USB C De-Mystified

USB, short of Universal Serial Bus, cables were initially proposed as a correction for the growing problem of zero latency serial cable standards in the mid-1990s. At that time Intel basically invented the standard all on its own. The actual take-off of the USB standard happened when a recently re-Jobs-ified Apple announced that the iMac would be using the standard to connect its peripherals.

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Fast forward a couple of decades and we had a series of problems with our trusty old standard.

  1. USB is not rotationally mirrored, which means it can only be plugged in in one direction
  2. The major push for connectors is to be smaller
  3. The USB 3.1 standards mean more types of data and power can be rolled through

This was a tall task for any connector, but Intel once again provided leadership, or “catalyst”, for the development of the new standard. The finalized spec of Type-C connector was unleashed on the world on August 12, 2014. It made its first appearance on the Nokia N1 tablet. The first laptop with USB-C was the Apple MacBook, though the first to market was the Google Pixel 2 (short lived laptop, not the more recent phone).

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To date, USB has undergone a lot of iterations. But these changes were almost always on the output end of the cable. Up to the Type-C connector there has been no significant physical changes to the input end of the cable since the mid-90s. This was intentional. The engineers behind USB were able to squeeze practical performance out of the cable protocols and the USB A type connector.

Practically speaking this was easy for hardware designers. USB A at the desktop end, USB ?? at the peripheral side. No need to muck about with what is working.

USB 3.1 and USB Type-C changed this significantly in a way that most people don’t understand. The major selling feature of Type-C connectors is to solve the real-world problem of being easier to plug in because they don’t have an orientation. Being rotationally mirrored on the cable end is something that Apple has been doing with its proprietary cables since the original 29 pin connector for the iPod.

USB Type-C corrects this problem.

The next problem on the list is that the connector needed to be smaller on the peripherals. This has been solved in nearly every iteration of the USB connector protocol. Mini, Micro, Micro-B have all been smaller than the original USB connector. However, USB Type-C made a bigger and more drastic shift than what was available prior. USB Type-C has more onboard capability than the prior iterations of USB. For this reason, there are more wires and heavy lifting done on both ends of the cables. This means to take advantage of future iterations of USB there will need to be a Type-C connection at both ends of the cable. This isn’t something we’ve experienced since the introduction of USB.

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Yes, the computer outlet has changed with USB 2 and USB 3, but the cable output on the computer and to date has not. This isn’t a shift to little blue outlets indicating the “fast” port. This is that there is now an opening that is less than a third the size and more than 10x more powerful than before.

Why is this important?

What comes across a USB is different than what it was 18 years ago. The connection protocol is no longer a single I/O standard. Instead USB Type-C refers to the connection that hosts a tone of “alternate modes” under the single connector. In 2014 when the standard for USB 3 and Type-C were released the cable was capable of USB protocol or Display Port. Now it also wraps Lightning, HDMI, VGA and USB Audio among the growing list.

Practically, this means that a piece of technology with the correct controller board could replace nearly every type of cable in your bag with one cable. Connect your headphones, or projector, or 4 screens, or Bluetooth dongle or whatever else all through a single slot of the side of your machine. The issue is that not every controller board for USB has all the protocols baked in, and not all of them are able to be assimilated by updating the drivers on the USB controller. So while it is possible on some USB Type-C devices to do these things don’t expect plugging a USB Type-C into the bottom of your phone to a projector will suddenly let you control the projector.

The other end of USB Type-C I alluded to in the last cables article. Power delivery is a huge part of USB Type-C. Both the Apple MacBook and most new laptops featuring USB Type-C are using the port for charging as well as data I/O. Why? Because Type-C power delivery specs mean that you can stuff 100 watts through the cable WHILE providing data transfer. This means that the cable can finally fill thirsty laptops in an acceptably short period of time.

Backwards HO!

Unlike a Playstation 4, you can use USB-C going the other way. Your older devices that are currently using any current USB protocol can be plugged into a Type-C slot (with the appropriate end) and will still continue to be the cheery old devices they’ve always been.

The problem

USB Type-C has had some very serious and public issues. With the ability to transfer at 100 watts into your favourite $1,000+ device you can do a lot of damage very quickly. The rule used to be that you trust OEM and what is in the box, otherwise keep your head up and be skeptical. Unfortunately, Apple had to recall its OEM USB Type-C cables in 2016. You’d hope that they would be more on the up-and-up than Amazon pages that sell cables for shipping costs. But USB Type-C is still the wild west. The USB Implementers Forum (the people responsible for USB) are attempting to lay down the law, but the results are short in coming. After a Google Engineer took to the internet to try and help by testing cheap cables off of Amazon the USB-IF tried to promote compliance standards for cable manufacturers. Well testing is time consuming, and while there are some companies who go through the process the majority do not.

  • USB Type-C is worth the upgrade for increased flexibility
  • This isn’t an Apple or Sony or anyone else ploy, it is the future
  • Buy USB Cables that bare the USB compliance certifications

The Verdict

 

USB Type-C is the latest in a series of upgrades to this nearly two decades old protocol. This is the first time it will affect all your devices since inception. There are huge leaps forward being made, but cables are make or break your very expensive devices.