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Good news, data junkies: USB speeds doubling again

USB 3.2-equipped laptops and external drives could reach speeds of 20 gigabits per second. You'll likely have to wait until 2019, though.

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The HP Spectre x360 has two oval USB-C ports, the same ports you'll see on new phones from Samsung, Google and others.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

If you're the type of person who copies hundreds of photos or mammoth video files to your external hard drive, good news: USB ports are about to double in speed again.

USB, the port that every phone and PC uses to transfer data, tops out today at 10 gigabits per second with USB 3.1. The new USB 3.2 technology doubles that to 20Gbps using new wires available if your device embraces the newest USB hardware -- specifically the modern USB-C connectors and cables.

Well, maybe. The industry group that announced the move Tuesday, the USB Implementers Forum, isn't willing to commit to 20Gbps just yet. Marketing plans need to be finalized before USB IF starts making any performance promises.

In any event, though, faster USB is handy if you're restoring data from a drive, backing up your music collection or transferring video off your camera. In the future, too, USB-C could be used for plugging in video monitors.

Sorry if all this USB terminology is confusing. The USB 3.2 technology defines how data is sent over cables; the USB-C technology is a physical specification that defines what plugs and wires look like. Think of USB-C as the train tracks, train stations and trains and USB 3.2 as the rules governing where the trains go.

The USB 3.2 upgrade takes advantage of the fact that USB-C has, to extend the metaphor, twice as many train tracks available.

But don't hold your breath -- it'll be at least 12 to 18 months before the very first products hit the market, said USB-IF Chairman Brad Saunders. When they do, though, the good news is existing certified USB-C cables will work fine.

If you aren't familiar with USB-C yet, you will be soon. This year should be the tipping point for the technology, according to analyst firm ABI Research. The number of devices shipping with USB-C should increase 69 percent each year through 2021, ABI said.

The lightning-bolt logos on the HP Spectre x360 laptop's two USB-C ports show they also serve as Intel Thunderbolt 3.0 ports that can transfer data at 40Gbps.

The lightning-bolt logos on the HP Spectre x360 laptop's two USB-C ports show they also serve as Intel Thunderbolt 3.0 ports that can transfer data at 40Gbps.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Meanwhile, Intel's Thunderbolt port, which piggybacks on USB-C ports, delivers 40Gbps of data-transfer speed already today. You'll need to buy more expensive Thunderbolt cables, laptops and peripherals for that to work, though.

USB has been in the midst of radical transformation with USB-C. The connectors are reversible, so you no longer have to worry which way is up when you're plugging in a cable. The same cable works on phones and laptops, so there's no more tiny connector for one and big connector for the other. And USB-C opens the door for high-power connections that mean you can charge your laptop, not just your phone, with USB cables.

The U in USB stands for universal, and it's one technology that's lived up to the promise.

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