USB and the future: Everything you need to know

Has your USB device become obsolete? Read on to learn about how USBs work and how they’re changing.

In. Out. Rotate. In. Out. Rotate. In.

We’ve all done the dance with our USB device.

Most of us have one on our keychain, in our bag, or tucked in a desk drawer. USB drives are great for quick storage or, if you believe any spy movie, storing vital government secrets.

But they are used for so much more. From connecting wireless keyboards to printers to removable storage, USBs are the one stop shop for installing and connecting almost every imaginable piece of hardware to your computer.

But it wasn’t always this way. Three decades ago, connecting anything to a computer was a much more arduous process. Then the USB came along and revolutionized computer ports.

But as time goes on, and new technology becomes available, will the USB become obsolete?

Let’s take a look.

Connecting before USB

USB devices have been around since the mid-1990’s, which means anyone under 30 probably doesn’t remember a time without them.

Which may be all the better, because they were dark times.

As with all technology, the first iterations of personal computers and hardware were clunky and inconvenient. Multiple ports for multiple devices meant a confusing mass of plugs and wires.

And if your printer and camera both needed the same port, god help you, because you would have to unplug one, plug in the other, and repeat. Serial ports, parallel ports, gaming ports…the list was endless and confusing.

And all this is before mentioning storage. Who remembers floppy disks? The small, fussy disks were revolutionary when they were introduced in the 1960’s, and while they did become the standard for external storage, their small capacity and corruptibility was a problem.

Not to mention the space they took up. Even at their smallest, floppies were 3.5-inch square, and at only 1.44 MB, you needed quite a few to do any kind of serious storage.

So that was the order. Something universal, so we could stop with the masses of wires. Something that would facilitate larger storage in a smaller space. And something that would just, for the love of Gates, make computers just a little less complex for the common human.

And, in January 1996, it looked like the solution was at hand.

Modern USB ports

There were seven computer companies working on the USB port in the 90’s. They needed something standard that would simplify external hardware connections and increase transfer speed.

In 1995, they had it. A small, rectangular port that could transfer at up to 12 Mbps. Molasses-level speeds to modern eyes, but at the time, nearly revolutionary.

They called it the USB, or Universal Serial Bus.

It was designed to supersede all the previous generation of port, and it did so brilliantly. So brilliantly, in fact, that it remains, in design at least, very nearly unchanged since its inception two decades ago.

There have been three generations of USB.

USB 1.x

The original USB cables and ports, introduced in 1996, weren’t widely used until 1998, but still managed to blaze quite a trail. By the dawn of the new millennium, most computers came with at least two USB ports and had mostly done away with other peripheral ports.

The new devices came in two speeds: Full Speed, with a data transfer rate of 12 Mbps, and Low Speed, coming in at a glacial 1.5 Mbps.

Technology still hadn’t graced us with the micro-versions, but the original USB 1.x still came in two types. Standard A is the USB you’re probably most familiar with; A rectangular port and plug, with squared corners. It’s the one we see in almost everything.

Standard B plugs and ports were square, with a smaller square protrusion at the top. These are usually seen on cords for larger hardware, like printers, with the Standard B plug connecting to the hardware itself, and the Standard A end connecting to the host computer.

USB 2.0

The new version rolled out in 2000, with transfer speeds rocketing up to 480 Mbps. They called this new version the “High-Speed USB”, and while the design didn’t change much, there were some new developments that came with the new versions.

Not only did we see the introductions of the Micro-USB, but the standards expanded to include a whole slew of new tech. Up to this point, features like Ethernet and Wi-Fi had only been available built into a computer. Now, they could be accessed, via USB, as remote devices.

The standards also expanded to include charging capabilities as more chargers came equipped with USB plugs at the host end.

Around this time, we began to see a slew of USB gear hit the market, from fun flash drives to more utilitarian pieces, like extension cords with USB plugs.

USB 3.x

Another generation, another giant leap in speed. The 3.1 version bypassed Mbps altogether and leaped to 5.0Gbps, and the 3.2 went ahead an doubled the transfer speed to 10Gbps.

The new speed and power led to USBs that can run an entire operating system from an external hard drive, which is mind-boggling when you consider its humble beginnings.

The 3.x series remained backward compatible with 2.0 ports, and not much changed in terms of design.

Until the USB Type C.

The Future of the USB Device

The USB device standards are a huge boon for the technology world, and there hasn’t been much need to modify their design over the past twenty years.

That is until laptops and other tech have been getting thinner for years, which is hindered a bit by the necessary inclusion of a USB port. USB is certainly more convenient than everything that came before, but you can only go so thin before there is no room for USB.

Thus, the birth of the USB-C.

Now, the USB-C still conforms to the USB 3.1 standards. It is simply thinner and is favoured as a laptop and cell phone charger, especially by companies like Apple, though Microsoft is beginning to use it on their Chromebooks as well.

Is USB-C the future of USB? It’s hard to tell. As tech gets thinner and smaller, USB will have to adapt. And doubtless, the next generation of ports will utilize even faster transfer speeds. So perhaps as time goes on, we will see the Standard-A and Standard-B ports begin to fade, though it is unlikely they will be replaced entirely.

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Photograph by Denvit