USB?

USB has been one of the hero technologies of the past decade. It has enabled the evolution of a whole class of peripherals and gadgets, while helping drag the PC out of the antiquated world of Serial and Parallel cabling that annoyed so many of use in the nineties.

Over the period of evolution from the Plug and Pray days to the seamless, almost ubiquitous, cabling seen today the shortcomings of the technology have raised their heads. Some of these were foreseen and planned for; others required new revisions of the specification. When USB was first envisaged, for example, it was designed to provide 12Mbit/s of throughput. When USB 2.0 was introduced five years later it had 480Mbit/s throughput, while the USB 3.0 standard delivers 5 Gbit/s.

From buggy to ubiquitous
What most people forget is that USB sucked in its first incarnation. This was partly due to Microsoft not supporting USB in Windows until Windows 98, and partly because few peripheral vendors had devices that worked as advertised.

Nowadays USB is the go-to connection for pretty much any peripheral or gadget that connects to the PC. USB has led to whole new product categories like thumb drives, while also beating out oftentimes better technologies. Both E-SATA and FireWire are examples of connection technologies that are 'better' than USB, yet both remain niche while USB turns up on more and more devices.

USB now reaches into the world of consumer electronics, appearing on games consoles, cameras, smartphones and other devices around the home. It has evolved from a buggy object of geek hate to ubiquitous interconnect solution.

Taking a while to get up to Superspeed

Despite this USB 3.0 (aka Superspeed USB) is repeating the long gulf between ratification and implementation.  Despite becoming official in late 2008, we are only just seeing devices now, thanks largely to ASUS and Gigabyte becoming aggressive promoters of the technology. It seems that the major handbrake on the technology is its continued absence from Intel's chipsets (despite it being an Intel developed technology).

It appears that the future of USB 3.0 is a little less clear this week. This is all thanks to a sole session at Intel's Developer Forum in Beijing where Intel senior fellow Kevin Khan demonstrated the company's new Light Peak technology.

Much like Intel's aborted Ultra Wideband Technology, Light Peak is designed as a platform upon which various protocols will run. Rather than rely on fancy tricks to squeeze more out of wiring it replaces the wires altogether with optical fibre. This has the advantage of not only faster communications between devices, it allows for multiple protocols to run in unison on the same cable, using the same plug.

During the presentation he suggested that Light Peak was the future successor to USB 3.0. This was while using a laptop that had a special USB 3.0 port, modified to also accept optical signals for Light Peak.

So is USB 3.0 a dead end?

Where confusion seems to reign is over the difference between the two technologies. In this case it seems to be more an issue of Light Peak replacing the USB 3.0 cabling standard, with data transfer still using the USB 3.0 protocols. I wouldn't be surprised to see this hybrid socket be the first PC implementation of Light Peak. This is despite the fact that the optical cables can be much thinner than USB cables and plugs can be.

The two top ports on this system connect to an optical controller as part of light peak.
The two top ports on this system from last year's Intel developer's forum connect to an optical controller as part of Light Peak technology.

If we see a surge in USB 3.0 devices over the course of this year, then Intel is going to have to build it into its chipsets. No matter how groundbreaking in convenience and speeds the transition to optical communication in Light Peak will be, there is going to have to be a period during which both will happily coexist.

Who knows, in 10 years time we may well be looking back at USB cables and thinking them as unwieldy and annoying as parallel and serial cables look to us now. Light Peak seems the logical way forward for the industry, it doesn't mean anyone can give up on USB for the foreseeable future though.


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