Anybody remember using FireWire cables? How about hooking up VGA connectors for monitors?
Old port types are constantly dropped to the wayside as new tech is developed, and we’re about to get another new iteration in a few short months.
For now, there’s still a hodgepodge of ports found on most mobile devices with names like USB 2, USB 3, Thunderbolt, and USB-C.
We may soon be able to cull that down quite a bit as specifications for the USB 4 technology are in the works and due to be released to manufacturers later this year.
What We Know About USB 4 So Far
New types of cables are all well and good — but what exactly is the difference with USB 4 and why do we need it?
Only a few details have come out so far, but those details do offer some exciting possibilities.
USB 4 is based on the existing Thunderbolt specifications and — according to a statement from the USB Promoter Group — will offer twice the existing USB bandwidth. USB Promoter Group Chairman Brad Saunders commented:
“The USB 4 solution specifically tailors bus operation to further enhance this experience by optimizing the blend of data and display over a single connection and enabling the further doubling of performance.”
Some of the specific numbers aren’t available yet as the specifications are still being nailed down, but currently USB 4 is touted as able to achieve up to jaw-dropping 40 Gbps transfer speed.
Unfortunately, there is no solid release date for any USB 4 compatible device at this point. We do have some key pieces of info that can help us narrow down a potential release window, however.
Notably, tech training for companies looking to adopt USB 4 is scheduled to take place sometime in Q4 at the annual international USB Developer Days conference.
That makes it likely we won’t actually see any products utilizing the new USB 4 architecture by the end of the year. Our best guess is that devices could start appearing on the market in early to mid 2020.
Benefits USB 4 Brings To The Industry
Higher speeds are always a plus for end users, but what exactly does the industry as a whole get out of converting to USB 4, and why would anyone want to switch over?
The main issue here is solving the USB-C problem we’ve seen over the last year or so dealing with a lack of consistency. While USB-C was meant to streamline cables, that promise was never quite realized.
Cable length is one of those areas where consistency is less than ideal. It isn’t as much of an issue with tablets and laptops, but phones in particular seem to have incredibly short USB-C cords right now.
While USB-C ports and cables feature specifications for supporting nearly any type of data transfer — voice, video, computer files, electrical charging, and so on — not all of them actually do support every type.
That’s a problem that’s compounded by the fact that USB-C ports and cables often aren’t clearly labeled.
Android Authority highlighted that issue last summer by testing a wide variety of devices and ports. In their tests, they found huge variances between charging speeds as well as which data types were actually supported through different USB-C ports and devices.
There’s a clear goal with this upcoming new specification to reduce the number and types of cables. If it lives up to its potential, USB 4 could be used to connect a display, work as a network cable, charge your device, or transfer data between devices — and potentially simultaneously.
Critically, backwards compatibility will be a focus to ensure users don’t need to completely change out their ports and cables. Under current plans, USB 4 will automatically scale to the top capabie speed for whatever device is being used.
For instance, if you plug in a USB 2.0 device with a USB 4 port, you will still get USB 2.0 speeds — it doesn’t suddenly increase to the top USB 4 speed — but the device will otherwise work as intended.
How USB 4 Still Remains Problematic
One of the big selling points of USB 4 is that its final specification will be directly compatible with Thunderbolt… but at this point there’s no guarantee that all USB 4 devices will actually utilize that feature.
The problem is that USB is an open standard that can be used by any company. While a company can get separate certification for devices showing they meet certain USB functionality milestones, they aren’t forced to do so.
According to an article from The Verge, the USB Promoters Group and the USB Implementers Forum have no plans to require manufacturers to support Thunderbolt or every single type of data transfer possible.
That means we may still run into different customization features from different manufacturers, and unless there’s more transparency in labeling, some of the same problems of USB-C may just occur all over again.
Finally, there’s one potential downside to consider for the portable market.
The chipsets used in phones don’t currently look like they will all support the full 40 Gbps benchmark data transfer, so computer users may be getting the most out of USB 4.
Exactly how that will play out still remains to be seen, but for now expect any budget phones that utilize the tech to be less useful than their laptop or tablet counterparts.
The Bottom Line -- Will USB 4 Streamline The Prospects?
There are still many questions swirling around USB 4, and unfortunately we don’t have all the answers just quite yet.
A large scale USB compliance workshop will be held in Portland, Oregon next month, after which more details on the future of USB 4 are expected to be revealed.
One of the biggest questions is in the potential pricing of USB 4 devices, and if we will run into the same issues with USB-C where there’s a lack of clear identification on speeds and supported data types.
If manufacturers can overcome those two big hurdles, USB 4 has the opportunity to completely revolutize how users connect devices and transfer data.
We could finally cull down to a single cable type and ditch everything else, while getting vastly increased speeds. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see what actually arrives as new USB devices start hitting the shelves next year.