Although first announced in 2008 with products becoming available for consumers in 2009, there are not a lot of people who know about the USB 3.0 specification.
Some background to make sure everyone is on the same page. USB stands for Universal Serial Bus and is a connection type for computer peripherals, however most people know it as simply a place to plug flash drives into their computer. USB cables come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes as shown in the picture above. The Micro B, Mini B, Standard A receptacle, Standard A and Standard B are all shown above.
Today numerous devices such as printers, external hard drives, keyboards, mice, web cameras and more take advantage of USB connections.
The USB 1.1 standard was first used in 1998 and allowed for 12 Mbit per second transfers. USB 2.0, which is very common today, was released in 2001-2002 and allows for 480Mbit per second transfers. Both specifications use the same connector types (pictured above) however USB 2.0 allows data transfers 40 times faster the USB 1.1. The speed difference becomes very apparent when you unknowingly try to transfer a file on a USB 1.1 connection and realize it is taking minutes instead of seconds to copy.
USB 3.0 was announced in 2008 with speeds up to 3.2Gbits per second. For those who don’t have their calculator nearby that speed translates to 3,200Mbits per second or roughly 6.5 times faster then USB 2.0 (265 times faster then 1.1).
As with earlier specifications, USB 3.0 is “backwards” compatible to USB 2.0 devices and cables.
The difference comes on the other end of the cable…
As you can see the 3.0 cable on the right (blue colored) has an extra port compared to the 2.0 cable on the left. You can still use a 2.0 cable with a 3.0 device however you won’t achieve the higher transfer rates. You can not use a 3.0 cable with a 2.0 device as the 3.0 cable will not fit due to the extra port.
The photographs above were taken from an external drive enclosure I helped a coworker setup recently. Several desktop computers, laptop computers and external USB hard drives are starting to ship with USB 3.0 ports. Almost 2 years later the jury is still out if USB 3.0 will catch on or if it will be replaced by something else before it becomes popular. Either way now you know what that blue colored USB cable is for.