USB Type-C Explained: What it is and What it Can Do

Every few years a new kind of technology is developed which sets tech writers/analysts into overdrive, explaining what it’s all about and non-tech people scrambling to sites (like ours!) to understand what it really means. And even though USB Type-C isn’t exactly yesterday’s news, we’d still like to explore this more in detail now that we’re finally seeing more products with that reversible connector port.

The existing confusion of USB
Existing confusion of USB and propriety ports and connectors | Shutterstock

A Quick History of USB

The 2 original names for Universal Serial Bus connectors were A and B, with male and female type connectors for each. Female A connectors were designed for computers, the ones that controlled the transfer of data over the USB connection. On the other hand, the Female B receptacles were designed for upstream of data.

The original USB connectors did propel the technology to a much larger audience over the years, but it did have its limitations. For one, they were pretty large and yet fragile. What’s more they were designed to provide power only till 100mA and the speeds at which they operated (12Mbps) quickly became obsolete. To compound the issues further and in particular with USB Type A, the instructions to insert weren’t clear and the connector used to go in only one way.

Many of these issues have been fixed over the years, with USB 2.0 dramatically increasing speeds when it was launched. Without any visible connectors or cables, mini and micro versions of the Type-B connector were developed to be more durable and compact for devices that fit in your pocket.

Evolution of USB connectors |Shutterstock
Evolution of USB connectors | Shutterstock

Recently, backwards compatible USB 3.0 connector brought about the upgrade to the Type-A and Type-B and Type-B micro connectors by adding physical pins to dramatically improve speed and power delivery. This has kept USB competitive with newer standards in the market like eSATA and Thunderbolt.

But, can this be improved on even further? Apple sure thought so, when they developed their lightning connector, which is small and very durable. And, it’s reversible.

This got a lot of people to ask the all-important question that was on everyone’s mind – “Why can’t USB be reversible too?”

And that’s how USB Type-C was born. (Obviously, I’ve over-simplified a lot.)

USB Type-C (or USB 3.1) is reversible
USB Type-C (or USB 3.1) is reversible | Shutterstock

New Design

Of course, the Type-C is completely redesigned to incorporate that reversible connector. What’s more, it’s bi-directional. Which means any end can fit your smartphone and your laptop, without you ever worrying about what goes where. This design is so made, that it also makes the connector more durable with a quoted 10,000 cycle rating, so you can keep using the same cable between all your devices without worrying about it going bust. But that’s not all. It’s got more.

  • Double the speed of USB 3.0 – up to 10GB/s.
  • Up to a 100W of power, so that you can power a monitor, or charge your laptop off of it.
USB Type-C Key Points
USB Type-C in a Glance | Shutterstock

Of course, more than anything, the new design gives a much needed relief to users who needed different type of cables for different devices. A mini USB cable for an external drive, a micro USB cable for Android phones and full-sized USB cable for other accessories. But, this is still in the future. In the meanwhile, we’re going to see a surge of dongles being sold, like the USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter being sold on Apple’s website for $79 right now.

Note: If you wish to know solutions for common USB problems, then we have you covered.

How Will it Perform?

This is the biggest question in most people’s mind. And rather than eloquently praising the much better performance of the new connector and the technology, why not look at a chart with quick understandable information on it, as shown below.

Top SpeedPower directionCable configurationMax power outputAvailability
USB 1.112MbpsHost to peripheralType-A to Type-B2.5V, 500mA1998
USB 2.0480MbpsHost to peripheralType-A to Type-B2.5V, 1.8A2000
USB 3.05GbpsHost to peripheralType-A to Type-B5V, 1.8A2008
USB 3.110GbpsBi-directionalType-C both ends, reversible plug orientation20V, 5A2015

It’s clear that USB Type-C (or USB 3.1) is far ahead of the previous generation USB ports and connectors, in terms of performance. But, that’s not all. It has loads of functionality too. Take the example of the new Macbook that was released by Apple. It has only one USB Type-C port. Which might not seem adequate. At all. But, that one port can do all the following –

    • Charging
    • USB 3.1 Gen 1 (up to 5 Gbps)
    • Native DisplayPort 1.2 video output
    • VGA output using USB-C VGA Multiport Adapter
    • HDMI video output using USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter
The New Macbooks with USB Type-C port
The New Macbooks with USB Type-C port

Apple may have lost a trick by adding just one USB Type-C port on their new Macbook, especially considering the same port will be used for charging as well as connecting any other accessory to it. But, when has that affected any sales figures of Apple products? Anyway, Nokia has also implemented the new port in their N1 tablet. And OnePlus has also confirmed that the successor to the OnePlus One will also have a Type-C connector.

Helpful Tip: Go through our Definitive Guide To Connecting PC/Laptop to TV/HDTV/LCD to know how to optimize connections for USB peripherals

Is This the Future?

Besides Apple, who are hellbent on working on their Thunderbolt ports for their computing offerings, pretty much everyone else will move to USB Type-C in the near future. Not just the advantages of the ease of use and performance, but also because most major players love USB. And so do users.

Although Apple might ditch their lightning port for the Type-C for their iPhones, even though Thunderbolt 2 (with four times the data carrying capacity compared to USB Type-C) will be retained for their Mac line of products.

No more USB jokes, then? Maybe, it’s all for the better.

Chaitanya Tapase

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