March 17, 2015
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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.

Gary Sims
Gary has been a tech writer for over a decade and specializes in open source systems. He has a Bachelor's degree in Business Information Systems.He has many years of experience in system design and development as well as system administration, system security and networking protocols. He also knows several programming languages, as he was previously a software engineer for 10 years.
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