Everything You Need to Know about USB-C

What is USB-C?

USB is, by far, the most important and widespread connection type in electronics today. We use USB ports and cables to connect peripherals—such as keyboards and printers—to charge our phones, and to transfer data to memory sticks or hard drives. Despite the fact that USB is meant to be a universal connection, USB connections have varied widely in the past. This is where USB-C comes in.


In the past, the two ends of the connection have often been different. That is, one end of the connection would be USB while the other would vary. For this reason, different devices required different cables. The new USC-C connection type, however, promises to do away with the need for all of these cables. USB-C connections are the same at both ends. In addition to this, unlike older USB connection types, USB-C connections are not asymmetrical. This means that you no longer have to plug cables in right side up.


To better understand USB-C connections, it helps to take a walk down memory lane and look at past connection types.


USB Types: USB-A, USB-B, and USB-C

In the past, USB connections have had two different ends. The classic rectangular USB plugs we’ve become accustomed to are Type-A connections. These are typically used at the host end of the connection, which is why computers are usually equipped with several USB ports. USB-A connections have changed over the years, incorporating different standards that allowed faster speeds. More on the standards later, but despite these variations, USB-A connections remained compatible across standards.


The other end of a USB cable used a USB-B connection. This end of the connection, the client end, varies widely. The first USB-B connections we saw were tall squares with sloping corners at the top. These connectors are common on printers. There are also a variety of other USB-B connections, such as miniUSB and microUSB, common on smartphones, tablets, and e-readers.


So, what we’re used to seeing when it comes to USB connections is two different connectors on each end: one standard USB-A and one USB-B, which can vary across devices.


This brings us to USB-C, a connector that promises to put an end to all this confusion. As I mentioned earlier, USB-C connections are the same on both ends. This means you can use the same cable to connect a wide variety of devices to each other.


USB Standards: 1.1, 2.0, 3.0, and 3.1

When talking about USBs, you might’ve heard of USB 1.1, 2.0, 3.0, and 3.1. So where do these numbers come in? These refer to the USB standard and define the maximum speed and power of the connection. In short, they have nothing to do with the physical appearance and compatibility of the connection. Instead they determine how much information can be passed and at what speed. I won’t get too far into the speeds and feeds here but the newer the version, the faster and more powerful the connection.


Why You Need USB-C

Now that we’ve looked at USB types and standards, we can look at why you might want to adopt USB-C.


In addition to being reversible, USB-C provides faster speeds and power, building on the USB 3.1 standard. Earlier this year, Intel also announced that its new Thunderbolt 3 ports would use the USB-C connectors. Thunderbolt provides even faster speeds and more power than USB 3.1. In fact, Thunderbolt 3 makes it possible to power a laptop or other device.


Thanks to this increased power and speed, USB-C ports can not only accommodate a variety of devices, but can be used to plug in power cords as well. In fact, Apple has already implemented USB-C on its new MacBook. Aside from the headphone jack, this is the only port on the new MacBook and is used to connect other devices and to connect the computer’s power cord.


USB-C Considerations

Although USB-C is poised to replace other connection types, there are still some things to consider. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that a USB-C cable cannot deliver the power and speeds you might like to see on its own. After all, the cable is just a conduit. To get power delivery and the maximum performance, the port itself must be equipped with these functions. For this reason, it’s important to do your research and speak to sales associates when purchasing new devices, to ensure you’re clear on the functionality and performance you can expect from your USB-C connected devices.

By Mike Agerbo

February 16, 2016