AMD to back USB 3.0 in its chips

AMD makes the move to this high-speed data transfer technology before Intel, which makes AMD the PC industry's largest single proponent of USB 3.0.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

Advanced Micro Devices will support USB 3.0 in its chips, marking the first instance of a major PC processor supplier getting behind the standard. Intel has yet to support the high-speed interface.

The USB Implementers Forum today announced that AMD will deliver the first chipsets to integrate support for USB 3.0, aka SuperSpeed USB. A chipset accompanies the main processor.

"With [today's] announcement AMD is...disclosing our support for SuperSpeed USB 3.0 in upcoming AMD A75 and A70M Fusion [chipsets]. Both chipsets are shipping today," said Phil Hughes, an AMD spokesman, responding to an e-mail query.

The current USB 2.0 standard, which is found on virtually all laptops today, has been around for an eternity in tech years. Intel laid the groundwork for widespread use on PCs and devices in spring 2002 when it put the technology in its silicon. Eight years later, the advantages of moving to a faster standard are clear for devices like digital cameras, camcorders, and hard drives: transfer rates jump from a peak of 480 megabits per second on USB 2.0 to as much as 5 gigabits per second with USB 3.0.

But mass adoption by PC makers won't happen until support is included in chipsets, according to Brian O'Rourke, an analyst at In-Stat. "In order for the rippling effect to happen with USB 3.0 it has to hit in PCs and for it to hit in PCs it has to be integrated into the chipset. AMD is not Intel, but it's probably the next best thing in chipsets," O'Rourke said. Currently, USB 3.0 is integrated into PCs by adding a separate chip, typically from NEC.

If mass adoption happens, it will take place in laptops first. "USB 3.0 is really gaining traction first in mobile PCs," O'Rourke said. And it's not just because of the higher transfer speeds. The standard also provides more power to devices, such as external hard disk drives. "A USB 3.0 host can deliver a minimum of 80 percent more power than a USB 2.0 host," according to O'Rourke. The standard is also more energy frugal, O'Rourke said.

USB 3.0 merits:

  • Speed: About 10 ten times faster than USB 2.0.
  • Power: Better able to power devices like external hard disk drives.
  • Power efficiency: No device polling and lower active and idle power requirements.
  • Backward compatible: Supports USB 2.0 legacy devices.
  • Laptops shipping today: Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Toshiba are shipping laptops today with USB 3.0.
  • Future support in small laptops: Netbook-size laptops using AMD's Fusion chip can support USB 3.0.

Not all of the pieces are in place yet for USB 3.0 to take off, however. "The only peripheral devices with USB 3.0 out there right now are external hard drives and a few flash drives. Why? There aren't any peripheral controllers for USB 3.0 in general release yet. Not any out there on the market yet," O'Rourke said.

O'Rourke continued. "So, that has to happen. The peripheral controllers don't get produced in any large volume until there are a lot of [consumer] devices out there and there are not going to be a lot of devices [that support USB 3.0] until USB 3.0 is integrated into chipsets. That's why the AMD announcement is so important. It starts to drive the engine that will create widespread adoption."

And what about Intel? Intel is now putting its considerable weight behind Thunderbolt tech, which is now shipping with Apple's 2011 MacBook Pro line. Intel has stated that Thunderbolt will complement USB 3.0, not replace it. And the world's largest chipmaker has also said that it plans to integrated USB 3.0 support in future silicon.

And it may take Intel's support to make the standard truly universal. "Intel still commands too much [chip] market share for AMD's move to make a difference," said Rich Brown, an editor at CNET Reviews.