USB Device Basics

A USB device is a very complex component, as described in the official USB documentation (available at Figure 1 shows how USB devices consist of configurations, interfaces, and endpoints and how USB drivers bind to USB interfaces, not the entire USB device.

Figure 1. USB device overview


The most basic form of USB communication is through something called an endpoint. A USB endpoint can carry data in only one direction, either from the host computer to the device (called an OUT endpoint) or from the device to the host computer (called an IN endpoint). Endpoints can be thought of as unidirectional pipes.

A USB endpoint can be one of four different types that describe how the data is transmitted:


Control endpoints are used to allow access to different parts of the USB device. They are commonly used for configuring the device, retrieving information about the device, sending commands to the device, or retrieving status reports about the device. These endpoints are usually small in size. Every USB device has a control endpoint called "endpoint 0" that is used by the USB core to configure the device at insertion time. These transfers are guaranteed by the USB protocol to always have enough reserved bandwidth to make it through to the device.


Interrupt endpoints transfer small amounts of data at a fixed rate every time the USB host asks the device for data. These endpoints are the primary transport method for USB keyboards and mice. They are also commonly used to send data to USB devices to control the device, but are not generally used to transfer large amounts of data. These transfers are guaranteed by the USB protocol to always have enough reserved bandwidth to make it through.


Bulk endpoints transfer large amounts of data. These endpoints are usually much larger (they can hold more characters at once) than interrupt endpoints. They are common for devices that need to transfer any data that must get through with no data loss. These transfers are not guaranteed by the USB protocol to always make it through in a specific amount of time. If there is not enough room on the bus to send the whole BULK packet, it is split up across multiple transfers to or from the device. These endpoints are common on printers, storage, and network devices.


Isochronous endpoints also transfer large amounts of data, but the data is not always guaranteed to make it through. These endpoints are used in devices that can handle loss of data, and rely more on keeping a constant stream of data flowing. Real-time data collections, such as audio and video devices, almost always use these endpoints.

Control and bulk endpoints are used for asynchronous data transfers, whenever the driver decides to use them. Interrupt and isochronous endpoints are periodic. This means that these endpoints are set up to transfer data at fixed times continuously, which causes their bandwidth to be reserved by the USB core.


USB endpoints are bundled up into interfaces. USB interfaces handle only one type of a USB logical connection, such as a mouse, a keyboard, or an audio stream. Some USB devices have multiple interfaces, such as a USB speaker that might consist of two interfaces: a USB keyboard for the buttons and a USB audio stream. Because a USB interface represents basic functionality, each USB driver controls an interface; so, for the speaker example, the OS uses two different drivers for one hardware device.

USB interfaces may have alternate settings, which are different choices for parameters of the interface. The initial state of an interface is in the first setting, numbered 0. Alternate settings can be used to control individual endpoints in different ways, such as to reserve different amounts of USB bandwidth for the device. Each device with an isochronous endpoint uses alternate settings for the same interface.


USB interfaces are themselves bundled up into configurations. A USB device can have multiple configurations and might switch between them in order to change the state of the device. For example, some devices that allow firmware to be downloaded to them contain multiple configurations to accomplish this. A single configuration can be enabled only at one point in time.

So to summarize, USB devices are quite complex and are made up of lots of different logical units. The relationships among these units can be simply described as follows:

         Devices usually have one or more configurations.

         Configurations often have one or more interfaces.

         Interfaces usually have one or more settings.

         Interfaces have zero or more endpoint