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What is USB Type-C?

Published in: 2017-09-11

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?

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.

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

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.

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?

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!

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!