What is USB Type-C? How does it change the game?

by: Gary SimsMarch 17, 2015
2.4K

Google and Apple have both launched new mobile computers recently, and although the machines are quite different, they have something in common: both include USB Type-C ports. So what exactly is USB Type-C? Let’s take a look.

You are probably very familiar with USB. If you have a PC, you have probably used a USB flash drive, or maybe you have connected a printer with USB. If you have an Android phone then you will be familiar with USB as the way to charge your phone, or as the way you transfer data to and from the phone. USB has been around for a long time. It first gained mainstream popularity when Microsoft included support for it in Windows 98, and Apple used it to remove the keyboard and mouse ports on its iMac. That was almost 20 years ago, and things have changed quite a bit since then.

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USB 1.1 could transfer data at 12 Mbit/s. That is 1.4 Megabytes per second. Back in the day when a floppy disk could hold 1.4 Megabytes, that was fast. USB 2.0 was released in 2000, sporting a theoretical throughput of 480 Mbit/s. However, practically it works at 280 Mbit/s, which is around 35 Megabytes per second.

The USB 3.0 standard was published in 2008 and allows for theoretical speeds of around 5.0 Gbit/s.

Recently you may have noticed USB ports with a blue interior, these are USB 3.0 ports. The USB 3.0 standard was published in 2008 and allows for theoretical speeds of around 5.0 Gbit/s. However the actual achievable speed is slightly slower, but you can still get around 400 Megabytes per second.

USB 1.1, 2.0 and 3.0 all used the same type of physical ports, the standard USB Type-A plug/socket at the PC end and then generally either micro-B or mini-B on the peripheral (i.e. on your phone, camera, etc.). Physically all the USB ports are backwardly compatible. So you can plug your Android smartphone into a blue USB 3.0 port, and everything will work as expected.

However this has changed with USB 3.1. As you would expect USB 3.1 is faster than USB 3.0, fast enough that it can be used to drive 4K displays. That means that laptops (and PCs of the future) won’t necessarily need HDMI or VGA sockets. But the big difference that consumers will see is the use of a new plug. The A and B type connectors are history. The new connector is called USB Type-C. So what does a Type-C connector give us that Type-A and B connectors can’t?

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First of all the Type-C connector is small. That means no more micro or mini ports. No more confusion about which cable you will need. The Type-C connector is small enough for a smart phone but powerful enough for a PC or even a server.

Second the Type-C connector is rated at up to 100W, which means it can be used to charge not only smartphones, it can be used to power lots of other devices that would previously have needed a separate power supply. In the future your printer might only need one cable, a USB Type-C cable that provides both power and the data connection.

Thirdly the Type-C cable is reversible. That means that it doesn’t matter which way you connect it. No more trying to plug in a cable, finding you got it the wrong way around, trying again and then realizing that you had it right the first time!

The two most prominent devices with USB 3.1 support right now are the new Google Chromebook Pixel and the new Macbook. However USB 3.1 and Type-C connectors will become the de-facto standard over the next few years.

Finally, USB Type-C cables will use the new small connector at both ends, no more Type-A at one end, and Type-B at the other. This means you can truly plug in the cable whichever way you want, and it will just work!

The two most prominent devices with USB 3.1 support right now are the new Google Chromebook Pixel and the new Macbook. However USB 3.1 and Type-C connectors will become the de-facto standard over the next few years. Since it is backwardly compatible you only need a passive adapter to connect an existing USB 2.0 device and it will work as expected. That means that companies adopting this new tech won’t alienate their existing customers.

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Adam Rodriguez, a Product Manager at Google has stated that, “We at Google are very committed to the USB Type-C spec. Expect to see this in a lot of Chromebooks and Android phones in the near future.” It is worth noting is that the Type-C connector can be built into devices that don’t yet support USB 3.1. For example, this means that low- and mid-range phones can adopt the new connector without actually having to support the new USB standard. That is good for making the transition easier, however it could cause some confusion when the port doesn’t run as fast as expected.

Bottom-line, Type-C (and USB 3.1) takes everything we love about USB and makes it even better, eliminating pain points like figuring out which end goes where, and providing a universal size that will work well with both mobiles and desktop-class devices.

  • bob

    apple invented usb type-c. at least gruber says so

    it makes sense, no other manufacturers care about connectors

    • Morton Sprawl

      No. If Apple had their way, we’d all be using Thunderbolt, and paying Apple for it. Paying lots!
      USB 3.1-type-C comes more from a consortium that included a few PC makers. I’m not even sure Apple contributed at all, but they can see the writing on the wall and know that USB 3.1, while not being quite as fast as their latest specification, will ultimately be more widely adopted, and if nothing else, Apple is an early adopter. Remember when they removed floppy drives?

      • mrochester

        I believe Apple are the largest contributing partner of the consortium.

      • John Smythe

        Let’s not forget that as much as Apple would like to keep pushing their pricey proprietary cables, they’ve passed a law in Europe banning that practice for things like smartphones so apple basically has to use USB C in the products it sells there if they want to keep their ecosystem uniform and their devices compatible with one another.

      • MattEgansHairLine

        Yes, I remeber when they removed floppy drives, how long did it take windows to catch up?

        Thunderbolt is for work, usb for home and toys, any graphics designer/editor/audio engineer/photographer will tell you that.

        Not all of us work on files smaller than 1.3mb.

    • MasterMuffin

      Sounds like complete BS with zero proof :)

      • ed

        That’s because it is.

      • bob

        http://thetechblock.com/john-gruber-ive-heard-that-usb-c-is-an-apple-invention/

        think about it. who else could do it? hp? lenovo? samsung? highly unlikely

        • MasterMuffin

          Can’t think of anyone who could’ve done it? → Apple. >_<

        • ed

          Apple does not open source hardware that they make. End of discussion.

        • jan

          when the invint the stuped thing like slide to open the scream why would not they do that

    • Shaiju Bhaskar

      Apple fans will believe any apple rumor.
      Read the article below and use your own brain.
      http://betanews.com/2015/03/16/no-john-gruber-apple-did-not-basically-invent-usb-c/

  • Panders

    Autoplaying videos are EVIL!
    I thought we all learned that from the MySpace-days. But now everybody is doing it again? Why?

  • dkbnyc

    Please stop this autoplay video crap! i usually sneak a look at this site at work. I don’t need everyone in the darn office to know it!

    • 5URV1V0R

      Lool, very true. A needless akward moment :-)

    • elmer

      flashblock.

    • Ray

      Yep, just happened to me as well. Getting sick of the auto-play videos. :( :(

    • primalxconvoy

      Change your user agent to “android” and/or view the mobile version on your pc. That might help.

    • Avenson

      Autoplay was off to me by default :D

    • Trevor Moffatt

      haha, yeah man, I have my Mac on mute permanently. Keeping things on the down low. I suddenly love video clips that have subtitles lol.

  • MasterMuffin

    No mention of Nokia N1 with its usb c? I don’t think you did any MWC coverage of it either. Y U hating :/

    • José A. Medina

      and i’m still here…waiting for someone to review the Nokia N1,

  • JaggedXJ

    USB 3.0 = USB 3.1 gen1. Where you discuss faster than USB 3.0 stuff you are referring to USB 3.1 gen2. Don’t blame the messenger!

  • ed

    It should be noted that the Pixel and Macbook do not have three proper controller to utilize the full speed of USB 3.1 at 10gb/s. They only support speeds up to 5gb/s. Intel has not released boards that support full USB 3.1

  • primalxconvoy

    Will this allow mobile devices to truly connect to a (tv) AND usb hub/devices at the SAME TIME, without the need to use a 99 dollar, externally powered hub (like the galaxy smart dock)?

    I really hope so, and hope this becomes cheap and popular.

  • RichHomieGuan

    type-c is the future, it’s about damn time for something like to happen to android like the lightning cable that Apple has… design is supposed to make our lives easier, who the hell designed the USB cables in the first place lol

  • Rooney-

    Stop this auto play guys!

  • On a Clear Day

    Finally they got smart and fixed the free, “now we will waste their time by making them make the mistake of plugging it in he wrong way” feature. You really have to wonder if anyone with even a modicum of practical, real world thinking was involved in the old design, obviously not given the inherent fault is obvious the first time you ever use a USB plug.

  • Choda Boy

    I change Autoplay to Off, but when I refresh the page, it turns back on. WTF?

  • Great video, and well explained. Never been a fan of autoplay though