Though the specifications for USB-C were first published in 2014,
it’s really just in the last year that the technology has caught on.
It’s now shaping up to be a real replacement for not only older USB
standards, but also other standards like Thunderbolt and Display Port.
Testing is even in the works to deliver a new USB audio standard using
USB-C as a potential replacement for the 3.5mm audio jack. USB-C is
closely intertwined with other new standards, as well like USB 3.1 for
faster speeds and USB Power Delivery for improved power-delivery over
USB connections.

Type-C Features a New Connector Shape

USB Type-C has a new, tiny physical connector roughly the size of a
micro USB connector. The USB-C connector itself can support various
exciting new USB standard like USB 3.1 and USB power delivery (USB PD).
The standard USB connector you’re most familiar with is USB Type-A.
Even as we’ve moved from USB 1 to USB 2 and on to modern USB 3 devices,
that connector has stayed the same. It’s as massive as ever, and it only
plugs in one way (which is obviously never the way you try to plug it
in the first time). But as devices became smaller and thinner, those
massive USB ports just didn’t fit. This gave rise to lots of other USB
connector shapes like the “micro” and “mini” connectors.
This awkward collection of differently-shaped connectors for
different-size devices is finally coming to a close. USB Type-C offers a
new connector standard that’s very small. It’s about a third the size
of an old USB Type-A plug. This is a single connector standard that
every device should be able to use. You’ll just need a single cable,
whether you’re connecting an external hard drive to your laptop or
charging your smartphone from a USB charger. That one tiny connector is
small enough to fit into a super-thin mobile device, but also powerful
enough to connect all the peripherals you want to your laptop. The cable
itself has USB Type-C connectors at both ends it’s all one connector.
USB-C provides plenty to like. It’s reversible, so you’ll no longer
have to flip the connector around a minimum of three times looking for
the correct orientation. It’s a single USB connector shape that all
devices should adopt, so you won’t have to keep loads of different USB
cables with different connector shapes for your various devices. And
you’ll have no more massive ports taking up an unnecessary amount of
room on ever-thinner devices.
USB Type-C ports can also support a variety of different protocols
using “alternate modes,” which allows you to have adapters that can
output HDMI, VGA, Display Port, or other types of connections from that
single USB port. Apple’s USB-C Digital Multiport Adapter is
a good example of this, offering an adapter that allows you to connect
an HDMI, VGA, larger USB Type-A connectors, and smaller USB Type-C
connector via a single port. The mess of USB, HDMI, Display Port, VGA,
and power ports on typical laptops can be streamlined into a single type
of port.

USB-C, USB PD, and Power Delivery

The USB PD specification is also closely intertwined with USB Type-C.
Currently, a USB 2.0 connection provides up to 2.5 watts of
power enough to charge your phone or tablet, but that’s about it. The
USB PD specification supported by USB-C ups this power delivery to 100
watts. It’s bi-directional, so a device can either send or receive
power. And this power can be transferred at the same time the device is
transmitting data across the connection. This kind of power delivery
could even let you charge a laptop, which usually requires up to about
60 watts.
Apple’s new MacBook and Google’s new Chromebook Pixel
both use their USB-C ports as their charging ports. USB-C could spell
the end of all those proprietary laptop charging cables, with everything
charging via a standard USB connection. You could even charge your laptop from one of those portable battery packs
you charge your smart phones and other portable devices from today. You
could plug your laptop into an external display connected to a power
cable, and that external display would charge your laptop as you used it
as an external display — all via the one little USB Type-C connection.
There is one catch, though—at least at the moment. Just because a
device or cable supports USB-C does necessarily mean it also supports
USB PD. So, you’ll need to make sure that the devices and cables you buy
support both USB-C and USB PD.

USB-C, USB 3.1, and Transfer Rates

USB 3.1 is a new USB standard. USB 3‘s
theoretical bandwidth is 5 Gbps, while USB 3.1’s is 10 Gbps. That’s
double the bandwidth—as fast as a first-generation Thunderbolt
USB Type-C isn’t the same thing as USB 3.1, though. USB Type-C is
just a connector shape, and the underlying technology could just be USB 2
or USB 3.0. In fact, Nokia’s N1 Android tablet uses a USB Type-C
connector, but underneath it’s all USB 2.0 not even USB 3.0. However,
these technologies are closely related. When buying devices, you’ll just
need to keep your eye on the details and make sure you’re buying
devices (and cables) that support USB 3.1.

Backwards Compatibility

The physical USB-C connector isn’t backwards compatible, but the
underlying USB standard is. You can’t plug older USB devices into a
modern, tiny USB-C port, nor can you connect a USB-C connector into an
older, larger USB port. But that doesn’t mean you have to discard all
your old peripherals. USB 3.1 is still backwards-compatible with older
versions of USB, so you just need a physical adapter with a USB-C
connector on one end and a larger, older-style USB port on the other
end. You can then plug your older devices directly into a USB Type-C
Realistically, many computers will have both USB Type-C ports and
larger USB Type-A ports for the immediate future like Google’s
Chromebook Pixel. You’ll be able to slowly transition from your old
devices, getting new peripherals with USB Type-C connectors. Even if you
get a computer with only USB Type-C ports, like Apple’s new MacBook,
adapters and hubs will fill the gap.

USB Type-C is a worthy upgrade. It’s making waves on the newer
Mac Books and some mobile devices, but it’s not an Apple- or mobile-only
technology. As time goes on, USB-C will appear in more and more devices
of all types. USB-C may even replace the Lightning connector on Apple’s
i-Phones and i-Pads one day. Lightning doesn’t have many advantages over
USB Type-C besides being a proprietary standard Apple can charge
licensing fees for. Imagine a day when your Android-using friends need a
charge and you don’t have to give the sorrowful “Sorry, I’ve just got
an i-Phone charger” line!

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