What Is USB4?

USB4 is coming in hot

We know what you are thinking. Another standard to keep tabs on? USB4 is coming in hot, with this new connectivity standard set to go official by the end of the year.

It will bring innumerable benefits, from higher transfer speeds to better power delivery.

We may still be in the early days of USB4, but we now know enough about what its deal is, and what changes this new standard will bring about to the masses once it becomes common in consumer products very soon.

There is a lot of promising stuff here, so let’s get down to the details.

Thunderbolt Cable

USB4 is here

Well, almost. The latest standard in computer connectivity has inched nearer to finalization, promising much improved data and power transfer technologies. And better yet, the folks behind the standard have outlined plans to actually simplify the alphabet soup that was the previous version of USB.

The USB Promoter Group made official what they are planning for the upcoming USB4 specification recently, the details of which you can check out for yourself in this press release.

Long story short, USB4 is not only based on Thunderbolt, this new standard is being designed to be backwards compatible with all USB specifications (like USB 3.2, 2.0) and Thunderbolt 3. And in terms of performance, we can expect it to be about twice as fast as USB 3.2 Gen2x2.

Already see the problem here?

With the numbers and versions and competing technologies?

The companies behind this de facto device connectivity standard introduced USB 3.0 back in 2009, bringing about all manners of improvement compared to USB 2.0, the dominating standard back then.

For some odd reason, they then decided to follow that up with USB 3.1 and 3.2 in the years that followed, with each new upgrade stepping up the performance and data transfer rates over the previous standard. Then some fancy genius decided to mix in more hot sauce, with the USB 3.2 Gen 1 rebranding and marketing terms like SuperSpeed USB.

All this is not even talking about the hardware support for these various implementations.

Things soon spiraled out of control.


USB4 features and specifications

This time around, the decision makers have decided that they will base USB4 on the Intel Thunderbolt technology, which the chip giant made royalty free starting with Thunderbolt 3. It will serve as the base for USB4.

Beyond that, we have confirmation that this new standard will offer double the bandwidth of USB 3.2 Gen2x2. In other words, we can expect these cables to offer support for 40GB/s, though you will need to use certified cables and any hubs in the middle to attain these speeds.

But compared to the 5GB/s throughput of the regular USB 3.0 ports, this is blazing fast.

The promise of 40GB/s seems amazing in theory, but we all know that not every USB device will be able to use this insanely high speed. Surely not inexpensive ones. For cheaper devices, USB4 will offer speed tiers like 20GB/s and 10GB/s — the latter still being almost twice as fast what is commonly available right now.

Again, to benefit from all this, you will need to buy a compliant cable. This is completely different from a certified cable, which any manufacturers can voluntarily get. But high-quality compliant cables that make full use of the technology will be the real deal.

In terms of compatibility, you have this new standard fully compatible with USB Type-C ports, which is good news as this should hasten the death of those awkward Type-A ones.

USB For Displays

Intelligent bandwidth sharing

There are additional improvements too, the most prominent being more efficient options to share multiple data and display protocols. The integration of Thunderbolt 3 into USB 4 will enable the simultaneous transfer of both data and display protocols.

What this means is that you will be able to daisy chain 4K monitors and other Thunderbolt 3 devices together via one, single cable that connects to your PC — other devices in this case could be external storage or even GPU enclosures.

Do keep in mind that manufacturers are not required to support Thunderbolt 3 functionality in their USB4 specifications. Many will not, in order to save costs. This will lead to scenarios where you may have a USB4 device that is not compatible with the Thunderbolt standard. Just take care to review the specifications of the device you are purchasing.

Each USB4 device and port will support power delivery with a capacity of 100 watts. Yes, there is no charger at the moment that provides this level of energy. But it is nice to see the ceiling set this high for the future.

Laptop USB Port

When will USB4 launch?

USB4 itself will not be released until the end of the year, when the final specifications will be set in stone. If anything, certain things may change between now and then, unlikely as that sounds. During this interim period, more details will be published about the technology.

As for when you should have it in devices, you probably will have to wait another year till you find the USB4 standard in consumer products. Beginning of 2021 seems to be the likely candidate when certified hardware starts making its way out to store shelves. As is always the case, a lot will depend on word of mouth and brand recognition, both of which will play a big part in popularizing this new standard among buyers and technology enthusiasts.

In other words, USB4 will not have much impact on anything you buy in 2019. Even next year, its influence will be limited, and the party will start with premium high-end devices.

But now that things are official, there is every possibility that adoption of USB4 will absolutely boom.

Part of that will be due to the fact that buyers and manufacturers will move away from the confusing chaos of preceding USB standards. And part of this is the low cost of Thunderbolt 3 support and that impressive standard going royalty free.

Written by Fahad Ali

Fahad Ali is a professional freelancer, specializing in technology, web design and development and enterprise applications. He is the primary contributor to this website. When he is not typing away on his keyboard, he is relaxing to some soft jazz.

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