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What is USB-C and What Does It Mean For the Future?

Updated on July 30, 2015

Within a few years’ time, this will be the new face of USB ports on all devices:

If you are technologically untrendy like me, then you should just now be learning about USB-C. Although the capability has existed for some years, the mechanical architecture is just now being implemented and released into the real world where humans like us can use it. Let’s go over what USB-C is, what the features are, and a few tidbits that I have uncovered (having laid hands and eyes on a USB-C just the other day.)

What is USB-C?

USB has two distinct categories: Type and Version. “Type” refers to the shape of the USB connector while “Version” refers to the speed and ability of the configuration. USB-C is really just the type of USB connector. USB-A (first called ‘The Great USB’ or ‘The USB to end all USBs’) is the rectangular-shaped plug and port that most everybody is accustomed to from their desktop PC days. Now most users probably just know USB-A as the thing that they shove into the wall to charge their smartphone. It was the first USB connector, concocted by somebody with a vendetta against serial cables (just hazarding a guess,) and transmitted data at a pretty good rate of speed for the time. Its size and ease-of-use made it the preferred choice of literally everybody without some monetary interest in Cold-War era technology.

USB, however, requires a ‘host’ and a ‘device.’ That is why you cannot connect a PC to a PC with USB (or can you?) This is also used as a measure to prevent guess-and-check types of people (myself, included) from plugging host into host and shorting out power supplies. So, in order to help protect every person who has ever touched a USB cable, USB-B type connectors were created. These quickly and conveniently cleared any confusion for the user by making trapezoidal shapes that could not possibly be shoved into the rectangular ports of the host devices. USB-A went into the host and USB-B went into the device. A few other combinations existed but the general standard was as such.

Everything was going well in the world of USB with this configuration. The USB version was USB 2.0, offering data at a rate of 480 Mbit/s, more than enough for most consumers. The public had become acclimated to the use of USB-A and B type connectors. Paradise had arrived.

Then Apple ruined everything. The “Lightning” connector came about and whole communities took their USB cables to the town square and burned them en masse. The Lightning connector, although it still plugged into a USB-A type receptacle on the opposing end, did offer one major fix. As opposed to microUSB connectors which, without fail you ALWAYS first try to plug in upside-down and have to flip, Apple lightning connectors were able to be plugged into the device either way. There was no ‘up’ or ‘down,’ no ‘face’ or ‘back.’ A blind squirrel could plug in a lightning connector . . . that is, so long as the squirrel was an Apple advocate and did not chew through the wire first.

Then, in 2011, Intel came out with Thunderbolt. This increased the data transfer speed to levels beyond the fullest capability of USB cables at 10 Gbit/s. A Gbit is so unheard of, Microsoft Word is even telling me that it isn’t an actual word! USB, the mysterious entity made up of some secret society, responded with USB 3.1. The issue was that none of the USB designs, neither USB-A or USB-B, could support this data transfer speed.

And so, with the advent of numerous technologies named after thunderstorms, a decision was made. A new USB architecture would be developed that could support higher data speeds while making life easier for lazy people. That USB design would be called USB-C.

What’s Different about USB-C?

USB-C is different in several ways. Only a few people will care about many of the changes. Many people will care about only a few of the changes. Let’s break it down:

1) It’s Reversible! Just like your favorite sweater or your kids’ bed sheets. It can be plugged into a device up or down because there is no ‘right-side-up.’ For almost everyone, this is the key difference. This new usability is made possible by an insane configuration of 24 pins (previously only 5,) consisting of 12 pins mirrored on each side. To visually represent this, here is the pinout courtesy of arstechnica.com:

2) It’s Even MORE Reversible! Although it can be inserted into a machine any which way, USB-C will be able to plug into any device, regardless of whether or not it is a host or device.

3) The Power Capabilities. Up to 100W of power can be delivered with USB-C, which is, you know, just slightly above the 2.5W available previously. As it stands, USB-A and USB-B (with Version USB 2.0 or 3.0) could only charge handheld devices and tablets. Often, these USB connectors were used only for data transmission. With USB-C that is no longer the case. Apple is already unveiling a MacBook that can be powered by USB-C. In the future, laptops, like tablets and handheld devices, will have a single port for power input / data transfer / and device connection.

4) The Speed. As mentioned, USB-C will be able to utilize the 10 Gbit/s offering of USB 3.1. As devices become faster and faster, processing at untold speeds, USB-C will allow for this quick communication.

A Magnified Image I took of a USB-C cable. Look at all of those pins!
A Magnified Image I took of a USB-C cable. Look at all of those pins!

5) The Shape and Size. USB-C is the same size as microUSB connectors and ports that currently are floating around in the market (for example – on every single phone you can find . . . anywhere.) Because manufacturers want to utilize this one USB-C port for power / communications, this allows for even more compact size on larger products. In addition to the “rounded-rectangle” shape of the USB-C ends, the tangs that were previously sticking out of microUSB connectors are removed so insertion feels smoother than before.

In case you're an audible learner, here is a guy who says pretty much the same thing and gives some additional details:

. . . and just so it is made clear, with an adapter, USB-C is backwards compatible. Therefore if you buy a new product and it happens to have a microUSB-C port on it, don't get frantic - it just means you have to shell out an additional twenty bucks if you want it to work with a host machine that has a dozen USB-A ports on each side.

 
USB-A / USB-B
USB-C
Reversible
No
Yes
Number of Pins
5
24
Available Power
2.5W (USB 2.0)
Up to 100W (USB 3.1)
Speed
480 Mbit/S (USB 2.0)
10 Gbit/S (USB 3.1)

First USB-C Devices to Market

There are always companies willing to take a gamble on new technology and implement it into their 'fashionable fall line-up' of devices. Apple, for all of the love and grief they receive, has opened up to USB-C technology and has employed it in their 2015 MacBook (so to reiterate, this is NOT an Apple proprietary feature but is their adoption of an emerging standard.) But, even with their openness to something un-Apple, they weren't the first to jump on the USB-C bandwagon! No, instead, congratulations are in order for . . .

Drumroll, please . . .

Wait for it . . .

Nokia!

Nokia N1 Tablet with microUSB-C port.
Nokia N1 Tablet with microUSB-C port.

Nokia released their N1 tablet which utilizes the first USB-C port. Limited reviews have been positive and I even had a chance to play with one. It should be noted that though USB-C was instituted with this device, the Nokia N1 still runs at USB 2.0 speeds and utilizes the port as if it were a microUSB connection (for charging power, data lines must be shorted – otherwise the charge current will be limited to the ~475mA default . . . which might not even charge the tablet.) Though this was the first commercial use of the USB Type-C, it is hardly a resemblance of that which USB-C is capable. To the credit of the new USB type (and Nokia,) the connection really is smooth. Likewise, now that I don’t have to fret about mating the device to the cable just right, the overall experience has been much better (as though it were some unbearable life burden before, right?)

The Nokia N1 tablet is only available in Asian regions so the U.S. market will just have to weep on top of their USB-C-powered MacBooks.

In addition to the Nokia N1 tablet, other Asian smartphones have led the way in applying USB-C, as well, such as One+ Two and LeTV X600. If you’ve never heard of these companies, you’re not alone. In fact, LeTV is so low key, I’m sure most Asians haven’t even heard of it . . . but maybe all of that will change now that they’ve employed USB-C! Probably not.

It will take a few years but I would expect nearly every device to be tooled with USB-C. Because USB-C is backwards compatible, adapters will likely be made so that you can still connect to that Windows XP machine that you refuse to let go (my wife threatens to throw it away once every other month.) What will be really cool is when devices begin to use the higher transfer speeds and power capabilities of the cables. We are embarking on an easier way of living with USB-C, though it may not feel like much of a change at the moment.

Some inventions are made to innovate. Others are made for convenience. USB-C is more of the latter but just as important. You won’t see television ads for it and the history books won’t dedicate a page to it . . . but in the middle of the night, when you go to plug in your phone, you’ll be thankful for that reversible port. You might even tell your grandchildren about how awful microUSB-B connections were, kind of like how my kids will never understand how terrible it was fast-forwarding fifty minutes through a Jurassic Park VHS tape just to see the T-Rex. Oh, we never forget how awful we had it.

Rest in Peace, USB-B . . . and until wireless charging comes with every gadget, long live USB-C.

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    • sunilkunnoth2012 profile image

      Sunil Kumar Kunnoth 22 months ago from Calicut (Kozhikode, South India)

      Interesting and informative. Hence shared. Keep on writing such useful stuff.

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