Home / Opinions / USB-C: Everything you need to know

USB-C: everything you need to know

by

USB C

USB-C still has a way to go before it becomes widely adopted. But many smartphone manufacturers are now looking to the new digital connection not just as a better way to charge a device, but as a means of phasing out the headphone jack on handsets. Here's a closer look at USB-Type C.

If you have an electronic device that plugs into something, the chances are it'll make use of USB. From desktop computers to smartphones, USB memory sticks to laptops, USB is the standard when it comes to connectivity.

The last major update to the ever-evolving USB standard came in 2013 with USB 3.1, and that was accompanied by the introduction of the new USB-C connector. If anything, it could become the default connection standard for even more devices.

Apple's latest MacBook uses a single USB-C socket to not just connect to all its peripherals, but also to provide power. More recently, the HTC 10 and LG G5 have incorporated USB-C into their designs.

But just what makes USB-C better than its predecessors? Let's take a closer look.

BUY NOW: HTC 10 at carphonewarehouse.com for £569

USB-C - it is not a new standard

The first thing to realise about USB-C is that it's not a new USB standard in the same way as USB 1.1, USB 2.0, USB 3.0 or the very latest USB 3.1 are. Those upgrades focus on defining what the connection can do in terms of speed and feature improvements, whereas USB-C is all about the physical connection, like with microUSB and miniUSB.

The crucial difference here, though, is that unlike micro and miniUSB, USB-C is aimed at being a replacement for both ends of the cable. More on this later.

Related: Intel Core M: Everything you need to know

USB Type-C

Thunderbolt 3 will use the USB Type-C connector

USB Type-C received another big boost in the form of Thunderbolt 3. In June 2015, Intel revealed that its latest version of the port would piggyback on the new USB Type-C connector, giving it all the benefits and a new reversible look. It's not all smooth sailing though – as Thunderbolt requires circuitry in the cable itself, it won't be fully interoperable with Type-C.

BUY NOW: LG G5 at carphonewarehouse.co.uk for £499

Related: What is Quick Charge 3.0?

Thunderbolt 3

Thunderbolt is a lot faster – well, four times – than the USB 3.1 standard which Type-C is built upon, which will obviously give plenty of benefit to those who need to transfer lots of big files very quickly.

It's already making its way to phones

OnePlus, the exciting young Chinese smartphone manufacturer, went with USB-C for its second flagship phone, the OnePlus 2, back in mid-2015. Google then implemented it into its latest flagship phones, the Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X, towards the end of the year.

The latter is particularly telling, as Nexus phones typically act as reference designs for other Android manufacturers.

Sure enough, several months into 2016, the LG G5 and the HTC 10 adopted USB Type-C as their primary connector of choice. Pretty soon, it will be unusual to see a decent Android phone released without one.

Indeed, many were surprised when the Samsung Galaxy S7 arrived without USB-C support earlier in the year.

Related: Snapdragon 820 vs 810 vs 808

Nexus 6 21

It could mean the end of the headphone jack

'Intel wants to kill the headphone jack,' read a TrustedReviews news headline from April 27.

The story concerned PC giant Intel's efforts to encourage the industry to abandon the trusty old 3.5mm connector we all use for our headphones. You've probably guessed what the suggested replacement would be. Yep, USB Type-C.

You might wonder what the problem is with the 3.5mm standard, and where it falls short of USB-C. In truth there are several issues.

For one thing, headphones jacks are bulky. A number of Apple patents have popped up describing possible ways to shrink the 3.5mm port, because it has long been seen as a key component that's holding phones back from getting even thinner.

Related: Google I/O 2016 – What to expect

headphone jack

USB-C, by contrast, is helpfully flat. Indeed, Apple's own solution to the whole 3.5mm thing is rumoured to be to ditch the outdated connection for its own USB-C-like Lightning connector from the iPhone 7 onwards.

More importantly, the 3.5mm standard is one of the last remaining analogue connection standards still in use today. It dates back to the 1960s, and it's only useful for doing one thing: transmitting sound. Even then, technology needs to be implemented to deal with the inevitable interference that accompanies it.

Not only is USB-C a digital connection, ensuring a base level of sound quality, but it can multitask too. So, for example, a pair of USB-C headphones could play high quality music whilst simultaneously measuring your heart rate and feeding that information back to your phone.

USB Versions

To better understand what we mean about Type C being a replacement for both ends of the cable, you first need to understand the differences between the existing versions of USB and the various Type-A and Type-B connections.

USB versions refer to the overall standard and they define the maximum speed of the connection, the maximum power and much more besides. They theoretically could be applied to any shape of connector so long as the computer and device are connected up correctly.

USB 1.1

Although USB 1.0 is technically the first version of USB it never really made it to market so USB 1.1 is the first standard we all used. It could deliver data at 12Mbps and maximum current draw of 100mA.

USB 2.0

The second version of USB arrived in April 2000 and it provided a massive boost in maximum data throughput, up to 480Mbps. Power draw was also increased to a maximum of 1.8A at 2.5V.

USB 3.0

USB 3.0 was a big change as it brought new connector types to allow for its extra speed and power draw, with them often coloured blue to denote their prowess. USB 3.0 can run at up to 5Gbps, delivering 5V at 1.8A. It arrived in November 2008.

USB 3.1

The latest and greatest version of USB was released in July 2013, though uptake is still almost non-existent. It can deliver 10Gbps of throughput while up to 2A can be drawn over 5V, and optionally either 5A over 12V (60W) or 20V (100W). This is the reason the new MacBook can be powered just by its USB connection.

USB plug types

USB Type-A

Type-A is the classic USB plug as we have long known it. The chunky rectangular plug was the original design and it remains the standard plug for use at the host end of the USB cable.

Now Type-A has gone through a number of changes to accommodate different versions of USB, with more pins added to allow for the faster speeds of USB 3.0 for instance. However the fundamental design of the plug has remained the same, with the new connections incorporated in such a way that all USB Type-A plugs and sockets are compatible no matter which version of USB they use.

It’s not always the case that whatever you plug in will work, as the newer standards of USB also deliver more power, which may be required by whatever device you’re plugging in, but for the most part they’re completely interchangeable.

There are also some variations of Type-A including Mini Type-A and Micro Type-A but these were never widely adopted due to the complicating nature of having different types of USB socket on host devices. They are now deprecated.

USB Type-B

Although there are some uses for Type-A to Type-A USB cables, typically the other end of a USB cable uses a Type-B connector. This denotes the device attached at this end as being the client and because these types of device can vary so much we see much more variation in plug/socket types used.

The original type-B plug is the odd tall plug with the sloping top corners that you typically find on printers. This was extended for the USB 3.0 standard to include an extra bump for some new connections.

The classic miniUSB and microUSB are also variations of Type-B, along with the clunky microUSB 3.0, which uses a normal microUSB connection with an extra plug that carries more power connections.

Variations on Type-B have been far more widely adopted due to the sheer necessity of having smaller plugs at the client device end. Indeed there are many devices that use entirely proprietary shape Type-B USB sockets, such as many of the odd shape plugs used on older mobile phones.

USB Type-C

USB-C

This brings us to USB-C. Where Type-A and Type-B have had to work within the framework of being backwards compatible, Type-C is intended to replace both and is designed to be small enough to not need any mini or micro variants. The intention is that it will completely replace all types of USB on both host and client devices.

What's more its headline feature is of course that it's reversible. This means you no longer have to get the plug the right way round - or even the cable the right way round - but instead, like Apple's Lightning connection, it'll work whichever direction you try – no more USB superposition.

To enable this USB-C cables actually require circuitry to tell which way round they are and route power and data in the right way, just like on Apple's Lightning connection. This is unlike all existing USB standards which are just 'dumb' cables.

USB-C also builds on the new USB 3.1 standard so to all intents and purposes is the connection type that brings in the new power and speed advantages of USB 3.1.

USB-C is still backwards compatible with existing USB variants, but that of course requires adapters.

Concerns and the future of USB-C

Concerns have been raised about the physical design of USB-C, as the connector seems a little fragile with a hollow plug and a delicate tab in the socket. In contrast, Apple's Lightning uses a sturdy thick metal plug that is far more resilient. We'll have to wait a little longer to see how well Type-C accessories hold up to wear and tear over a year or more.

More pressingly, there's been a lot of worry about the unregulated state of the USB-C standard, which has led to a number of dodgy and just plain dangerous accessories hitting the market. Some, through the use of unsupported voltage levels, have fried the host device.

This has led to drastic measires such as Amazon banning certain USB-C cables from its store – specifically "Any USB-C (or USB Type-C) cable or adapter product that is not compliant with standard specifications issued by 'USB Implementers Forum Inc."

LG G5 23

Google enginner Bensen Leung, meanwhile, has been on a one-man crusade to draw attention to the unregulated state of the fledgling USB-C accessory market.

Fortunately, the USB-IF (the body responsible for regulating the connection standard) has come up with a new protocol that will enable devices to authenticate a connected USB-C device or charger before accepting any charge or data. It remains to be seen how and when this protocol will be rolled out to existing devices, or how many early USB-C accessories will need to be replaced once the protocol becomes standard.

All told, though, USB-C is definitely a major step in the right direction, and we can't wait for more companies to start adopting it. It will mean slimmer devices with fewer ports, more flexibility, better data transfer speeds, and even better sound.

We'd prefer to have more than one on the next MacBook, though, please Apple.

Let us know what you think about USB-C in the comments.

Karl Mitchell

March 10, 2015, 4:08 am

Is there going to be any way to draw current from an old USB charger into a USB-C powered computer?

Rob

March 10, 2015, 12:51 pm

There are two references to Thunderbolt in that story where I think you actually mean Lightning.

Ed

March 10, 2015, 1:52 pm

Oops. Right you are. Correction incoming.

Dani Mukusha

March 10, 2015, 3:17 pm

Am a little surprised that considering the Nokia N1 was the first device to sport type C USB the fact that Apple is conforming with standards is being missed as if they innovated something new.

schriss

March 10, 2015, 5:18 pm

I don't think so because old USB charger outputs too little power to power a computer. I think it maxes out at just 2.1amps at 5V which is what, 10Wats?

David Horn

March 11, 2015, 10:13 am

Why does it need a chip to control polarity etc? It's just taken me 10 seconds to sketch out a cable design that always connects the appropriate pins regardless of how you plug it in.

Dinamite

July 14, 2015, 7:18 pm

The oneplus team is saying no such thing as a invite system... But at the same time they did not say if they would have it or not... for now hope for the best and prepair for the worst...

photo_ted

October 2, 2015, 7:47 pm

Apple is using it on their Macs but heaven forbid that they would give up the easy money they extort in license fees by having a proprietary connector on their iPhones. A pure financial decision with no technical merit. Gotta love Apple's ability to extract a buck from every nook and cranny.

Everlast

February 4, 2016, 12:05 pm

Everything I need to know about USB-C is, that I don't want it !!

If anything, if they are changing the USB standard in a way that's incompatible with older versions (the way USB 1.1, 2 and 3 are) they should've at least made it magnetically attached.

Biggles

February 4, 2016, 4:00 pm

Yet another rehashed report (together with the original comments of a year ago) with no indication of what's different (if anything) from the original. Sort this out, TR! I don't want to read the same thing twice, even a year apart.

Joycey

February 5, 2016, 9:56 am

They're hoping you've slept 365 times since last year and have no recollection.

Aaron Teitlebaum

May 4, 2016, 1:35 pm

Correction, USB 2.0 provides 5.0 V power just like the other versions do, not 2.5 V.

John King

June 15, 2016, 3:30 pm

The C plug is not needed. There are enough plugs already. And we certainly don't need a plug which is chipped like the Apple Lightning. I emplore everyone to boycott this plug.

John King

June 15, 2016, 3:36 pm

With the B, mini, micro, microAB and 3B Micro that's more than enough USB plugs to last forever. We dont need another plug and we don't want our plugs chipped.

ibmford

June 22, 2016, 11:38 pm

Another scheme to gauge the consumers. Eliminate 3.5mm jack and force people to replace all those expensive headphones and eventually control how and when the audio jack will work.

Why couldn't they build a reversible plug years ago way back with USB 2.0? what happened to the big promises of lightning/thunderbolt ports?

10 years ago EU passed laws establishing micro-usb as de facto charging port. Since then we have accumulated dozens of micro usb adapters at our homes.

Build a fragile plug (Usb-C) so it will surely break shortly after warranty expires and foretelling of USB-D (that won't break). This is a new type of crime: Force people to spend, spend through obsolescence and obfuscation till they drop dead. You've been digitized!

wargamer1969

July 2, 2016, 3:15 pm

Getting the Note 7 next month with type c port and I just upgraded my PC with an included type C port on the back. Its time for a change.

Oliverh100

July 22, 2016, 5:24 pm

Are all usb type c connectors on a laptop compatible with thunderbolt 3

Oliverh100

July 22, 2016, 5:29 pm

Is a msi gp62 6qf compatible with the razer core as it has a usb type c connector

Greg Zeng

August 10, 2016, 11:51 am

"Why couldn't they build a reversible plug years ago way back with USB 2.0? "
Amazon, eBay sells reversible USB 2.0 cables for a few dollars now. Seevral lengths, all with metal-braided shielding. In the last six months, I have several cables now for our home gadgets.

Duncan McClean

August 26, 2016, 12:05 pm

Does the galaxy S4 Mini support USB-C?

Madis

September 10, 2016, 11:09 am

No. The only Samsung device to support it so far is Note 7.

Rafał M

September 26, 2016, 11:03 pm

no, usb-c SUPPORTS standards, manufacturers may utilize usb-c or not. so it may even have usb-c and supports only usb 2.0.

Gepss

October 28, 2016, 12:45 pm

This comment went up in smoke.

Kuki Code

November 10, 2016, 9:40 pm

Seriously how would it look if we only had a usb type C port and you plugged headphones to it? Will a charger or powerbank be able to connect to it simultaneously with the port having a connected headphones already. i think not you would have to buy adapters like what apple has for iphone 7. there is one thing they could do either shrink the headphone jack or change its shape. Plus most devs like me use the headphone jack for projects like an infrared emitter for remote control etc, Google try not to follow Apple with its bad decision. Why remove something we all love because we like listening to music and using portable chargers at the same time.

comments powered by Disqus