Tuesday, July 21, 2009

USB Comes Of Age

Many of us slightly older folk will still remember the humble floppy disk which was the computing industries first real mobile storage media for the mainstream user and when first introduced was an ideal way of transferring data across computers, as long as you did not mind formatting the disk or re-writing it a number of times because of corruption on the first few attempts.

Also the USB 1.0 format was relatively new back in the day, devices that took advantage of the technology were relatively thin on the ground so if you were really lucky you did not have to get involved with larger files that often required spanning across many disks which was even more fraught with frustrastion.

But as computing power grew at a fast pace the size of files seemed to grow exponentially and the floppy drive was simply not up to the job meaning many people were left having to burn very expensive CD’s as burning technology came into play in the nick of time.

Fortunately the USB (universal serial bus) standard was rapidly gaining ground and it was not long before a new breed of mobile storage hit the market which was of course the humble memory stick also affectionately called a thumb drive. These simple plug an play devices could hold a heady 2,4,6 or even 8mb of data (ok don’t laugh) and data transfer speeds of 12mbps which although slow by modern standards was in fact blisteringly fast back then.

The computer repair and IT industries where some of the first serious adopters of pen drives primarily due to the fact that system tools could be easily carried on a flash drive and with the larger capacities reduced the need to carry around a number of CD disks used for diagnostics or computer maintenance utilities.

As capacities grew though faster data transfer speeds were needed and this led to the emergence of the second generation of USB …USB 2.0.

There was of course a lot of confusion between USB 2 and Hi speed USB at the time, which could transfer data at an astonishing 480mbps per second but a lot of early adopters were left more than a tad upset as industry often sold devices and PCI cards as USB 2.0 but in reality they were only USB 2.0 compliant and still had a much slower transfer speed.

The USB interface and standard is now nicely matured and USB interfaces are common across a range of consumer devices from phones to cameras and even video players although it was and still is to a degree questionable as to whether USB or Firewire would win the day as the dominant data transfer protocol.

The humble and originally very expensive thumb drive really took the market by storm and capacities rose to become greater than some people still have on their old computers, and it is now estimated than in excess of 150 million flash drives will be sold a year which of course is only the tip of the iceberg when you consider the estimated 6 billion plus USB interfaced devices in circulation which is growing at a rate of 2 billion per year.

Increases in drive capacities has raised a number of issues across many industry sectors including the data recovery industry, which has had to evolve new USB memory recovery techniques for recovering data from these flash based devices.

Transferring data has become so easy that scant regard has been paid to data backup and equally in the drive to manufacture cheaper products manufacturing standards appear to have slipped resulting in memory controller errors, which of course in turn has led to an increase of lost data.

Some Data recovery companies have of course stepped up the mark and the USB recovery industry is now alive and well.

Another problem area with plug and play devices is that of data security and the sheer ease of file transfer has given many business and government bodies severe data security headaches resulting in extreme cases to the USB interface being disabled on computers, Pc’s and laptops in security sensitive environments.

As it seems with all technology every development brings us even greater speed and the new USB 3.0 standard is no exception promising data transfer speed 10x greater than current specs which will give us transfer speeds around 5Gbps.

This very fast transfer speed may of course signal the end of the older firewire standard which has been falling behind more recently.

USB 3.0 standards have been ratified and the first devices are expected to be available towards the end of the year and it will also be interesting to see if Windows 7 ready boost feature will be able to increase the operating systems performance far greater than is apparent in Windows Vista.

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