It’s now clear USB Type-C’s march to dominance is unstoppable, but what does this actually mean for you and the way you use your devices?
The major manufacturers are all starting to make the switch, from Apple with the MacBook and MacBook Pro to Google with the Pixel. 2017 is sure to be the year that USB-C becomes mainstream, replacing Micro-USB as the primary charging method for new phones. However, the impact of USB-C won’t just be limited to smartphones, it will completely shake-up almost every area of tech.
What is USB Type-C?
USB-C actually has little in common with previous versions of USB, whether the chunky Standard-A or the fiddly Micro-B. Previous versions of USB all used a similar layout with generally 4 or 5 pins, and could only be connected one way up (as we all know only too well…). Type-C has a bountiful 24 pins and is fully reversible, meaning there is no right or wrong way up. It isn’t just an addition to previous versions, it seeks to unify and replace them all with something much better.
What will it replace?
One thing that’s clear is that the adoption of Type-C is going to be extremely disruptive to other cable types and technologies, even those that previously seemed far removed from USB. Below is a summary of just some of the standards that could fall victim to USB-C.
- Micro-USB/Standard USB – This goes without saying, Type-C was specifically designed to replace previous USB versions, whether for charging devices or connecting hardware.
- Lightning – It might take a few years but the writing is on the wall for Apple’s Lightning connector. USB-C will become too ubiquitous to avoid, and with the MacBook and MacBook Pro Apple have already shown they’re a fan.
- HDMI cables – USB-C can carry 4K video and digital audio which puts it in direct competition with HDMI. HDMI themselves are developing a Type-C version of an HDMI cable (more on this below), so it may be a case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”.
- Laptop power adapters – USB-C can carry up to 100W, enough to charge and power laptop computers. Consumers will be only too happy to see the back of the bulky power adapters that were needed previously.
- 3.5mm audio – The latest specification of USB-C supports digital audio, which is bad news for the old 3.5mm audio jack. The process of it being replaced is already underway and it won’t be long before all new phones ship without a dedicated audio port.
- USB-A Flash drives – An obvious one, but major nonetheless. All the millions of flash drives in circulation are going to slowly become obsolete, replaced by faster and more compact USB-C flash drives.
- USB-A charging ports – The charging ports that you find on the back of plane seats, in hotel rooms, on public transport and all over the place are going to have to be changed at some point.
- DVI connectors – The bulky connectors that connect a desktop computer to a monitor will be among the first to fall. The display capabilities of Type-C are more than up to the task and the monitor could potentially be powered through the same cable.
- Ethernet cables – Ethernet cables are on the way out anyway as more people switch to wireless, but once an ethernet compatible USB-C cable is produced it’s fate will be sealed. An ethernet Alternate Mode for Type-C is apparently not difficult to produce, so it won’t be long before we see the back of the old ethernet connectors and ports. Speaking of Alternate Modes…
One further feature of USB-C that is likely to lead to the demise of other cable types is its customizability. Third-parties can apply for a USB-C Alternate Mode, which allows them to make changes to the pin layout while still complying with the USB-C standard. Examples of this include Thunderbolt 3, the extra-fast version of Type-C used on the new MacBook Pro, and HDMI. The USB-C HDMI Alternate Mode is fully compatible with HDMI 1.14b, adding lots of home cinema features that regular USB-C lacks such as surround sound and 3D support. A version compatible with HDMI 1.20b, the most recent HDMI standard, is surely in the works. If this trend continues we can expect to see more existing cable types switch to using USB-C connectors while retaining their original functionality.
The upside to all this is that future hardware need only come with one type of port, whether it’s a smartphone, laptop or high-end television. The downside is not all USB-C cables will be equal. Consumers may assume that because a device includes a USB-C port it will work fully with an existing USB-C cable they have, but this won’t always be the case. Alternate Modes like Thunderbolt 3 or HDMI will still need dedicated Thunderbolt 3 or HDMI cables, it’s just they will all fit the same shape of port.
USB-C vs USB 3.1
Another slightly confusing aspect of USB-C is its relationship with USB 3.1. They are sometimes thought to be one and the same, but are actually two different things. USB-C refers to the physical shape of the connector and the layout of the pins, while USB 3.1 is the standard it uses for data transfer (up to 10 Gbit/s, twice as fast as USB 3.0 and more than 20 times faster than USB 2.0). It’s possible for a Type-C connector to use an older specification like USB 2.0, and it’s equally possible for an old style USB-A connector to use USB 3.1. However, USB-C’s compact size, reversible head and versatility gives it a huge advantage over the older connectors. No USB-A connector can carry 4K video and digital audio for example, even if it is USB 3.1 compatible; these are Type-C features unrelated to USB 3.1.
Putting the Universal in Universal Serial Bus
The U in USB stands for “universal”, and it seems over the next few years USB will finally start living up to that name. The whole industry is supporting it and it is probably the most versatile connector in existence. You can spare a thought or two for all the existing cables and technologies that will fall by the wayside, but really we should be cheering their demise. Having a unified connector head for everything makes life so much easier for everyone, whether it’s manufacturers, developers, or most importantly, consumers.