We all connect some sort of device to our PC or laptop, be it an iPod, smartphone or camera, and the vast majority of us do so using USB. The standard has been around for a long time, and its use is pretty much second nature for most of us. As time has gone on, it's developed as a data transfer mechanism, getting faster with every new version and, of course, it allows us to charge our mobile devices, too.

The latest version is USB 3.0, and today's computers often incorporate one or more compatible ports, allowing for faster data transfer between a PC and an attached peripheral than its predecessor; USB 2.0. But it is only with Windows 8 that Microsoft has been able to introduce USB 3.0 support natively within the operating system, and thereby really give users an opportunity to take advantage of the latest standard. What, however, does that mean for how we can work with data, and with USB itself, in Windows 8? (See also: Windows 8: the complete guide.)

Windows 8: What USB 3.0 offers

The most significant feature of USB 3.0 is its fast data transfer. Known as SuperSpeed, it can move data at a rate of up to 5GB per second (GBps). USB 2.0 tops out at 480MB per second (MBps). That's a massive tenfold increase in data transfer speed.

This giant leap forwards in transfer speed means all activities that involve moving data around, from making your daily backup to sending music to your smartphone will be a lot faster to complete, and therefore less hassle.

USB 3.0 speeds

Upping the transfer speed is important because we tend to have more data to move these days. Five years ago we might have had a few photos and the odd tune. Today, we'll have hundreds or even thousands of photos and tracks, along with video to swap between devices and, of course, to back up. The faster we can all do this, the happier we are.
USB 3.0 can also provide more power than USB 2.0, which most importantly means faster charging of external devices. That's great if you find yourself relying on the technology to charge your devices rather than the mains, and good news if you appreciate power efficiency, too. This comes into play because USB 3.0 is better at powering down when it's not doing being used, and can help extend a laptop's battery life and reduce the power consumption of desktop computers.

All these plus points are integral to USB 3.0, and you'll find it on many Windows 7 computers. But by building support into the operating system natively, Microsoft is helping to ensure you get the very best experience. For example, USB 3.0 devices shouldn't need third-party drivers – they should just plug and play. And without the need for custom drivers, the speed and efficiency benefits should be much more apparent. If you are worried about your USB 2.0 devices, don't be. There's no need to upgrade as USB 3.0 is backwards compatible, so any devices that only support the older, slower standard can still be used. They'll be slower, though.  

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Windows 8: The history of USB

In computing terms, USB is an ancient technology, first appearing back in 1996. There were two speeds back then – a full rate of 12MBps and a lower one at what today seems a snail's pace of 1.5MBps. What helped make it such a success was the fact that most of the work is done inside the computer, not on the attached device. This made USB, at the device end, relatively inexpensive to produce, and that in turn helped it achieve popularity and become a universal standard.

Fast forward to 2000 and USB 2.0 appeared. A massive speed increase to 480MBps was implemented. Then in 2008, USB 3.0 was announced, and the first compatible devices started to appear in 2009. Fully certified products didn't start appearing till the start off 2010. Slowly USB 3.0 has started to appear in computers, and today it's easy to find. We aren't expecting it to be seen in smartphones for a bit, though. Current predictions suggest we'll see it at the end of this year or early in 2013.

Had Microsoft not included native support for USB 3.0 in Windows 8, it would have come in for severe criticism. As it is, we now have the opportunity to see how the fast speeds of USB 3.0 can make data transfer quicker and more power efficient on a daily basis.