USB 3.1 Doubles Speed to 10 Gb/s (If You Buy New Hardware)

By Wesley Fenlon

USB 3.0 gets a serious speed boost, but you won't be enjoying it with your existing USB 3.0 ports.

Now that USB 3.0 has all but secured its industry-wide replacement of USB 2.0, it's time for USB 3.1. Surprise! Okay, not such a surprise--the USB Consortium announced back in January that it was working on a faster version of USB 3.0. Half a year later, they've got something to show.

While USB 2 stuck around for years, the USB Consortium has conspired to update the USB 3.0 spec from its 5 Gbit/s maximum throughput to 10 Gbit/s. With competition from Thunderbolt, 10 Gbit/s speeds should help keep USB relevant (and most likely dominant).

Unlike the move from USB 2 to USB 3, the 3.1 specification bump isn't a big architecture overhaul. "The USB 3.1 specification primarily extends existing USB 3.0 protocol and hub operation for speed scaling," says the USB 3.0 promoter group. "The specification team worked hard to make sure that the changes made to support higher speeds were limited and remained consistent with existing USB 3.0 architecture to ease product development."

USB 3.1 will remain compatible with old USB 2 devices and USB 3.0 software stacks and device profiles. So that's the good news--full backwards compatibility, as usual, and 10 gigabit speeds that match first-gen Thunderbolt (which is seeing a speed boost of its own this year).

The bad news, of course, is that companies like Intel and AMD and ASUS now have to build new USB 3.1 chipsets to let us take advantage of those speeds. Our USB 3.0 ports won't magically get faster. USB 3.1 hardware likely won't hit until mid-to-late 2014.