USB-Type C is a new and exciting evolution of input for PCs, mobile devices, and peripherals. It is the latest iteration to the Universal Serial Bus (USB), which has been the standard for connecting to printers, scanners, external drives and flash drives, as well as for connecting to and charging most of our smartphones and tablets.
USB Type-C is smaller than previous versions of USB ports and connectors, it actually seems similar to Micro USB, the standard for charging and connecting most non-Apple smartphones and tablets, but this new standard is far more powerful and versatile.
History of USB
Universal Serial Bus (USB) came to the mainstream market back in 1997 when the first Apple iMac shipped without serial ports but featured only USB ports.
USB was a dramatic departure from serial and parallel ports which were much larger and had all sorts of power and driver requirements which made them hard to standardize. That’s why there were PC compatible printers that wouldn’t work on Macs and vice-versa.
USB changed this by adding cross-functionality as well as a universal standard of connectivity.
The new standard was plug-and-play (mostly no drivers needed) and could be daisy chained to provide connectivity and power simultaneously (i.e. connect your keyboard to your PC, and connect your mouse to your keyboard, all via USB).
The convenience of USB soon made it available on various peripherals and it became the standard of connectivity, especially for portable devices like notebooks and tablets. The biggest feature that USB offered consumers was convenience.
Users didn’t need special adaptors and using a compatible powered USB-hub, one could easily connect a variety of peripherals to a PC and not have to worry about finding extra power outlets since the hub could generate the necessary power for the transfers.
As with most standards, evolution was inevitable. USB 2.0 improved on the length of cable you could use (from 3 metres to 5 metres). Speed was also increased considerably—USB was originally able to handle transfer speeds of 12Mbps but USB 2.0 had a much higher threshold at 480Mbps.
USB 3.0 was a breakthrough for the USB format since it brought faster transfer speeds of up to 625Mbps and, when supported by certain hardware, could push data at 5 Gbit/s. This made it a good option for fast backups, data transfer and even video editing on external hard drives.
While the power and speed of full-sized USB connectors and ports increased, so did miniaturisation and soon Mini USB and MicroUSB ports became the obvious choice for smaller devices that needed to connect or even receive power.
USB Type-C is the latest iteration of the USB standard and seems to merge the portability of microUSB with the superior power and connectivity of USB 3.0.
Looking at the hardware, it is easy to notice the new connector shape that can be used in any orientation much like an iPhone’s reversible Lightning adaptor.
A USB Type-C port, like its predecessors, can handle data transfer as well as power transfer simultaneously.
While USB Type-C was recently introduced in very specialized premium portables like the Google Chromebook Pixel 2 and the new Apple MacBook (2015), there’s a very good chance that it will be adopted by the industry and eventually become the standard of connectivity and even for power. Sandisk has already announced USB Type-C thumbdrives and other manufacturers are expected to follow suit.
Many of us charge our smartphones and tablets with USB 2.0-powered microUSB cables. This can provide up to 2.5 watts of power, which is adequate for smartphones and tablets while notebooks will require more (around 60 watts). USB Type-C can provide this, which means for smaller notebooks like the Pixel and the MacBook, it is likely external batteries using their USB Type-C ports can charge them.
In the case of the Chromebook Pixel and the MacBook, USB Type-C ports have replaced the power port and it is actually the only I/O port on the MacBook catering to power, file transfers, external displays and even Ethernet connectivity via optional (but necessary dongles).
USB Type-C is more a standard of connectivity and not necessarily one of performance. This means that while devices may have USB Type-C ports, they can have USB 2.0 transfer speeds or USB 3.0 transfer speeds depending on the manufacturer. It will take a few years for us to see this standard offer the highest performance and speed across the board.
Benefits and drawbacks
The benefits of adopting USB Type-C across devices is that we now have a viable universal power and transfer standard that can surpass the poorly adopted formats like FireWire, Thunderbolt and even USB 3.0.
For device makers, the smaller footprint of the Type-C connector means even slimmer devices with more room for batteries and the ability to easily add functionality to a device via dongles and external adapters. For consumers, this means they aren’t paying for features or ports they don’t need and can buy a connector if they need to connect to an external display or read SD Cards, or connect to a printer.
Since USB Type-C allows power and charging, this means that we can now carry external battery packs for our tablets, 2-in-1 PCs, or Ultrabooks to charge them much how like many of us are charging our smartphones.
The drawback of USB Type-C is that it is still very new and it will be a bit expensive for early adopters to jump in, but it shouldn’t take too long for this exciting new standard to become commonplace. Also, users who just purchased a new notebook or PC that doesn’t support USB Type-C may feel worried or left out. The good news is that there will likely be affordable adaptors available very soon that should enable backwards compatibility between USB Type-C peripherals and older USB ports.