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What is a USB?

Universal Serial Bus (USB) is an industry standard developed in the mid-1990s that defines the cables, connectors and communications protocols used in a bus for connection, communication and power supply between computers and electronic devices.

USB was designed to standardize the connection of computer peripherals, such as keyboards, pointing devices, digital cameras, printers, portable media players, disk drives and network adapters to personal computers, both to communicate and to supply electric power. It has become commonplace on other devices, such as smartphones, PDAs and video game consoles. USB has effectively replaced a variety of earlier interfaces, such as serial and parallel ports, as well as separate power chargers for portable devices.

As of 2008, approximately 6 billion USB ports and interfaces were in the global marketplace, and about 2 billion were being sold each year.


A group of seven companies began development on USB in 1994: Compaq, DEC, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, NEC and Nortel. The goal was to make it fundamentally easier to connect external devices to PCs by replacing the multitude of connectors at the back of PCs, addressing the usability issues of existing interfaces, and simplifying software configuration of all devices connected to USB, as well as permitting greater data rates for external devices. The first silicon for USB was made by Intel in 1995.

The original USB 1.0 specification, which was introduced in January 1996, defined data transfer rates of 1.5 Mbit/s "Low Speed" and 12 Mbit/s "Full Speed". The first widely used version of USB was 1.1, which was released in September 1998. The 12 Mbit/s data rate was intended for higher-speed devices such as disk drives, and the lower 1.5 Mbit/s rate for low data rate devices such as joysticks.

The USB 2.0 specification was released in April 2000 and was ratified by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) at the end of 2001. Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Lucent Technologies (now Alcatel-Lucent), NEC and Philips jointly led the initiative to develop a higher data transfer rate, with the resulting specification achieving 480 Mbit/s, a fortyfold increase over the original USB 1.1 specification.

The USB 3.0 specification was published on 12 November 2008. Its main goals were to increase the data transfer rate (up to 5 Gbit/s), to decrease power consumption, to increase power output, and to be backwards-compatible with USB 2.0. USB 3.0 includes a new, higher speed bus called SuperSpeed in parallel with the USB 2.0 bus. For this reason, the new version is also called SuperSpeed. The first USB 3.0 equipped devices were presented in January 2010.

System design

The design architecture of USB is asymmetrical in its topology, consisting of a host, a multitude of downstream USB ports, and multiple peripheral devices connected in a tiered-star topology. Additional USB hubs may be included in the tiers, allowing branching into a tree structure with up to five tier levels. A USB host may implement multiple host controllers and each host controller may provide one or more USB ports. Up to 127 devices, including hub devices if present, may be connected to a single host controller.

USB devices are linked in series through hubs. One hub is known as the root hub which is built into the host controller.

A physical USB device may consist of several logical sub-devices that are referred to as device functions. A single device may provide several functions, for example, a webcam (video device function) with a built-in microphone (audio device function). This kind of device is called composite device. An alternative for this is compound device in which each logical device is assigned a distinctive address by the host and all logical devices are connected to a built-in hub to which the physical USB wire is connected.

USB endpoints actually reside on the connected device: the channels to the host are referred to as pipes

USB device communication is based on pipes (logical channels). A pipe is a connection from the host controller to a logical entity, found on a device, and named an endpoint. Because pipes correspond 1-to-1 to endpoints, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. A USB device can have up to 32 endpoints: 16 into the host controller and 16 out of the host controller. The USB standard reserves one endpoint of each type, leaving a theoretical maximum of 30 for normal use. USB devices seldom have this many endpoints.

There are two types of pipes: stream and message pipes depending on the type of data transfer.

A stream pipe is a uni-directional pipe connected to a uni-directional endpoint that transfers data using an isochronous, interrupt, or bulk transfer. A message pipe is a bi-directional pipe connected to a bi-directional endpoint that is exclusively used for control data flow. An endpoint is built into the USB device by the manufacturer and therefore exists permanently. An endpoint of a pipe is addressable with a tuple (device_address, endpoint_number) as specified in a TOKEN packet that the host sends when it wants to start a data transfer session. If the direction of the data transfer is from the host to the endpoint, an OUT packet (a specialization of a TOKEN packet) having the desired device address and endpoint number is sent by the host. If the direction of the data transfer is from the device to the host, the host sends an IN packet instead. If the destination endpoint is a uni-directional endpoint whose manufacturer's designated direction does not match the TOKEN packet (e.g., the manufacturer's designated direction is IN while the TOKEN packet is an OUT packet), the TOKEN packet will be ignored. Otherwise, it will be accepted and the data transaction can start. A bi-directional endpoint, on the other hand, accepts both IN and OUT packets.

Endpoints are grouped into interfaces and each interface is associated with a single device function. An exception to this is endpoint zero, which is used for device configuration and which is not associated with any interface. A single device function composed of independently controlled interfaces is called a composite device. A composite device only has a single device address because the host only assigns a device address to a function.

When a USB device is first connected to a USB host, the USB device enumeration process is started. The enumeration starts by sending a reset signal to the USB device. The data rate of the USB device is determined during the reset signaling. After reset, the USB device's information is read by the host and the device is assigned a unique 7-bit address. If the device is supported by the host, the device drivers needed for communicating with the device are loaded and the device is set to a configured state. If the USB host is restarted, the enumeration process is repeated for all connected devices.

The host controller directs traffic flow to devices, so no USB device can transfer any data on the bus without an explicit request from the host controller. In USB 2.0, the host controller polls the bus for traffic, usually in a round-robin fashion. The throughput of each USB port is determined by the slower speed of either the USB port or the USB device connected to the port.

High-speed USB 2.0 hubs contain devices called transaction translators that convert between high-speed USB 2.0 buses and full and low speed buses. When a high-speed USB 2.0 hub is plugged into a high-speed USB host or hub, it will operate in high-speed mode. The USB hub will then either use one transaction translator per hub to create a full/low-speed bus that is routed to all full and low speed devices on the hub, or will use one transaction translator per port to create an isolated full/low-speed bus per port on the hub.

Because there are two separate controllers in each USB 3.0 host, USB 3.0 devices will transmit and receive at USB 3.0 data rates regardless of USB 2.0 or earlier devices connected to that host. Operating data rates for them will be set in the legacy manner.


The data cables for USB 1.x and USB 2.x use a twisted pair to reduce noise and crosstalk. USB 3.0 cables contain twice as many wires as USB 2.x to support SuperSpeed data transmission, and are thus larger in diameter.

The USB 1.1 Standard specifies that a standard cable can have a maximum length of 3 meters with devices operating at Low Speed (1.5 Mbit/s), and a maximum length of 5 meters with devices operating at Full Speed (12 Mbit/s).

USB 2.0 provides for a maximum cable length of 5 meters for devices running at Hi Speed (480 Mbit/s). The primary reason for this limit is the maximum allowed round-trip delay of about 1.5 Î¼s. If USB host commands are unanswered by the USB device within the allowed time, the host considers the command lost. When adding USB device response time, delays from the maximum number of hubs added to the delays from connecting cables, the maximum acceptable delay per cable amounts to 26 ns. The USB 2.0 specification requires cable delay to be less than 5.2 ns per meter (192,000 km/s, which is close to the maximum achievable transmission speed for standard copper wire).

The USB 3.0 standard does not directly specify a maximum cable length, requiring only that all cables meet an electrical specification: for copper cabling with AWG 26 wires the maximum practical length is 3 meters (9.8 ft).

Transmission rates

The theoretical maximum data rate in USB 2.0 is 480 Mbit/s (60 MB/s) per controller and is shared amongst all attached devices. Some chipset manufacturers overcome this bottleneck by providing multiple USB 2.0 controllers within the southbridge.

Typical hi-speed USB hard drives can be written to at rates around 25 - 30 MB/s, and read from at rates of 30 - 42 MB/s, according to routine testing done by CNet. This is 70% of the total bandwidth available.

According to a USB-IF chairman, "at least 10 to 15 percent of the stated peak 60 MB/s (480 Mbit/s) of Hi-Speed USB goes to overhead—the communication protocol between the card and the peripheral. Overhead is a component of all connectivity standards". Tables illustrating the transfer limits are shown in Chapter 5 of the USB spec.

For isochronous devices like audio streams, the bandwidth is constant, and reserved exclusively for a given device. The bus bandwidth therefore only has an effect on the number of channels that can be sent at a time, not the "speed" or latency of the transmission.

Related standards

The PictBridge standard allows for interconnecting consumer imaging devices. It typically uses USB for its underlying communication layer.

The USB Implementers Forum is working on a wireless networking standard based on the USB protocol. Wireless USB is intended as a cable-replacement technology, and will use ultra-wideband wireless technology for data rates of up to 480 Mbit/s.

USB 2.0 High Speed Inter Chip (HSIC) is a chip-to-chip variant of USB 2.0 that eliminates the conventional analog transceivers found in normal USB. It was adopted as a standard by the USB Implementers Forum in 2007. The HSIC physical layer uses about 50% less power and 75% less board area compared to traditional USB 2.0. HSIC uses two signals at 1.2 V and has a throughput of 480 Mbit/s using 240 MHz DDR signaling. Maximum PCB trace length for HSIC is 10 cm. It does not have low enough latency to support RAM memory sharing between two chips.

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