If you charged your phone or laptop today, there’s a decent chance you did so with a USB-C cable. USB-C has been around for a few years, but it’s taken manufacturers and the public a little bit of time to warm up to USB Type C and appreciate its capabilities.
So what is USB Type C, exactly? What is it capable of, who invented it, and where does it go from here? These are your essential USB-C questions, answered.
What Is USB-C and Who Invented It?
Let’s get the basics out of the way so we can get to the meaty portion of the conversation.
USB-C is an I/O (input/output) standard in the Universal Serial Bus (USB) family. You can recognize it by the “C”-shaped edges of the connector. It’s reversible, meaning it’s identical on both sides. There’s a small hollow in the middle of the connector that receives the pins from the host device. The cable itself has 24 pins, situated around the inside of the connector hollow.
The technical specifications of USB-C were finalized in August 2014 and published shortly thereafter by a cross-industry consortium consisting of Intel, Texas Instruments, the USB Working Group (and its constituent members) and, rumor has it, even Apple of California.
The International Electrotechnical Commission officially adopted the USB-C standard in July 2016 under the official designation IEC 62680-1-3. This was an important step for this new standard because IEC is truly worldwide; nearly every country on Earth participates, whether it’s a full national committee (NC) or an affiliate partnership.
Let’s define two key terms before we continue:
- USB: Universal Serial Bus as an industry I/O standard dates back to 1996. It was designed by Intel, IBM, Compaq, Microsoft, Nortel, and others, and is maintained and updated by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF). It’s seen numerous design revisions over the years, some of which required form-factor changes (like USB-C) and some of which required only internal changes (like USB 3.0).
- I/O: Short for “input/output,” I/O refers to methods of maintaining communication between a computer and a peripheral device or the outside world. Monitors and keyboards are good examples of peripherals that require hardware I/O (USB) and/or software I/O (Bluetooth) devices or protocols.
It’s important to note that a device might have a physical USB-C connector without necessarily implementing the latest USB technologies. USB4, released in 2019, is the latest and fastest data-transfer protocol published by USB-IF, and it’s the first to specifically require the USB-C form factor. USB4 replaces USB 3.1 and 3.2.
What Are the Advantages and Capabilities of USB-C?
Here are the best advantages of USB:
- Does everything: Whether you just need to charge your mobile phone or you require high-bitrate transfers for data, audio, video, or all of the above, it can do it all extremely quickly.
- A true cross-industry standard: USB-C can deliver lightning-fast data transfers over a connector little bigger than a micro-USB cable. Its speed and small footprint give it cross-industry appeal for a wide range of equipment.
- Super-fast data transfers: It is the only cable standard that supports the USB4 protocol. USB4 can reach a maximum bitrate of 40 Gigabits per second (5 Gigabytes per second).
- Reversible: If you’re tired of flipping your USB-A cables over again and again before plugging them in correctly, you’re in for a treat. These cables are fully reversible on both ends.
- Perfect for miniaturized devices: USB-C is far less bulky than the more common USB-A that preceded it. This makes it perfect for mobile devices with slim profiles.
What Do I Need to Know About USB Type C Standards?
The first thing to know is that the USB Implementers Forum has developed several “partner” Alternate Modes for USB-C. These provide specialized, task-specific capabilities for I/O, such as networking or high-fidelity video. Here are some of the USB-C Alternate Modes you might see on electronic devices like laptops and A/V equipment:
- MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link)
This can be a problem for consumers like us. For example, Thunderbolt 3 can transfer data at speeds far greater than “vanilla” USB-C is capable of. Your computer and peripheral both need Thunderbolt 3 ports, however, which look just like USB-C ports. And the cable itself must be a Thunderbolt 3 cable and not a USB-C cable.
Telling them apart might be difficult; USB-IF is working with manufacturers and vendors to ensure these Alternate Modes are clearly labeled on devices and cables. Until then, buying USB-C cables for your USB-C-ready devices requires caution. If you want to take advantage of the fastest possible speeds, make sure the equipment you’re purchasing is designed and certified for it.
What Is the Future of USB Type C?
Most major industrial and consumer electronics companies have invested in the USB-C ecosystem to some degree. Google smartphones and Chromebooks have the required ports; so do Samsung phones. Apple hasn’t transitioned iPhone away from the propriety Lightning connector yet, but Macs and iPads both use USB-C exclusively for physical I/O. It can also be difficult to find a USB-C-ready motherboard for a home-built PC.
Where does USB-C go from here? It’s already seen several iterations since the form factor was introduced, including the aforementioned USB 3.1, USB 3.2, and USB4. The world is patiently awaiting a technology industry that uses just one cable to charge laptops, smartphones, headphones, keyboards, mice, and all of our other peripherals. USB-C has a better shot than any other I/O technology of becoming that universal standard. Some governing bodies, like the European Union, are even planning to force the hand of these manufacturers by mandating a common charger standard for smartphones.
The future of USB-C won’t be complete until further standardization, however. USB-C makes it possible to charge just about any device over a USB connection, but charging speeds over USB-C cables are wildly inconsistent due to the patchwork of various manufacturers and standards. For example, your new smartphone might support fast charging over USB-C using Quick Charge, USB Power Delivery, or another standard. But if you don’t have a cable that supports that feature, you’ll get severely throttled charging speeds.
That’s just life right now under USB-C in its current form, and it’s probably why Apple and some others have been dragging their feet on adopting it everywhere. USB-C is a huge step in the right direction toward a more consumer-friendly electronics industry. Right now, it’s just a little bit confusing to know what you’re getting.
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