As tech companies are wont to do, the reliable USB isn’t immune to abstruse jargon, cresting the summit of mount confusion with not only a numerical value for the version (USB 3.0 for example) but also a selection of generational indicators as well (Gen 1 for example).
As always, we are here to shine a demystifying light and dissect the difference between USB 3.1 Gen 1 and Gen 2.
The History of USB
To this day the USB standard is a positive example of what happens when companies put down their cutthroat competitive cutlasses and join forces to make everyone’s lives a whole lot easier.
Created in 1996 by a consortium of the biggest tech companies in business at the time (Compaq, IBM, DEC, Intel, Nortel, NEC, and Microsoft) – known as the USB Implementers Forum – USB established a clear set of connector specs with the sole aim of standardizing connectivity between a wide array of devices and PCs.
The idea was to replace a frankly head-splitting litany of connector types and varieties that marked the computing landscape at the time with a universal alternative focused on quality and compatibility.
Not only did the adoption of USB make the lives of manufacturers a lot simpler, it completely revolutionized storage and peripheral technology moving forward. Users were secure in the knowledge that if their PC had a USB port, then an identically labeled keyboard would work out of the box.
Alongside maintaining and promoting, the Forum has updated and revised the USB standard multiple times over the past decade spawning three generations: USB 1.0, USB 2.0, and USB 3.0. Each time, the standard signaled a jump in transfer speed from USB 1.0’s relatively docile 12 Mbit per second to USB 2.0’s speedier 60 MB per second, culminating in USB 3.0’s imaginatively-titled SuperSpeed offering massive rates of 5 Gbit per second.
Beyond offering better transfer speeds, USB 3.0 also allowed devices to pull more power to the tune of up to 900 mA resulting in shortened charging times and less reliance on external power supplies for more demanding USB peripherals like MIDI keyboards for example.
In a departure from historical labeling trends, the latest revision, launched in 2013, is named USB 3.1 despite it offering a staggering 10 Gbit per second (named SuperSpeed+), which is twice the speed of predecessor USB 3.0. The liberties taken in assigning a name to the latest revision aside, matters get even more tangled as we’ll see below.
Alongside launching USB 3.1, the USB Implementers Forum orchestrated a rejigging of the USB 3.0 label. USB 3.0 SuperSpeed would now be known as USB 3.1 Gen 1, while the new revision, USB 3.1 SuperSpeed+, would carry the label USB 3.1 Gen 2.
What’s The Difference?
Now that we’ve got a grasp of the labeling merry go around, what is the tangible, real-world difference between USB 3.1 Gen 1 and USB 3.1 Gen 2?
The difference all comes down to numbers. USB 3.1 Gen 1 can transfer at up to 5 Gbit per second, while USB 3.1 Gen 2 can transfer up to 10 Gbit per second. Power wise, USB 3.1 Gen 1 is limited to 900 mA, while USB 3.1 Gen 2 can handle a whopping 5A and is compatible with the new Type-C socket – the only socket capable of handling the maximum power and transfer specifications of the standard.
Other than this, the standard form of the two revisions are identical in looks, both sporting a Type-A socket and the distinctive blue inserts on the receptacles inner tongue. The branding is different though. USB 3.1 Gen 1 is labeled SuperSpeed USB, and USB 3.1 Gen 2 SuperSpeed USB+.
Ostensibly, the change was to give the standard a clear, discernable brand identity to help differentiate the two standards in the eyes of the consumer, i.e., to ward off confusion, which seems ironic. Technically, the amalgamation of USB 3.0 into USB 3.1 also simplified R&R and manufacturing processes by reducing the array of specifications companies had to adhere to during production.
In 2017, another contender joined the fray with speeds up to 20 Gbit per second – USB 3.2. As has become customary by this point, the release signaled another labeling rejig.
USB 3.1 Gen 1 became USB 3.2 Gen 1×1, with SuperSpeed transfer rates up to 5 Gbit per second. USB 3.1 Gen turned into USB 3.2 Gen 2×1, with SuperSpeed offering speeds up to 10 Gbit per second.
Housed between these two were two new standards known as USB 3.2 1×2, offering speeds of 10 Gbit via different encoding, and USB 3.2 Gen 2×2, with rates up to 20 Gbit per second. The latter only functions with a Type-C connector, which is on a course to become the standardized socket type before long.
The Type-C’s added power capability, reversible design (meaning no more struggling to find the correct orientation to plug in a USB cable – a design flaw that has plagued the standard since its genesis), and higher transfer rates mean it is suited to pretty much any kind of application. It supersedes the plethora of existing sockets from Type-A, Type-B to Micro B, Micro-AB, and so on.
The Bottom Line
If you head to your local shop or parse through Amazon’s latest technological wares, you’ll come across USB 3.1 Gen 1, USB 3.1 Gen 2, and maybe even USB 3.2 devices.
USB 3.0 won’t be featured on any products, but know that if you have an older USB 3.0 mouse or hard drive, it will work with any of the newer USB standards. Fortunately, USB standards are backward compatible meaning even the latest USB 3.2 supports USB 2.0, and USB 3.1 Gen 1/Gen 2.
Finally, to refresh our memories: USB 3.1 Gen 1 is USB 3.0 under a different guise running at 5 Gbit per second. USB 3.1 Gen 2 is a relabelling of USB 3.1 and runs at 10 Gbit per second.
The UK-based journalist and gamer, Thomas, describes himself as a man of few words with an unhealthy obsession for everything wonderful about the world of gaming. Thanks to his experience in the gaming industry, he brings a wealth of talent into GamingScan.