Thanks to USB 3.0, external storage is interesting again. The additional bandwidth offered by the SuperSpeed spec is sorely needed, and even budget external drives are more than fast enough to take advantage. Most TR readers probably associated USB 3.0 with the two-port NEC chip that's dominated the motherboard market, but it's not the only solution in town. Via has a number of different USB 3.0 devices, and project manager Terrance Shih recently sat down with the folks at SemiAccurate to discuss the technology.
To date, Via has revealed a number of different USB 3.0 devices, including 2- and 4-port host controllers, a 4-port hub controller, and also a 4-port NAND controller. The host controllers have yet to be certified by the USB-IF governing body, but Shih expects to get the group's seal of approval in early 2011. Whether that's early enough for the chips to appear on Sandy Bridge motherboards remains to be seen. Gigabyte's P67A-UD7 motherboard does feature a pair of Via USB 3.0 chips, but they're hubs connected to NEC host controllers.
Other USB host controllers have been slow to receive certification from the USB-IF, and some have blamed driver development for the delays—Windows 7 lacks native USB 3.0 support, so controller makers are on their own. According to Shih, Via did all of its driver and firmware development in-house, and it found maintaining backward compatibility with USB 1.1 and 2.0 devices more challenging than implementing the new spec. Shih also goes on to say that the physical layer made up of "connectors, cables, and the actual technologies involved in sending and receiving raw data bits" presented the greatest challenge on the hardware front.
When asked whether Light Peak is a threat to USB 3.0, Shih suggests that Intel's next-gen optical interface could revolutionize docking stations, but that it has no answer USB 3.0's backward compatibility with the "literally billions" of USB devices in the wild. That's an interesting point, because while I can see a 10Gbps Light Peak link being an excellent conduit to a collection of expansion ports, I can't think of a single one that would require that much bandwidth, at least for consumer applications.
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