Never The Twain Shall Meet
The remarkable words of Rudyard Kipling that describe the gulf between eastern and western philosophies might just as easily be used to describe USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 signaling. We hear a lot of references to “backwards compatibility” bandied about in the discussion of USB connectors, but unlike USB 1.1 and 2.0, there’s a lot more behind the change to USB 3.0 than a simple signaling rate. Indeed, the term “backwards compatibility” doesn’t really describe how these interfaces coexist as separate technologies.
The easiest-to-describe difference is SuperSpeed USB’s use of 8b/10b encoding, which is only part of what makes the signals incompatible. It’s because of this signal incompatibility that USB 3.0 connectors have an extra five signal pins, which allow USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 to coexist. Coexistence also allows bus-powered USB 3.0 devices to take their power from the previous version’s power pins and the USB 3.0 specification even increases the current limit of the previous-generation connector from 500mA to 900mA.
Differences don’t end at the connector, as SuperSpeed USB also requires its own controller interface. Companies have fortunately figured out how to put multiple interfaces on a single device, such as the ASMedia bridge above. Used in all four of today’s comparison enclosures, the ASM1051 hosts SATA over USB 3.0 and USB 2.0.
The presence of a USB 2.0 controller on USB 3.0 devices means that devices can be used with the smaller USB 2.0 cable, while reverting to USB 2.0 speeds. This could come in handy during an emergency, since replacement USB 2.0 cables are far easier to find.