If you try to decode the feature list of the latest technology product, you will probably understand the devious technical proverb, "There are only two difficult things in computer science: caching invalidation and naming".
You probably will not lose your sleep after invalidating the cache, but the names can indeed be problematic if you buy a PC, a phone, an external hard drive or any other device with a USB port. The reason is that the trade group that oversees the USB has a bunch of potentially confusing labels. Oh, and besides, these names can change even when the underlying technology does not do it.
The most recent example: what was previously called USB 3.1 is now USB 3.2. Do not panic, we will detail the details below.
The USB started more than twenty years ago as a data transfer technology, but it has been extended to charge phones and now power laptops. But likethe labels describing these capabilities have become increasingly complicated.
And that's the problem, because if you do not understand the differences between USB 3.1, USB-C and USB PD, you risk buying the wrong cable or be surprised at the slowness of your new external hard drive.
The commercial group behind this technology, called USB Implementers Forum or USB-IF, is sensitive to recent reviews, try to put away labels and logos to reduce confusion.
"We are exploring some improvements to aim for a global simplification," said Wednesday the president of the USB-IF, Brad Saunders. "I hope that during this year, some of the improvements we envision will be finalized and begin to have an impact."
The Wi-Fi Alliance, which markets wireless networking technology, believes that technology may be a problem, moving to more user-friendly terms, such as Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6, instead of IEEE specification names 802.11ac and 802.11ax. But naming fluid technology products will never be easy. Look no further than Windows versions of Microsoft, which include versions 3.0, 3.1, 95, 98, Me, 2000, XP, 7, 8, 10 and more recently, Windows 10 Fall Creators Update version 1809.
What about USB 3.0 and versions 3.1 and 3.2?
The USB covers a lot of ground. One of the key elements is the speed with which it can transfer data. That's where the latest confusion comes from.
The USB 3.0 has arrived with the ability to transfer data at 5 gigabits per second, or 5 Gbps. But when the USB-IF port doubled that rate to 10 Gbps, it renamed USB 3.0 to USB 3.1 Gen 1 and called the faster version USB 3.1 Gen 2.
We now have another duplicate speed and a name change: USB 3.2 Gen 1 is 5 Gbps, USB 3.2 Gen 2 is 10 Gbps and USB Gen 2×2 is 20 Gbps. The USB 2.0, much older, at 480 Mbps, has not changed its name.
USB-IF wants everyone to use its most user-friendly terms: USB 2.0 is USB Hi-Speed, and version 3 variants are USB SuperSpeed 5Gbps, USB SuperSpeed 10Gbps and USB SuperSpeed 20 Gbps.
"The internal details of the technical specification are not intended for use with consumers, nor are the version numbering of the specification (3.0, 3.1, etc.) used for this purpose," said Saunders.
Well. But as Amazon quickly shows, product packages and descriptions are loaded with references to technical specification names like USB 3.0 and 3.1.
What about the USB PD, the USB-C and all that?
SuperSpeed variations only govern part of the USB: the speed with which it can transfer data. But you may encounter a lot of other USB terms.
The first is the new USB-C technology, sometimes called USB Type-C. This only concerns the physical part of the USB – the connectors at the ends of the cables and the ports on the sides of your peripherals – not its data capacity or electrical power. The USB-C is reversible. It is therefore easy to put the cable in the right direction and works on laptops, tablets and phones.
USB-C does not guarantee a fast connection – indeed, many of the first phones using only USB-C connectors could transfer data at older speeds of USB 2.0. Uh, I mean USB Hi-Speed. But if you want new speeds of 20 Gbps, USB-C connections are needed.
Here is another term that you will probably encounter: USB Power Delivery or USB PD. This technology governswhether it's a wall outlet or a battery. It is designed to automatically determine the amount of juice your device can handle, that it's the maximum of 100 watts that a high-end laptop may want or lower levels for phones and other smaller devices.
What is not yet clear is how USB-IF will name the next step. Another USB speed that can double to 40 Gbps is possible if it is not yet available. USB 3.3? USB SuperSpeed 40Gbps? USB 4.0? Whatever the name, we will always have a challenge.