A USB4 cable with a type-C connector.
Alexander_Evgenyevich/Shutterstock

Buying the right USB cable can be confusing, thanks to obscure naming schemes that are hard for even techies to remember. This will change this year when the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) introduces simpler labeling for USB4: USB20 Gbps and USB40 Gbps.

As a bonus, the USB-IF is tweaking USB 3.0 to reduce some of the confusion around “SuperSpeed.” If everything goes according to plan, all those cables advertising support for “USB 3.2 Gen 2×2” will vanish from the market.

What Is USB4?

USB4 is the next version of USB, and it offers many improvements and advantages. It will use the reversible Type C plug that’s quickly becoming more popular and double the top bandwidth of USB 3.2 Gen2x2. (See what we mean about naming?)

There are two versions of USB4. Theoretically, the top version allows maximum speeds of up to 40 gigabits per second, which is the same as Thunderbolt 3. There’s also a fallback speed that’s half that (20 Gbps), which is the same as USB 3.2 Gen 2×2.

On top of all of this, USB4 incorporates the Thunderbolt 3 specification. This makes it possible for the 40 Gbps version to be compatible with Thunderbolt 3 gear. Including compatibility with Thunderbolt 3 is optional, however, and up to the PC or motherboard manufacturer.

RELATED: USB4: What's Different and Why It Matters

The Current USB Naming Mess

USB logo.

When we reported on USB4 in November 2019, we did so with great trepidation because USB communication was already muddled. This was partly because USB-IF (the industry standards organization in charge of USB) rearranged its naming scheme several times. The media also never really embraced the official brand names for USB 3.0, nor did computer manufacturers.

This all made it difficult for anyone to truly understand how fast their USB ports were and with which devices they were compatible. With USB4 on the horizon, many were worried this would only get worse.

For example, USB 3’s current branding is a giant mess. It started with USB 3.1 Gen 1, which was originally called just USB 3.0. Next, what should have been called USB 3.1, was dubbed USB 3.1 Gen 2, and then USB 3.2 was called Gen 3.2 2×2.

Additionally, the official brand names were supposed to be SuperSpeed and SuperSpeed+, but those were rarely used.

Manufacturers weren’t supposed to confuse everyone with all the Gen 3.2 2×2 stuff, but you do see these terms when you browse anywhere for USB cables. It was (and is) an horrific mess.

However, if you want to untangle the mess a bit, you can check out our article on the different versions of USB.

The New USB4 Branding

With the commonly used names USB 3.1 and up, it wasn’t made clear that each new generation is faster, such as USB 3.0, USB 3.1, and USB 3.2.

USB-IF hopes to bypass all the “generations” stuff and use a simple, clear naming structure that will define exactly what each USB version can theoretically do.

First, let’s look at USB4 before we sort out USB 3.0. USB4 has two versions: USB4 20 Gbps and USB4 40 Gbps. These are the official brand names, but the packaging logo (see below) shows each version as USB20 and USB40 with “Gbps” tacked onto the end.

A table of the USB4 version naming and branding schemes.

The branding is simple. It makes it clear whether it’s the faster or fastest form of USB4. We also won’t be surprised if people drop the 4 from USB4, and just refer to these as USB20 and USB40, since that’s what will appear on the packaging.

The port and cable logos are similar to what USB-IF did with the USB 3.1 and up, using just a simple symbol and the bandwidth.

USB-IF Tweaks the Mess with USB 3

A gray and black table on white background displaying the naming and branding schemes for SuperSpeed USB.
USB-IF

The USB-IF hopes that this time around, computer manufacturers will also ditch the USB 3.1 nonsense for clearer messaging and refer to everything (including USB 3.1 Gen 1) as SuperSpeed USB.

The USB-IF said the term “SuperSpeed” will remain restricted to USB 3—there won’t be any new standards with this label in the future. So, it’s a legacy term that’s already in use for the older standard. This can’t be helped presently, but when the world moves to USB4, things will get a lot simpler.

USB 3.1 Gen 1, known before as plain old 3.0, is now SuperSpeed USB 5Gbps.

USB 3.1 Gen 2 continues to bear the official brand name SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps, and USB 3.1 Gen 2×2 is SuperSpeed USB 20Gbps. The packaging logo is also similar to what it is now, though, so it’s still a bit confusing.

SuperSpeed 5 will have the SuperSpeed logo with “5 Gbps” in small print underneath, while SuperSpeed 10 will read SuperSpeed+ with a small-print “10 Gbps.” SuperSpeed 20 packaging will also be called SuperSpeed+, but with “20 Gbps” underneath.

This is not ideal, but at least there’s a way to differentiate, even if it’s not super-obvious. We’d prefer the USB-IF to just call these USB 3.0 5Gbps, USB 3.0 10Gbps, and USB 3.0 20Gbps. Even dropping the “.0” and calling them all USB3 would be better.

Regardless, at the least, the port and cable logos are clearly labeled as “SS” for SuperSpeed, and include the corresponding bandwidth number, as they do now.

The main drawback to the upcoming state of USB will likely be understanding whether you need a standard USB Type-A cable or the newer USB Type-C. Unfortunately, this is unavoidable as long as device manufacturers continue to offer Type-A ports to support legacy hardware, and Type-C is the future.

Finally! USB Names You Can Understand

Overall, the future for USB comprehension looks brighter. There’s no reason to call USB4 by anything other than what we covered above since terms like 4.0 or 4.1 aren’t being used.

A push to rename the various versions of USB 3 to SuperSpeed USB is probably unrealistic. The industry has balked at doing that for years now. Plus, SuperSpeed makes it sound like it’s faster than USB4, which it’s not. If USB 2.0 continues to hang around, that won’t be much of a problem because it will always just be USB 2.0.

Whatever happens with USB 3.1 and up, though, the labeling for USB4 looks promising and easy to understand. This will be a big help for people who are shopping for a USB4-friendly laptop or motherboard—or just trying to figure out which damn cable they need!

Ian Paul Ian Paul
Ian Paul is a freelance writer with over a decade of experiencing writing about tech. In addition to writing for How-To Geek, he regularly contributes to PCWorld as a critic, feature writer, reporter, deal hunter, and columnist. His work has also appeared online at The Washington Post, ABC News, MSNBC, Reuters, Macworld, Yahoo Tech, Tech.co, TechHive, The Huffington Post, and Lifewire. His articles are regularly syndicated across numerous IDG sites including CIO, Computerworld, GameStar, Macworld UK, Tech Advisor, and TechConnect.
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