Fourth Time’s The Charm

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Why USB4 is going to revolutionize peripheral connectivity as we know

When the Universal Serial Bus, or USB as it came to be popularly known, first showed up in the mid-’90s as a bold attempt to establish a common standard of connectivity for hardware peripherals, it didn’t catch on immediately, but once the first wave of USB-compatible hardware showed up, there was no looking back. And, sure enough, it seems impossible now to imagine a world without USB. USB has undergone multiple iterative changes since its inception, leading to rapidly rising bandwidth across each generation, and, with the introduction of USB-C, has taken on a whole new reversible form factor that is not only designed to have superior usability, but to also eventually phase out the legacy USB connectors of the past (known as USB-A). And now, with the announcement of USB4 by the USB Promoter Group, it seems that USB will finally fulfill its goal of being the connectivity protocol that would bridge everything across the great peripheral divide.

Granted, this is not the first time that we have heard the hymns of a new standard that promises to unify everything. Even earlier generations of USB are already in a fair state of disarray and confusion about their individual distinctive features. However, USB4 is likely to be able to put an end to that by not only bringing forward a host of new and useful benefits, but also by being backward-compatible with all earlier generations of USB (up to the ancient 2.0), as well as being compatible with powerful protocols such as the Intel-made Thunderbolt, which was previously considered one of USB’s most fierce rivals in the technology space.

For starters, USB4 will make use of the compact reversible connector that was introduced to the world as USB-C in 2017. Given their ubiquity USB-A ports are yet to be phased out from many devices, not to mention that countless existing forms of hardware are still very much dependent on them. USB-C has been steadily growing in popularity over the last couple of years, and it has already found its way into many phones and computers, desktop and laptop systems alike. Not only is the USB-C connector a dream to use, given that its reversible nature eliminates one of the biggest gripes associated with USB-A, which was considered notorious for not being able to be plugged in on the first attempt, and requiring the user to flip the connector over and try again until it finally managed to be connected. Despite their smaller size, USB-C connectors are remarkably robust and resilient, and they can be used in conjunction with converter dongles to easily overcome compatibility issues with older devices until those are phased out altogether. USB-C connectors are also essential for implementing newer technology standards, such as the amazing USB Power Delivery, which allows it to charge connected devices at a rapid pace, providing up to a 100 watts of power.

USB4 is going to have blistering transfer speeds that would begin at 10Gbps and go up to 40Gbps, which is also the same speed as that of the Thunderbolt 3 connectivity standard. Given that both USB4 and Thunderbolt 3 make use of USB-C connectors, this also means that USB4 implementations can also be compatible with Thunderbolt 3 is supported by particular implementations (which it is most likely to be, at least on computers, if not on smaller devices). Intel has officially endorsed this compatibility by giving the Thunderbolt 3 standard to USB Promoter Group. This would be further augmented by the smart allocation of system resources, which would allow the bandwidth of USB4 to be effectively divided between the processes that require it, without causing any further inefficiency or slowdowns. However, if a USB4 device is connected to an older USB device from a previous generation, it would cause the bandwidth to drop to the maximum bandwidth of the older (and slower) device while retaining usable backward compatibility. This, in fact, makes sense, given that any process can be only as fast as the slowest component in the chain. However, this also means that all old USB cables would operate at their maximum possible speeds when connected to a USB4 interface.

The high bandwidth of USB4 makes it ideally suited for a lot of purposes, such as connecting aggressively bandwidth-hungry devices such as GPUs to a computer without sacrificing speed at any point, something that was only achievable previously using Thunderbolt 3. However, USB4 would be made available on Intel and non-Intel hardware alike by all manufacturers of such products, so the need to depend on Thunderbolt 3 for such things would be moot. USB4 would also allow for the direct transmission of HDMI/DisplayPort video data, which would make connecting compatible external displays to devices a breeze, allowing for greater productivity and superior user experience.

The biggest downer about USB4, however, is that while it is due to be released in specification form in mid-2019, it isn’t likely to show up in actual hardware before 2020 at the very least. Given that most new products have a development cycle of a year at the very least, the wait maybe even longer. However, given the promised benefits, it would indeed be something to look forward to.
Another problem with USB4 that manufacturers may consider a challenge is its higher production cost, compared to currently established USB standards, as it would require more expensive hardware components for its implementation. However, that is also a hurdle that would be eventually circumvented as the economies of scale would sooner or later fall into place.
Even in an era where wireless connectivity is starting to catch on sufficiently in the mainstream, the dependability and capacity offered by a physical wired connection remains unparalleled, and, everything considered, USB4, when it does show up to the party, would be a critical game-changer, and it is very likely to be the protocol that would finally unify the fragmented dimensions of peripheral connectivity. It just remains to be seen when that finally does come.

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