USB Type-C, or simply USB-C, is a smaller, more compact type of USB connection that has started gaining popularity over the last year or so, despite being around since 2014. This is a quick look at what USB-C is, and why you may or may not need it.
A Quick USB History
USB connectors have been around for more than 20 years, but there have been changes made to the shapes over the years. USB Type-A and B (the original connectors) were initially further modified into micro-USB, which was then used for portable gadgets like mobile phones.
Connector names (A, B, micro, and so on) are not to be confused with USB protocols, which are denoted by numbers. USB 2.0 was first introduced with micro-USB connectors for faster data transfer. USB 3.0, which is what most devices use now, promises even faster rates. The connector and protocol combined are what determines the USB port and cable you can use.
Why USB-C Is Different
USB-C has a tiny connector, similar in size to a micro-USB connector, but the biggest advantage it has it that it’s reversible, which means you won’t have to flip it around multiple times when trying to plug it in. It also works with newer protocols such as USB 3.1 (which was released along with USB-C) and USB PD.
This combination means that you can now transfer data, image, video, and whatnot, using just one USB cable. We’ll now look at the ways in which USB Type-C is different from its predecessors, and how this may be a good or bad thing.
More Versatility in a Single Port
USB-C attempts to put the ‘universal’ in Universal Serial Bus, and to some extent, it gets the job done. Since USB-C is small and compact, it can be used for smartphones and such (especially since each model tends to be slimmer than the last), but it is also powerful enough to connect peripherals to a laptop. Both ends of a USB-C cable are the same design.
As already mentioned, you have options for audio, video, etc. because of the number of alternate modes supported by USB-C. For instance, the HDMI Alt Mode allows you to use your USB-C connector in an HDMI port while enabling surround sound, a 4k resolution, and even 3D content. Similarly, Apple’s USB-C Digital Multiport Adaptor allows you to connect VGA, HDMI, and USB-A connectors in the same port.
Audio adaptors allow you to plug your USB-C connector into headphone jacks, and you can use pass-through adaptors to use it as a charging cable too. In theory, the USB-C hence reduces the mess of ports on devices and streamlines everything into one cable.
However, most of these functions require modes or adaptors, which means additional hardware and software support is needed. So you will need to keep your device’s compatibility in mind.
Sure, the physical USB-C connector itself isn’t backwards compatible, but as we’ve said, it can still get the job done. You can’t connect older, larger USB connectors into the smaller USB-C port, and you can’t use the older ports for USB-C connectors, but USB 3.1 is still backwards compatible with older ports by itself, and with newer USB-C ones using a physical adaptor.
Premium computers prefer the USB-C port. Apple’s new MacBook has only USB-C ports. Some computers like Google’s Chromebook Pixel have both Type-A and Type-C ports. Either way, you don’t need to abandon your old peripherals.
Power and Charging
Since USB-C ports also support USB Power Delivery (PD) specifications, they can be used for charging devices. A USB PD combined with a USB-C port can deliver up to a hundred watts of power. In contrast, a USB 2.0 connection offers just 2.5 watts.
For this reason, many devices now use USB-C ports for charging. Both Chromebook Pixel and the new MacBook do this among many other devices. This is a step into the future; a future where you could use the same USB cable to charge everything. You might even be able to charge your laptop using a portable battery pack, just like the ones used for smartphones and tablets these days.
Statements like these make USB-C sound too good to be true, which is why there’s always a catch. And this catch is usually device compatibility. If a cable or a device supports USB-C, this does not automatically mean that it will support USB PD as well. So you’ll have to look into this before buying.
Data Transfer Rates
USB-C in and of itself does not indicate faster data transfer speeds. The protocol used with it also makes a huge difference. USB 3.1 is generally the fastest option out there. It further deviates into Gen 1 and Gen 2, which offer data transfer speeds of up to 5 Gbps and 10 Gbps respectively. For high-end PCs and Macs, a popular protocol is Thunderbolt 3, which is similar to USB 3.1 Gen 2. This offers transfer rates of up to 40 GBPS through the USB Type-C port.
Protocols are closely related though, which means that USB Type-C will likely support most of them. You’ll need to look at protocols closely when buying cables to see which fits your needs and whether or not it is compatible with your device (there’s the old catch again).
Do You Need It?
Whether you think you need a USB-C cable or not, you might very soon (especially given its increasing popularity). Future computers may follow the example of Chromebook Pixel and keep the older port as well, but then again, they could simply eliminate them.
Buying a laptop is where you’ll need to consider this the most. The thinner your laptop is, the more likely it is that it uses a USB-C port. Even some high-end desktops, especially gaming desktops, have USB Type-C ports.
USB-C offers many options for implementation, but this also makes it a complicated connector for consumers to understand, which is why many people are still reluctant to enter the USB-C ecosystem.