Meet USB Type-C, The All-In-One Cable Of The Future

In the last week we’ve seen both Apple and Google launch laptops with a new brand of port attached: USB Type-C (or USB-C for short). In the case of the MacBook, in fact, it’s the only port on offer.

See also: How The New Chromebook Pixel Gives The MacBook A Run For Its Money

USB-C normally gets mentioned as a new “reversible” take on the familiar old USB cable—i.e., one you can plug in either way. But there’s way more to USB-C than its reversibility, although we certainly won’t miss the days of trying to jam in a USB plug the wrong way up.


USB Type-C can carry data, power, audio and video

USB-C also faster charging, quicker data transfer and the ability to handle a variety of tasks, from video output to copying files. It’s likely to make the jump to smartphones and tablets in the near future, as well as the next wave of laptop machines.

In short, it’s safe to say you’re going to be seeing more of USB-C—a lot more, given the likelihood that it may simply displace many other cables and connectors. So let’s take a closer look.

Power And Speed


The new MacBook features a solitary port.

Development on USB-C began at the end of 2013, building on top of the latest USB 3.1 technology and the groundwork USB 2.0 had laid before that. From the start, “thinner and sleeker” product designs were the aim of the USB 3.0 Promoter Group behind the standard. (The group is comprised of representatives from HP, Intel, Microsoft, Renesas Electronics and Texas Instruments.)

USB Type-C has the capacity to charge up to 100 watts and 20 volts, which means USB-C can power laptops and monitors as well as phones. That, in turn, means an end to the chunky AC adapter bricks we’re all used to. Charging happens more quickly, and data transfer can be handled at the same time.

For data transmission, 10Gbps is your maximum theoretical transfer rate, double that of USB 3.0 and enough to move a high-definition movie in a single second (until bottlenecks such as your hard drive come into play, at least). The underlying technology isn’t an upgrade in the same way that USB 2.0 to USB 3.0 was—it’s the physical connector that’s the main difference.

By the way, don’t be confused about a second USB update, the move from the USB 3.0 standard to USB 3.1. Think of it this way: USB 3.1 sets the protocols and internal technology standards for computers and phones that make 10Gbps data and 100-watt charging possible; the USB-C plug is effectively the “launch device” for that faster, more powerful technology. USB 3.1 has been around since July 2013, but both it and USB-C will be new to consumer devices.

It’s worth noting, though, that it’s possible for cable makers or hardware vendors to configure USB-C cables for USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 connections. Most USB-C cables should be USB 3.1 ready, but it’s worth looking out for in specs lists.

The 8.4mm by 2.6mm 18-pin connector can be used both ways up, as we’ve already mentioned, and there’s a quoted lifespan of 10,000 cycles (the same as microUSB). Identical connectors are used at both ends of the cable, so not only is there no danger of getting it upside down, you won’t get it the wrong way around, either.

Like Apple’s Lightning connector, USB-C cables contain embedded circuitry that let them work out which way around they are and what’s required of them (power, data or video). Previous versions of USB only used “dumb” cables with no such integrated intelligence.

Plenty of future-proofing has gone into the new USB Type-C standard, so we should be using these types of ports and connectors for many more years to come. Like earlier versions of USB, it’s an open standard, so won’t be restricted to one company or manufacturer.

The USB-C Future


Google has fitted the Pixel with a USB Type-C port on each side.

A thinner, more efficient USB standard means thinner and lighter laptops, as well as smartphones that charge more quickly. As always, it will take time for manufacturers to move over to the new standard, and you might have to put up with an awkward adapter or two—or the odd hybrid device—while the transition is underway.

As the new MacBook and the 2015 Chromebook Pixel prove, USB-C means fewer ports on your computer. That in turn gives rise to more compact hardware designs and fewer cables.

The distinction between large capacity, mains-powered external hard drives and lower capacity, USB-powered ones is going to disappear. Vendors now have the opportunity to make bus-powered “portable” external hard drives of much larger capacities, because USB-C can offer enough power to keep them running smoothly.

And that power can flow both ways—a peripheral device could charge a host device in certain circumstances (e.g., you could use a tablet or a battery pack to power your laptop). We’ll get more flexibility when hooking up our various bits of hardware, and will have to stuff fewer cables away in a drawer somewhere.

Same with data and video. Something playing on your smartphone could show up on your laptop screen, or vice versa. A few years from now, you might well be using one cable to charge your laptop, tablet and smartphone—and to fling video or photos at on your big-screen television.

USB Type-C is going to make cables more versatile and standardized, our mobile devices smaller and able to charge more quickly, and that’s just the start. In a few short years you may wonder how you ever did without it.

Images courtesy of Google and Apple

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