The Ultimate Guide to USB Type-C
You may not have given much thought to the cables and connectors that you use to charge and transfer data between your devices, but you’ve probably noticed a new type of port in the most recent models of phones and laptops: An oval-shaped connector that can be plugged no matter which way it’s turned. That rounded connector is the USB Type-CTM, more commonly referred to as USB-C.
This new connector is taking the electronics world by storm, and its benefits are making other port types obsolete. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about USB-C and why you should consider this connection type for your devices and smart home.
What Is USB-C?
The USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) sets the standard in USB technology. All certified USB Type-C cables and chargers comply with with the standard in speed of transfers, as well as shape and size of the connector. USB Type-A, B, and C can easily be identified by the shape of their connectors. USB-C has an elongated oval shape that’s symmetrically rounded on both ends (like a racetrack).
USB-C provides higher transfer rates, more power and a reversible connector. It is capable of multiple functions simultaneously, such as transferring data, providing display and delivering power — all at high speed. Now with the USB3.x standard (SuperSpeed and SuperSpeed Plus), even tech giants such as Apple and Google are on board with this connector.
Power Delivery is another impressive advancement developed for devices with USB-C connectors. It eliminates fixed power direction, allowing devices to charge each other, and also ensures your devices never get overcharged.
The Benefits of USB Type-C
There are many ways USB-C is superior to its predecessors, but they can be boiled down to three main advantages:
1. Simple Symmetry
One USB-C feature that’s hard to beat is the reversible plug. Most people have had at least one irritating experience trying to plug in a Micro-USB cable. If you’ve experienced fumbling to plug in your phone at night, then you’ll appreciate not needing to flip a USB-C around to find the correct alignment. It may seem like a small feature to have symmetrical ends to the connector, but it points to the intentionally convenient design behind USB-C.
The Type-C design also allows the same connector to be used on the host or receiving end of the connection between two devices. Traditionally, Type-A connectors plug into the host while the other side of the cable is a Type-B connector that plugs into the receiving device. For instance, the Type-A side of your printer cable goes to the PC and the Type-B end is inserted into the printer itself. With a USB-C cable, it doesn’t matter which end goes where. This eliminates the need for different types of connectors for different types of devices.
2. Multitasking and Speed
The biggest performance advantage of USB Type-C is the transferring capabilities of the USB 3.x, up to 10 and 20 Gigabits/s (USB 3.2 as of September 2017). With two unidirectional data paths instead of one, it is capable of simultaneously transmitting and receiving data as well as transferring display from a device (such as a laptop) to a desktop monitor. It is a true full duplex with complete bidirectional bandwidth.
USB-C is as close as it gets to being a one-size-fits-all connector. It supports a variety of video and audio modes, which means it may become a complete replacement for the classic 3.5 mm headphone jack as well as the HDMI cable. Video formats include DisplayPort, superMHL and HDMI, which are enabled through Alternate Mode. Rather than having a variety of dedicated ports, devices can just use USB-C instead, as long as the ports of the connected devices support the same Alternate Mode.
For example, when you plug a docking station into a laptop with a USB-C cable, that single USB cable is providing video to the monitor, audio to the speakers, internet or network connectivity, data transfer to the connected USB flash drive, communication with the connected printer, mouse, and keyboard, and anything else that can connect to that station.
Another example is when you plug your smartphone or tablet into the laptop. You can simultaneously charge your phone, project a video onto the laptop, and transfer your vacation photos onto the hard drive.
3. More Power, Faster Charge
As technology advances, the size of components shrinks while their capabilities grow. One of these is faster charging ability. The newest specifications contain several different power profiles meant to streamline power output for a variety of applications. The lowest output, delivering 10W at 5 V/2 A, is what you would use to charge small mobile devices like your phone.
For Type-A, Type-B and Micro-USB connectors, the maximum power transfer rate is 5 V at 2.4 A. With USB Type-C, you can get up to 20 V at 5 A. This means the highest output is an astonishing 100W, which is enough to power and charge much more energy-intensive devices faster than before.
Power Delivery (USB PD) is a technology that provides more flexible power output and data with just one cable. With USB PD, the direction of power is no longer fixed, which means either the host or the peripheral can provide power. It also optimizes power management so each device gets what it needs.
USB Connector Types and Shapes
To understand why USB-C is such an advancement over previous iterations, it helps to know the history of the technology. Although the term USB is deeply ingrained into everyday life, not everyone knows it stands for “Universal Serial Bus.” In the ’90s, computer manufacturers were scrambling to differentiate themselves in their developing field by frequently putting out new systems with new cable connections. It quickly became apparent that PCs needed a universal standard for connectors to ensure better mixing and matching for consumers.
The first USB connectors were huge, which didn’t matter because we were still in the days of chunky monitors and massive desktop towers. Since then, USB connectors have evolved to fit the form factors of shrinking devices, including the ultra-thin smartphones we use today.
Let’s examine the other connector types to get a better understanding of what USB-C is meant to replace:
USB-A are the original USB plugs you find on devices like wired mice and keyboards. The rectangular plug is instantly recognizable, as it was the original design and is still a popular choice for the host end of many USB cables. Over time, design changes allowed the Type-A connector to keep up with the demands of today’s technology. For instance, it now has more pins to facilitate faster transfer speeds outlined in the USB 3.0 standard.
Even so, the connector’s basic design has remained unchanged. This has been helpful in maintaining compatibility, since all USB-A connectors and sockets can work together even if they don’t use matching USB standard versions.
A few variations of the USB Type-A have been introduced over the years, including the Mini and Micro. However, the appeal of USB-A is having the same type of socket on every host device, so the variations lost traction and never became popular.
You don’t usually see cables with Type-A to Type-A connections. Instead, the receiving end of a USB cable usually uses a Type-B connector. The USB Type-B connector has a square shape that is rounded or has a square bump-out on top. They’re usually used on bigger devices like printers.
Like the Type-A connector, Type-B plugs have undergone some improvements to make them compatible with the USB 3.0 standard. Unlike the Type-A, Type-B connectors are now a different shape than their original design. The new USB 3.0 Type-B connectors don’t fit into previous receptacles. But, previous Type-B plugs can fit with the new version of the Type-B receptacles.
Essentially, older plugs can be used with new USB 3.0 Type-B receptacles, but the new plugs are not compatible with the older receptacles.
Mini and Micro-USB
Mini connectors were the first major update to bring USB into the mainstream. Recognizing that devices were only going to keep shrinking, the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) helped outline standards for the Mini-USB connector, which was used in everything from PDAs to cameras. These plugs are based on the B-Type connector.
The most recent improvement on the Mini-USB came in 2007, when the USB-IF announced the Micro-USB connector as part of its guidelines on USB 2.0. The Micro connector was the most common for the decade after its introduction, appearing in nearly every smartphone or other small electronic device. It has a rectangular shape but two of the corners on one of the longer edges are beveled.
The connector is about half the size of the Mini but has a higher maximum charging rate. Notably, the Micro connection is also rated for 10,000 or more cycles of connecting and disconnecting, making it significantly more durable than the Mini-USB, which is only rated for 5,000.
Micro-USB was not able to keep up with the increased speed of USB 3.0, so a new Micro-B connector with an extra five pins was created to fill the gap.
Now that the connector types are out of the way, let’s examine USB standards. The USB-IF mentioned earlier is a non-profit corporation founded by the companies that initially created USB technologies, with the intention of developing and maintaining an industry standard. Some of the big-name member companies include Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and Intel.
The USB-IF also has a compliance program to ensure the standard is being upheld, as well as ensure that USB connectors and cables are appropriately compatible between devices.
To date, there have been four main updates to the USB standards:
The very first iteration of USB, 1.0, was introduced in 1996. At the time, very few devices were capable of utilizing it. In 1998, the USB-IF released USB 1.1 with minor updates to the original. This version was adopted much quicker and more widely, making it the first significant update.
USB 1.1 had two options for data transfer rates: Low Speed at 1.5 Mbps or Full Speed at 12 Mbps. Though these speeds seem comically slow by today’s standards, they were revolutionary at the time. This version of USB didn’t have the ability to support pass-through monitors or extension cables, and didn’t have any options for connectors smaller than standard A or B types.
Released in 2000, USB 2.0 greatly increased the speeds at which data could be transmitted between devices. In addition to the 12 Mbps offered by USB 1.1, USB 2.0 increased speeds to 480 Mbps or 60 MB per second. It was the perfect match for storage devices, including external hard drives as well as the familiar USB flash drive.
USB 2.0 was transformative for the media industry, making optical media increasingly obsolete. One flash drive can hold hundreds of songs or a shelf full of DVDs with barely any footprint, which helped drive the shift from hard copies of everything to digital media libraries.
External components were also made possible by the increased speed of USB 2.0. In the past, if a part like your Wi-Fi adapter went out, you would have to replace it internally. With the rise of USB 2.0, you can just plug in a new adapter and go on with your business. Optical drives and Ethernet ports are other examples of components that used to only come installed with your PC.
USB 2.0 also addressed the need for smaller connectors. Whereas USB 1.1 only allowed for standard A and B connector types, the new version coincided with the release of Mini and Micro-B connectors.
USB 3.0 was designed in 2008 and offered a spectacular jump in transfer speeds up to 5 Gbit per second. This update also boosted bus power, up to 900 mA. USB 3.0 was a game-changer for things like system backups and working with huge media files. It’s even possible to run an operating system on an external hard drive with a USB 3.0 connection.
There are now three versions of USB 3 that offer different connection speeds, and USB-IF has made some fairly confusing changes to the way they are named. They changed the naming structure in 2013 and again in early 2019. Here are the current connection speeds of USB 3 and what they have been called in the past:
- 5 Gbit Per Second: This was the original USB 3.0, although USB-IF changed it to USB 3.1 Gen 1 in 2013. The new term for this connection speed is USB 3.2 Gen 1.
- 10 Gbit Per Second: Originally called USB 3.1, this version later became USB 3.1 Gen 2 and is now called USB 3.2 Gen 2.
- 20 Gbit Per Second: This blazing-fast version wasn’t around when this generation of USB arrived or when it was renamed. It’s commonly known as USB 3.2, although its official title is USB 3.2 Gen 2×2.
The naming conventions implemented by the USB-IF can be confusing even to those familiar with the industry. Luckily, the only substantial difference between the iterations is speed, so you don’t need to worry too much about differentiating between them. The USB-IF recommends marketing terms for the versions that are based on speed, so instead of asking for a USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 cable, you can just ask for one compatible with SuperSpeed USB 20 Gbps Per Second.
USB 3-compatible cables are also visually distinct due to the blue lining inside the connector.
USB-C vs. Thunderbolt 3
USB-C shares the same reversible port with Thunderbolt 3, which can lead to some confusion. Even though the ports are identical, the protocols behind them are quite different. Thunderbolt 3 has some extra bells and whistles that set it apart.
The main difference between USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 is backwards compatibility. USB-C cables and accessories will work fine when plugged into a Thunderbolt 3 port, but USB-C ports will not work with Thunderbolt 3 peripherals.
Thunderbolt 3 has a maximum transfer rate of 40 Gbit per second and is built on PCI Express (PCIe) and Mini DisplayPort. PCIe’s multiple lanes allow for high throughput of data, which is how Thunderbolt 3 achieves such high transfer speeds. Unfortunately, since USB-C doesn’t use PCIe, if you plug your Thunderbolt 3 cable into a USB-C port, it won’t work. There’s no PCIe controller in the port for the Thunderbolt 3 accessory to work with.
On the bright side, you can use a USB-C cable and device with a Thunderbolt 3 port, because Thunderbolt 3 has full USB-C support. If you have a USB-C hard drive, for example, you could use it with any of the available Thunderbolt 3 ports on a MacBook Pro.
The Daisy Chain Advantage
One of the cooler things only Thunderbolt 3 can do is daisy chaining. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s similar to piggy-backing, where you plug subsequent devices into the one before them. For example, if you have two external hard drives, you can plug one into your laptop, then plug the second one into the first and both drives will be visible within the laptop.
Thunderbolt 3 supports up to six peripherals in a single host. You likely don’t have much use for six hard drives at once, but the capability is nothing to sneeze at.
Luckily for users of Thunderbolt 3 devices, Intel released a gap-closing controller in 2018. The Titan Ridge controllers introduced “fallback mode,” which allows accessories with the new controller to fall back on USB-C when plugged into a Type-C port. It’s “falling back” because the device and accessories will only be able to operate as fast as the USB-C port’s version allows.
If you plugged a Thunderbolt 3 device into a USB-C port running USB 2.0 for example, you would be limited to the 60 Mbit per second allowed by the port. You also wouldn’t be able to access any of the other capabilities of Thunderbolt 3, but being able to get basic functionality between the two protocols is an important step in the right direction.
Although the Titan Ridge controllers are undoubtedly useful and a big win for universality, it’s not always easy to find out which devices actually have one. If you’re in the market for a Thunderbolt 3 device that you know you’ll want to use with USB-C ports, be sure to do the research and confirm that the device has the fallback feature.
USB-C and the Modern Home
If you’re considering upgrades to make your home smarter, USB-C wall outlets are an affordable and convenient feature to add. When you want to charge a USB-C device, you don’t want to go hunting for the adapter and move it from room to room — especially when it means having to unplug other devices to make room in the outlet you want to use.
Until recently, the only option was to deal with cumbersome and unsightly power strips. Now you can add two USB charging ports right to the wall with ease. Avoid losing or damaging adapters by plugging your devices right into the wall and enjoy the speed of USB-C charging on a wall outlet.
TOPGREENER’s USB-C wall outlets can replace any ordinary wall outlet without sacrificing your conventional outlets. Still, hanging onto some older USB devices and cables? Our Type-A and Type-C In-Wall USB Charging Outlet feature one of each. TOPGREENER outlets are equipped with Intellichip technology, which delivers optimum power to your devices while shielding them from the dangers of overcharging or overheating.
If you prize charging speed, the Qualcomm-powered Quick Charge 3.0 and USB Type-C Wall Outlet is a worthy investment. With both a Type-A and Type-C port, you can have multiple devices ready to go at a moment’s notice. Like Intellichip, Qualcomm’s Quick Charge protocol combines speed with safety thanks to its overcharging safeguards. We also offer our own Power Delivery outlet as well as plug-in Power Delivery options, so you can get the most out of your devices’ technology.
Go with TOPGREENER
USB-C is the latest and greatest in USB technology, and no smart home is complete without it. Your safety is our priority, so all of our products are UL-listed or ETL-listed. If you have any questions about how to incorporate our USB-C products into your home, feel free to contact us. We have plenty of suggestions on smart home automation and how USB-C fits in.
For your convenience, we also offer a wide variety of products on our TOPGREENER Amazon Store. We invite you to browse all of our home automation products to see how TOPGREENER can make your home a more comfortable place to be.