What Is USB-C?

In case you didn’t think laptops could get even thinner than they already were, manufacturers are finding new ways to make it happen. Apple’s recently announced MacBook Pro at Apple Store update measures just 14.9mm at its thickest point—and we’ve seen some computers that are even thinner, such as the 11.9mm Asus ZenBook 3. This leaves little space for I/O ports like the 7.5mm-tall traditional USB socket. Any connector still needs some vertical clearance internally to connect to the motherboard and the rest of the system, as well as clearance for the physical plug itself. That’s why the USB-C connector, which started appearing regularly in mainstream systems in early 2015, is so important.

It won’t be long until, like previous versions of USB, USB-C is found on all manner of devices from simple external hard drives on up. But there’s a lot more to USB-C than just that. Here are some important facts you should know about it, now that it’s truly poised to go mainstream.

What Is USB-C?

USB-C is the emerging industry-standard connector for transmitting both data and power. The USB-C connector was developed by the USB Implementers Forum, the group of companies that has developed, certified, and shepherded the USB standard. It counts more than 700 companies in its membership, including Apple, Dell, HP, Intel, Microsoft, and Samsung. This is important, because it’s part of why USB-C has been so readily accepted by PC manufacturers. Contrast this with the earlier Apple-promoted (and developed) Lightning and MagSafe connectors, which had limited acceptance beyond Apple products, and, thanks to USB-C, are soon to be completely obsolete.

Is It Like Micro USB?

The USB-C connector looks similar to a micro USB connector at first glance, but it’s slightly thicker to accommodate its best feature: Like Lightning and MagSafe, the USB-C connector has no up or down orientation. As long as the connector is lined up properly, you don’t have to flip the connector to plug it in. The cables also have the same connector on both ends, so you don’t have to figure out which end to plug in, which has not been the case with all the USB cables we’ve been using for the past 20 years.

What’s USB-C’s Relationship to USB 3.1?

The default protocol with the new USB-C connector is USB 3.1, which, at 10Gbps, is theoretically twice as fast as USB 3.0. The minor wrinkle is that USB 3.1 ports can also exist in the original, larger shape; these ports are called USB 3.1 Type-A. But it’s much more common to see USB 3.1 ports with USB-C connectors.

Port Support

USB-C supports sending simultaneous video signals and power streams, which offers an enormous amount of flexibility in terms of what you’re able to do. This means that you can connect to and power a native DisplayPort, MHL, or HDMI device, or connect to almost anything else assuming you have the proper adapter and cables. (See the next section for more on this.) The USB Implementers Forum also recently announced that it’s updating the USB-C spec to include audio, which means the headphone jack could be heading the way of the dodo on computers just as it already is on the Apple iPhone 7.

Thunderbolt 3 Power

Perhaps the most useful protocol that USB-C supports is Thunderbolt 3. This last adds major new features and capabilities, such as 40Gbps bandwidth and reduced power consumption, while being able to move as much as 100 watts of power. A USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3 means a single cable is all you need to power and move a large amount of information (up to and including two 60Hz 4K displays) to and from even a complex device like a computer, something many laptop manufacturers have been quick to take advantage of. The top-of-the-line version of Apple’s 2016 MacBook Pro boasts four of these connectors, which is as many as we’ve seen to date, and gives you more expandability potential than you ever had with earlier versions of USB.

Using Adapters and Cables

USB-C is electrically compatible with older USB 3.0 ports, and, as we discussed above, is completely compatible with USB 3.1 ports. But because of the new style of port, adapters or cables with both of the required plugs are indeed required if you want to connect anything that doesn’t have the small, oval-shaped USB-C plug. Sometimes a laptop you buy will come with these, in other cases you may have to purchase them separately. Apple, for instance, sells a variety of USB cables and adapters for connecting to other technologies such as Lightning ($25 for a 1-meter cable) or Ethernet ($34.95 for an adapter). You can also find a variety of these for PC as well if you browse online retailers. Some even support older or more esoteric protocols, to ensure a device you have from years ago will work on today’s hardware: It was easy to find USB-C–to–DVI adapters, for example, but we also came across one that split to two RS-232 serial connections.

The good news, though, is that if you invest in a couple of normal USB-C cables (they start in the price range of $20 to $30), they will work with anything and everything that supports USB-C. That’s a big step up from the situation of the recent past, where pulling a mini USB cable out of your bag to charge your micro USB–equipped phone was almost as useless as grabbing a Nokia Pop-Port or Sony Ericsson charger.

Do You Need USB-C?

The presence (or absence) of a USB-C port shouldn’t affect your buying decisions. If you buy an ultrathin system, like the new MacBook Pro, the ZenBook 3, or the HP Spectre x360 13-w023dx, it will almost certainly have a USB-C port, which will catapult you into the ecosystem automatically. If you’re more of a lover of desktops, it’s increasingly likely you’ll find the ports there, too; we’ve already begun seeing them on some high-end motherboards. But if support for USB-C from peripheral manufacturers is light overall at the moment, now that Apple’s opened the floodgates, it’s only a matter of time until you see devices everywhere that use it. In a few years, USB ports using the old Type-A style connector will be much harder to find—and who’ll want to put up with their sluggish speeds at that point, anyway?

So even if you don’t need USB-C now—and since even power users probably don’t have much hardware that can fully task it, especially if Thunderbolt 3 is involved—you will before long. We’re only scratching the surface of what USB-C can do, but one thing is certain: The next generation of cross-platform connectors is here, and it’s about to replace the old guard just as the original USB standard replaced Apple Desktop Bus (ADB), FireWire, parallel, PS/2, SCSI, and serial ports on Macs and PCs. USB-C truly is one port to rule them all.

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