What is USB-C? | The benefits and dangers of the impressive new USB standard

The idea behind USB-C is a simple one. You have one type of cable, one type of port, and through them you connect everything you need.

Take a look at pretty much any laptop and you’ll see a range of different ports gracing the sides: USB, HDMI, power connections, and several others. This could soon be a thing of the past though as manufacturers such as Apple, Dell, HP, and Asus rapidly adopt a brand new universal standard, one that offers improved speed, functionality, and convenience. The age of USB-C is upon us and the future is looking very good.

What is USB-C? | One cable, many uses

The idea behind USB-C is a simple one. You have one type of cable, one type of port, and through them you connect everything you need. This means you can use the same lead for hard drives, monitors, audio interfaces, smartphones, tablets, and even for charging your laptop.

At the moment you’ll find that most peripherals plug into your PC via a USB-A connector. These are the rectangular versions that appear on USB flash drives, external keyboards, mice, hard drives, and almost everything else.

At the other end of the cable there will often be a different style of connector, say Micro USB that plugs into most smartphones, Mini USB for other gadgets, Micro USB-B that connects some storage devices, or the squarer USB-B that most printers use. The problem with this arrangement is that it requires you to pack the correct cables at all times, and you can’t guarantee that someone else will have a spare one if yours goes missing. They’re also often darn fiddly.

USB-C looks to simplify this by instilling a single, standard format across all devices, and even the same connector at both ends of the cable.

The slim, oval shaped connector is smaller than previous USB iterations, and is also symmetrical/reversible – much like Apple’s Lightning connector – so the days of flipping over a cable to make it fit into your device (then flipping it back again because by some weird quirk of USB physics it was actually correct the first time) will soon be a distant memory.

In time USB-C looks set to become the single, universal port found on all devices, replacing the USB-A, USB-B, Micro USB, and Mini USB offerings that complicate life at the moment. Every cable will be the same and will fit any device.

Admittedly we’re not quite there yet, as most peripherals on the market still use the older connections, but with Apple releasing its new range fitted solely with USB-C ports, the Asus Zenbook 3 and adopting the same approach, and USB-C ports now a regular feature on many modern laptops and 2-in-1s, momentum is firmly behind the new platform.

What benefits does USB-C offer?

Of course changing the design of a connector and port is hardly a reason to upgrade all your existing peripherals, but that isn’t the only advantage USB-C offers. The new format also supports the very latest USB 3.1 communication protocols, which are faster and more versatile than the earlier versions you’ll find on USB-A style devices.

Faster. When USB 1.0 was introduced back in 1996 it offered a maximum data transfer rate of 12Mbps. USB 2.0 followed in 2000, leaping up to 480Mbps, and that was superseded by USB 3.0 in 2008 which offered a much improved 5Gb/s. USB 3.1 comes in two versions: Gen 1 still delivers 5Gb/s; and Gen 2 doubles that to 10Gb/s.

More powerful. These additional benefits include the ability to provide up to 100W of power to attached devices, easily enough to charge (almost) any laptop, smartphone, or tablet. The new format can deliver 4K resolutions to monitors and carry audio too.

More compact. The smaller size and flexibility of the ports mean they are now the staple fitting on ultra-slim laptops and Android smartphones such as the Google Pixel.

More flexible. This versatile nature opens up a number of a useful real-world scenarios. For instance, a user could plug their USB-C equipped laptop into a powered external display such as LG’s 27-inch 4K 27UD88-W and have the PC charge while simultaneously sending video content. If the monitor had other USB devices attached, say an external drive, then the PC would also be able to access them and transfer files. When it is time to leave the office the laptop can be unplugged, and placed in a bag with the cable – the latter of which could then be used later to connect and charge a smartphone. All this can be done with just one USB-C cable.

Compatible. As you might hope USB-C is also backwards compatible with older generations. So as long as you have an adapter you’ll be able to use your existing USB devices with USB-C. (USB-C specifications don’t allow for dongle adaptors between USB-A & USB-C, as there must be a length of cable between the ends.)

In fact, there’s also an even faster form of USB-C now available that incorporates Thunderbolt 3.0 support into the mix. This means that devices such as the MacBook Pros, Dell’s XPS 13, and the HP Spectre  are capable of speeds up to 40Gb/s – four times that of USB 3.1.

With the increased data transfer rates available users could attach a USB-C cable to the aforementioned Targus Dock410 and run two external displays up to resolutions of 3840 x 2160 by connecting them to the DVI-D and HDMI ports on the dock. As the standard is so new, and  the specifications used by manufacturers varies from device to device, customers will need to confirm that accessories like the Dock410 are compatible with their intended laptop, but a quick call to Targus will bring the assurances they desire.

Reversible. Who doesn’t curse when trying to fit a fiddly Micro USB connector or even the standard USB connector end into a device. Apple’s Lightning connector can fit either way, and now so can USB-C. If you want a non-C reversible option see our .

What are the drawbacks of USB-C?

While USB-C is a brilliant new format that will no doubt become ubiquitous in the near future, at the moment it is still in its infancy and as such there are a few confusions and dangers to be avoided.

First, as USB-C refers to the style of connector rather than the internal specifications this means customers could get a nasty surprise and discover their new device isn’t as fast as they thought it would be. USB-C Gen 1 products use USB 3.0 technology, which has a top speed of 5Gb/s, whereas USB-C Gen 2 supports USB 3.1 which gives you 10GB/s.

Then there’s also the Gen 3 variant that incorporates Thunderbolt 3 (such as those on the new MacBook Pros) and goes up to 40Gb/s. The problem is that each port will look identical, but, as we stated above, manufacturers use different components across their ranges. So, to avoid disappointment potential buyers will need to check the specifications and confirm the speed of the connector before making a purchase.

Cables can also be confusing because while they all look the same there are some variances that affect capabilities. If you want to power a device then you’ll need to ensure that the cable supports USB Power Delivery, and for HDMI, MHL or DisplayPort video you’ll need a USB-C cable with Alternative-Mode functionality. These quirks will no doubt be ironed out going forward as the standards are set in stone, but at the moment buyers need to check details carefully.

The main problem facing USB-C is cheap cables and accessories which can cause physical damage to devices. Google engineer Benson Leung has been on a personal crusade for the past year warning against the dangers of sub-standard cables and how they could potentially destroy products.

The issue is caused by the amount of power that USB-C cables can now carry, which can be dangerous not only to devices but people as well. For the most part you’ll want to avoid cheap, no-brand items from China that you often find on eBay, and instead opt for established, trusted brands.

What is USB-C? | The next big thing

While it’s always tempting to look for the shiny tech that catches the eye, in truth it’s often something simple that proves the most transformative. With USB-C the potential is massive.

A straightforward, unifying solution to the age-old problem of connectivity. Yes, there are a few inevitable bumps in the road ahead – especially regarding the enforcement of standard features – but we hope these will be addressed quickly so that the vision of one cable, one port will soon be realised. Things are about to change and it can’t happen a moment too soon.

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