Long delay expected for Intel support of USB 3.0

Consumers may have a long wait for faster USB technology in mainstream PCs because of a lack of direct support from Intel.

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
4 min read

USB 3.0 will not see widespread adoption until at least late 2011 because of lack of direct support from Intel. As a result, the new standard may not become as prevalent this decade as USB 2.0 has been through most of the past decade.

USB 3.0: widespread adoption is unlikely until late 2011--or later.

The current USB standard, which is found on almost all mainstream gadgets today, has been around a long time. USB 2.0 was first available as far back as 2001 and 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, USB 3.0, are clear (for devices like digital cameras, camcorders, and hard drives): transfer rates jump from 480 megabits per second to 5 gigabits per second--which is more than a 10-fold increase in speed. And as this CNET Review of a USB 3.0 Seagate external hard disk indicates, it can make a big difference: the Seagate drive was the "fastest USB external hard drive to date," according to CNET Labs.

But without direct support in Intel's silicon, it's a chicken-and-egg dilemma. The result: mass adoption of USB 3.0 by PC makers is unlikely.

"The real sweet spot of a new version of USB comes when it is integrated into the chipset of the PC," said Brian O'Rourke, an analyst at In-Stat. "That's when USB becomes mainstream...By integrating it into its chipsets, Intel essentially allows PC OEMs to offer that new flavor of USB for free," he said.

But Intel is not expected to put USB 3.0 in its silicon until 2011, according to O'Rourke. That means the interval between the initial introduction of USB 3.0 by NEC in May 2009 and Intel's adoption will be much longer than the transition was in 2001-2002. "In this go-round, it's going to be about two and a half years instead of a year," said O'Rourke, who also writes about this in a blog entitled "Transition to SuperSpeed USB Will Be Slow."

In an interview last month in Heise Online, an Intel representative said that USB 3.0 wouldn't become mainstream until the next client version of Windows, which would mean Intel implementation of the standard would likely take place late in 2011.

USB devices were being hawked by companies at CES 2010 in January. Brooke Crothers

Intel, when contacted this week, would neither confirm or deny a schedule for introduction. "Intel fully supports USB 3.0 and is excited to see a growing list of host controllers as well as devices. Intel is actively engaged with the ecosystem to determine the appropriate intercept for USB 3.0 integration into our chipsets," Intel spokesman Nick Knupffer said in a statement.

Because of this lack of support in Intel chipsets, availability of the technology is limited. Almost a year after NEC released the first USB 3.0 silicon, PC makers are beginning to offer the new standard on select models only. For example, Hewlett-Packard is offering USB 3.0 on its high-end EliteBook workstation-class laptops but not on scores of other less-expensive laptops, which continue to carry the older USB 2.0 technology. Dell also offers USB 3.0 selectively on its Precision workstation laptops but not on mainstream models.

Why such a long delay?
The obvious question is, why the delay? Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64, believes it's simply not a priority for Intel.

"USB 2.0 is doing a pretty good job for most people," according to Brookwood. And what about HD camcorders and HD digital cameras, which can benefit from the extra transfer speed that USB 3.0 offers? "Those people are typically willing to pay a premium for high-end systems that have USB 3.0," he said, referring to pricey mobile workstations like HP's 8000 series EliteBook and Dell's M6500 Precision laptop.

O'Rourke offers a similar assessment. "There will be a lot fewer applications that transition from USB 2.0 to USB 3.0 just because they don't necessarily need the bandwidth," he said, adding that peripherals like printers, for example, don't benefit from moving to USB 3.0.

In addition, there are other standards that may be, if not obviating, at least dulling the need for faster USB. O'Rourke points to the High-Definition Multimedia Interface, or HDMI. "This is the interface for wired CE devices, things like set-top boxes, digital TVs, Blu-ray DVDs. There's some competition there," he said.

And other technologies also lurk enticingly in the background. Light Peak, the highly-touted technology at last year's Intel Developers Conference, offers even greater transfer speeds and has received support from high-profile companies like Apple and Sony. But there are few prospects for this technology appearing widely in devices anytime in the next few years.

So consumers hungry for high-speed data transfer technology will have to opt for other technologies such as eSATA or settle for selective availability of USB 3.0 on higher-end PCs--unless Intel changes its mind, which at this time seems an unlikely scenario.