All you need to know about USB 2.0 and 3.0

USB – which stands for Universal Serial Bus , allows computers to connect to hard drives, CF card readers, keyboards and all sorts of other devices via a single cable that sends data and provides power. It’s been around since 1998 in one form or another according to Wikipedia.

Your computer probably has connections (or ports) for USB2 – currently the most common type of connector found on computers. The new kid on the block is USB3 – also known as “SuperSpeed USB” to differentiate it from the older “Hi-Speed USB” (a.k.a, USB2).

And now with USB 3.0 products becoming more prevalent, consumers are excited to see what enhancements have been made to the tried and true technology. Here’s what you need to know about how USB 3.0 is different from USB 2.0, and why it matters.

USB 3.0 is 10 Times Faster than its 2.0 Predecessor

The main benefit to USB 3.0 technology is that it is approximately 10 times faster than USB 2.0 technology. And while this increase in speed may be virtually unnoticeable in some products, like your USB 3.0 keyboard, there are certain types of peripherals that will showcase the speed upgrade, namely portable and external hard drives.

Consider this: If you’re backing up a large music or image collection, or you’re creating a copy of your video files, transferring these files via USB 3.0 will take much less time than performing the transfer via USB 2.0. USB 3.0 is able to transmit nearly 5 Gbps, whereas USB 2.0 is capable of transmitting 480mbps of data.  Because of its much faster speed, a backup that may have taken a USB 2.0 drive more than 15 minutes in the past can now be completed in just over 1 minute on a USB 3.0 drive.

USB 3.0 Ads Additional Functionality but Stays Backward Compatible
Though the wiring that goes into the USB 3.0 cables is different than USB 2.0 wiring, the plug that connects to the USB outlet remains standard, providing full physical and functional backward capability. This means that your newly purchased portable USB 3.0 hard drive will work just fine with your older laptop that only has USB 2.0 ports. However, in situations like this, the USB 3.0 product will perform at the same level as a USB 2.0 product, so speed and power benefits will not be fully realized.

In the computer world, it’s common knowledge that your system is only as fast as its slowest component, and this certainly holds true when talking about USB 3.0. In order to reap the greatest benefits in speed, your receiving device will need to be able to function as quickly as the USB 3.0 device sending the data. For example, if you’re using a USB 3.0 external desktop hard drive to back up data to a machine with a magnetic hard drive that writes data at 7200 RPM, the process will be slowed considerably. However, if you’re backing up that same data to a solid state device like a flash drive, you’ll likely be pleased and impressed with the speed of the transfer.

USB 3.0 Allows for Bi-Directional Data Transfers
Another difference between USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 comes in the form of its signaling method—USB 2.0 uses a polling mechanism where USB 3.0 uses an asynchronous mechanism. In layman’s language, this means that USB 3.0 is capable of simultaneously sending and receiving data, while USB 2.0 can only handle only one direction of data at any time. This particular difference is likely to be the most noticeable in cases involving transferring data between USB hard drives, as bi-direction data support isn’t an issue in less complex USB devices like the standard computer mouse.

USB 3.0 Includes Power Management Improvements
Enhanced power management is also available in USB 3.0, making these devices more efficient and less costly to operate than similar USB 2.0 devices. Using about 1/3 of the power necessary for a USB 2.0 device, USB 3.0 devices are built to shift into a lower power state when not being actively used by the device. Additionally, USB 3.0 technology has a higher energy capacity, allowing the technology to power more devices from one hub and to effectively handle hardware with more robust power needs.

Hardware support required
All this talk of speed is moot if you don't have a computer that supports this new technology, and very few do at this point. The first devices that were certified for USB 3.0 were introduced just over a year ago, and they're only just now arriving in stores. That holds for computers just as it does for hard drives and other peripherals.

Thus, if you're in the market for an external hard drive for your laptop, both the hard drive and the laptop have to support USB 3.0 in order for you to take advantage of the speed it offers, which means they both have to be very new. And not even all new computers and hard drives support USB 3.0, so make sure you take a close look at the specifications for the hardware you plan to buy.

USB 3.0 devices also work with 2.0 partners, but only at 2.0 speed. If you buy that 3.0 hard drive but still have a 2.0 laptop, you'll be able to use it; you'll just pay more money for performance advantages you can't yet enjoy. The same rule applies if you have a 2.0 hard drive and a 3.0 laptop. Your connection is only as fast as the slowest component, whatever that may be.


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