USB4 to raise bar for flash drive storage standards

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The incoming fourth-generation USB standard – USB4 − is poised to set the next frontier of data sharing standards for the IT industry and consumers, and significantly minimise the end-user confusion of having multiple connector ports in devices.

This is the word from industry insiders, commenting on the latest USB standard specification, a major update to raise the bar in delivering the next-generation USB architecture that builds upon the existing USB3 architecture, which first came out in 2008.

The USB (Universal Serial Bus) is an industry standard that establishes specifications for cables, connectors and protocols for connection, communication and power supply between computers and peripheral devices.

While the USB4 standard was announced in September 2019, by the USB Implementers Forum, the support organisation for the advancement and adoption of USB technology, it will only make its way into the market in 2021, when device manufacturers ship new appliances and/or technology which supports USB 4.0 standards.

Among the benefits of the new spec is its ability to double the maximum aggregate bandwidth of USB, supporting up to 40Gbps data transfer speed and enabling multiple simultaneous data and display protocols.

There is currently an estimated six billion USB devices across the globe, according to Fast Company. USB flash drive is a successor to the Zip drive, which took over from the floppy disk, and the compact disk CD-ROM.

The USB4 will also have backward compatibility with previous versions, to enable it to be used universally across standards.

Ian Engelbrecht, senior systems engineer at Veeam Software, says USB 4.0 will take half the time to transfer data such as video, image and documents, compared to USB3.

“For the IT industry and tech consumers, USB4 opens up many new use cases, such as external or removal storage with higher transport rates, which makes USB4 portable storage act as quick storage for caching, running apps or entire operating systems with double the performance of its predecessor USB3,” notes Engelbrecht.

A broad variety of USB hardware exists, including 11 different connectors, of which USB-C is the most recent.

To experience real benefit from the new USB4 stick, new laptops or smart TVs and other devices would need to support the new standard, otherwise they will still be on the USB3 speeds and not the upgraded version, notes Engelbrecht.

Another key advantage of the fourth-generation USB is its promise to simplify the USB confusion where some devices have up three different ports – USB-A, USB-B or USB-C found on phones, tablets and computers. USB4 promises to simplify this to one connection type – USB-C, he adds.

“The USB4 also incorporates Intel's Thunderbolt standard, meaning less competition between standards and more compatibility across devices,” says Arthur Goldstuck, head of World Wide Worx and chairman of Sasfin Bank’s digital advisory council.

“The biggest benefit users will experience is that it doubles the speed of transfer, but it enhances performance in all areas, in particular power delivery; ie, faster and more efficient charging of devices.”

Thunderbolt is a way to gain uncompromised performance of the fastest data, and the highest quality display technology available across Intel's PC range via a single standard connector.

The test of time

Commenting on whether USB sticks could become obsolete in the advent of multiple cloud services and other memory storage devices, Engelbrecht points out that in many cases USB storage is still very important: sharing data via a physical device like a USB stick can be more secure than sharing it on the Internet.

“Cloud is important because it replaces the physical dependency of storing data, but it requires you to be connected to the Internet 24/7; therefore, a local copy is always a good idea to store photos, documents or raw data.

“It’s quicker for me to get the photo off my trusty USB drive than downloading from the cloud; however, the cloud is still important because of its independence from hardware, making your data available 24/7 from anywhere in the world with or without your USB drive,” states Engelbrecht.

In locations where Internet connectivity hinders users from accessing apps and file share tools, users are often left with no other Internet-free option other than using a USB stick, notes Goldstuck.

“USB use is constantly on the increase, since it provides a very convenient form of storage and data transfer that does not rely on connectivity. In terms of charging, USB charging is the default for smartphone charging and will remain so until wireless charging becomes as pervasive and more efficient, which will take many years,” says Goldstuck.

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