NEC USB 3.0 host controller still lacks certified competition

— 10:48 AM on January 26, 2011

For the past year, USB 3.0 has been kind of a big deal. That's what happens when a new interface standard arrives and even budget hardware, such as cheap external hard drives, can realize substantial performance gains by making the switch. Chipset makers have yet to integrated SuperSpeed USB into their core logic, leaving motherboard manufacturers to employ auxiliary host controllers. Just about all of them have tapped an NEC-branded Renesas chip (Renesas merged with NEC last year) with two USB 3.0 ports and a PCIe 2.0 x1 interface.

NEC's popularity on this front is owed largely to the fact that its controller is the only one we're aware of that has been certified by USB's governing body, the USB-IF. Competing firms are developing USB 3.0 controllers of their own, but they're all awaiting an official blessing. According to DigiTimes, competing host controllers may not be certified until the end of February. We've been hearing that certification for other controllers is "coming soon" for quite a while now, so I wouldn't hold my breath.

DigiTimes says the lack of competition in this space has NEC holding off on price cuts it had planned for its current host controller, which runs $2.20-2.50. The cost of SuperSpeed USB controllers is expected to drop to as little as $1.50 if rivals can get their designs certified and adopted broadly. Differences of only a dollar shouldn't affect motherboard prices too much, but new competition will bring a more diverse array of controller options, including those that offer four ports instead of just two. The extra ports should come in handy as front-panel USB 3.0 connectivity becomes more popular.

Update — Thanks to a helpful reader, it has come to our attention that Fresco Logic has received certification for its FL1000 USB 3.0 host controller. Unfortunately, it's only a single-port chip with a first-generation PCI Express x1 interface. Fresco Logic's product page suggests that the chip is meant for mobile systems and add-in cards, so it doesn't look like a direct competitor for the NEC controller. The FL1009 is Fresco's PCIe 2.0, dual-port SuperSpeed controller for motherboards. It's not certified yet, though.

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