USB-C is poised to change the way we plug into our favorite devices. But, there's some confusion over what that means and what USB-C is and isn't.
The general public has good reason to be unsure of what to make of USB-C.
While technology experts and enthusiasts are buzzing about its potential, they tend to do a poor job translating their excitement into terms most people will understand.
Of course, it shouldn't come as a shock that possibly the largest segment of the population that speaks Klingon would have issues explaining the possibilities of USB-C.
If you're confused about USB-C and it's applications, that's about to end.
USB stands for Universal Serial Bus
What Is USB-C?
There are a lot of USB terms floating around that makes understanding USB-C more challenging than it should be.
Let's start by clearing up one detail.
When it comes to Universal Serial Bus (USB) connections, you have two categories:
USB types and standards can often refer to the same thing.
The official designation is USB standard, but most people use type instead.
USB Type-C is the same as USB standard-C.
But wait here's more confusion:
Some people refer to USB versions as standards as well.
And welcome to the rabbit hole.
"A device of many names, the USB flash drive is also sometimes referred to as a memory stick, keydrive, pendrive, thumbdrive or jumpdrive.."
USB Standard or Type
USB standard refers solely to the physical connection of a USB cable.
Have you ever accidentally tried to plug an iPhone lightning cable into an Andriod device?
It doesn't work mainly because they are two different cable types.
Both connections are somewhat similar but different sizes and structures.
USB Type-C refers to a USB standard.
It's the end-point of the latest type of USB connection.
Think of it this way:
Imagine if someone introduced a smaller one-pronged electric plug that could one day replace all two and three-pronged plugs.
"Trek Technology and IBM were the first to start selling USB flash drives 1.0 and, later, 1.1, in 2000."
Part of the confusion behind USB-C is when people refer to it as a version instead of a type of connection.
A USB version mainly deals with the speed at which a cable transfers data.
Right now there are three different USB versions:
USB 1.0, USB 2.0, and USB 3x (which includes 3.0 and 3.1)
These differences can consist of both hardware and software changes, such as additional wiring and newer signaling standards.
There's a massive difference between the original iPhone and the most recent version.
They can use similar components and look almost the same, but specific hardware and software are faster and more powerful on the latest iPhone.
This is the same for USB versions.
Keep this in mind:
While more USB-C cables and devices are starting to offer the USB 3.x versions, currently most USB-C cables and devices use the USB 2.0 version.
Think of it this way:
If you see two big pickup trucks that are roughly the same body style and color, one could have an engine more powerful than the other.
This is important because many people assume that a USB-Type C connection is automatically faster than your average USB Type-A connection.
"Between 2016-2017, North Korean defectors shipped several thousand USB flash drives containing banned content such as South Korean soaps, Hollywood films and global news to the country, with the goal of spreading information about the outside world to North Koreans with limited access to the open internet and telecommunications."
USB-C: Meeting the Family
Before getting more in-depth into USB-C and all its super-cool technological powers, it's important to know about the rest of the USB family.
As mentioned earlier, USB has two categories: USB standards (types) and USB versions.
Maximum data transfer rate of 12 megabits per second (Mbps) or 1.5 Megabytes per second (MBps).
Maximum data transfer rate of 12 megabits per second. Plus, It offers a backward compatible speed of 1.5 megabits per second for lower bandwidth devices.
Maximum data transfer rate of 60 Megabytes per second (480 Mbps). Also backward compatible with USB 1.1 and 1.0 versions.
Maximum data transfer rate of 5 gigabytes per second (Gbps) (or 5,000 MBps or 40,000 Mbps). Not backward compatible with USB 1.1 or lower.
USB 3.1 Generation 1
Same as USB 3.0. Only renamed in 2015.
USB 3.1 Generation 2
Maximum data transfer rate of 10 gigabytes per second. Not backward compatible with USB 1.1 or lower
Maximum data transfer rate of 20 (2 x 10 Gbps) gigabytes per second using two-lane technology. Not backward compatible with USB 1.1 or lower
Maximum data transfer rate of 100 gigabytes per second. Backward compatibility is unknown.
Rectangular-shaped connection with four pins for USB 1.0 to 2.0. Rectangular-shaped connection with pins for USB 3.0 and higher.
Square-shaped connection with four pins for USB 1.0 to 2.0. Square bottle-shaped connection with nine pins for USB 3.0 and higher.
Elongated oval-shaped connection with 24 pins for USB 2.0 and higher
"Researchers from the Uni of Michigan and the Uni of Illinois conducted a study whereby they dropped USB sticks containing HTML files that have img tags embedded in a nearby car park. They found that 48% of the flash drives were picked up and plugged them into a PC. 68% of users failed to take any safety precautions or scans."
Clearing the Fog Over Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C
There's a lot of confusion out there over the difference between USB-C and Thunderbolt 3.
A lot of people want to know which is better.
The answer is:
The question is wrong.
USB-C is a connection type, and Thunderbolt 3 is a standard much like USB 3.0 and higher.
Thunderbolt 3 uses a USB-C connection.
Now the real question should be:
Which is better? Thunderbolt 3 or USB 3.1 gen 2?
Okay, now we've got an interesting discussion.
Thunderbolt was developed by both Intel and Apple and released in 2011. It used a Mini DisplayPort connection to reach top speeds up to 10 gigabytes per second.
They released Thunderbolt 2 in 2013 with the same Mini DisplayPort which could reach speeds of up to 20 gigabytes per second
And in 2015 they released Thunderbolt 3.
Using a USB-C connection, Thunderbolt 3 reaches speeds up to 40 gigabytes per second (with a short or active cable) and 20 (gigabytes per second with a long or passive cable).
"Most USB sticks weigh less than 30 grams, making them portable and easy to take on the move."
Why is USB 3.1 Gen 2 more popular than Thunderbolt?
One reason why USB 3.1 Gen 2 is used more broadly than Thunderbolt 3 is the price.
A Thunderbolt 3 cable can be up to 10 times more expensive than a USB cable of the same length.
A 6.5-foot Thunderbolt 3 cable can cost in the neighborhood of $60. While the same length USB 3.1 Gen 2 cable can cost a little over $10.
There's also the fact that more devices are likely to use USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports than Thunderbolt 3.
There's an excellent reason for this:
USB 3.1 may not be as fast a protocol as Thunderbolt 3, but it does have some advantages aside from being cheaper.
With these advantages and a lower price, it's easy to see why more devices are moving toward the newer USB standards rather than Thunderbolt 3.
"Flash drives are immune to electromagnetic interference, and they remain unharmed by surface scratches."
Why Thunderbolt 3 could be a better choice for PC gamers?
For builders who want to future-proof their new PC builds, Thunderbolt 3 may be the way to go over even the latest USB standard.
This is because it uses the same USB-C connection as USB 3.1 and 3.2.
Here's the best part:
Thunderbolt 3 fully supports all USB 3.1 cables and connections, so any Thunderbolt 3 port is technically also a USB 3.1 port as well.
However, to get the maximum benefit you'll still need to use devices like SSD drives or Graphics Cards that utilize Thunderbolt 3 over USB 3.1 or 3.2.
It's nice to have a Thunderbolt 3 capable motherboard handy for when you're ready to go all in.
"The USB stick was invented by Amir Ban, Dov Moran and Oron Ogdan, who all worked for Israeli tech company, M-Systems."
Benefits of USB-C
With so many technological improvements and innovations hitting the market, it's understandable why some people have a tough time getting excited over an oval-shaped plug.
However, the USB-C connection represents more than just another plug:
It's the complete re-imagining of what possibly every interface connection will look and perform like in the future.
Still no fireworks for ya, huh?
One of the first things you'll notice about the USB-C connection is that it's much smaller than a regular USB-A connection.
Here's a fact:
There are a few smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy 9 that are now using this connection for data transmission and charging.
And get this:
Since 2012, Apple mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad only used Apple's proprietary lightning ports, thus thumbing their noses at all things USB.
However, most recently, there are indications that Apple may be ready to abandon it's lighting ports for USB-C which is currently widely used by many newer Android products.
Another great thing about the USB-C connection is that, like the iPhone's lightning connection, USB-C is entirely reversible.
There's no wrong way to plug it in, which makes fumbling to plug in your phone in the dark a bit easier.
USB-C also supports an assortment of different protocols using "alternate modes." These modes allow you to have adapters that output:
Or other types of connections from one USB port.
So one day all of the connections on your laptop and desktop could plug into one USB-C port via a multiport hub.
USB-C and USB PD sitting in a tree
Imagine your laptop or desktop computer had the same power cable as your cell phone.
Now imagine plugging in your monitor and connecting it with your laptop to use it as a display.
That doesn't sound like a big deal until:
You add in the bonus of charging your laptop using the same connection with your monitor.
No more lugging around that "power brick" while looking for a three-pronged outlet. Or how about someone tripping over the brick's cable and unplugging you?
Because with the USB Power Delivery Specification (USB PD) combined with a USB-C connection:
The implications for laptop battery life are enormous.
In 2018, Google's new Chromebook Pixel and Apple's MacBook both introduced USB-C ports as the devices' charging ports.
As the case with USB 3x versions, just because a cable is USB Type-C doesn't mean it's automatically USB PD as well.
You'll need to check the cable's packaging or device specifications to see if the USB Type-C cable is certified to support USB PD.
"USB flash drives take advantage of flash memory, a type of "solid state" technology that is also found in devices such as digital cameras, mp3 players and even smartphones."
USB-C plus USB 3.1 and 3.2: Superfast and wait what happened?
USB 3.1 and 3.2 are currently the two fastest USB versions on the market.
But here's the best part:
When combined with the USB Type-C connection these versions can achieve incredible speeds.
USB 3.1 Generation 2 can hit speeds as high as 10 gigabytes per second using a USB-C connection.
USB 3.2 can double that number by going as high as 20 gigabytes per second.
These are insanely fast transfer rates, folks.
Hit the road, Jack: How USB-C may retire the 3.5 mm jack
There's a new reality heading toward folks looking to upgrade their phones:
The 3.5-millimeter jack is going extinct.
The first version of the jack is its quarter-inch predecessor, which is said to date back as far as 1878.
The 3.5 mm jack followed soon after.
The beginning of the end came for this antiquated technology after Apple decided to ditch the 3.5 mm jack in 2016.
Simple. It took up too much space.
Apple is a company that's always been obsessed with design.
And with the neverending competition to create the thinnest smartphone still raging on, Apple decided to ditch its jack. There was also a consideration for better water-proofing, as the 3.5 jack made that more difficult.
Back then, Apple told grumbling users that they had three choices:
Now it seems that Apple is going full USB-C as its main port.
2018's iPad Pro followed in the MacBook's footsteps in making the switch to USB-C.
Now, experts speculate that USB-C will become the standard for all Apple and Android products, forcing everyone in between to follow their lead.
Other phone manufacturers are already quietly following suit, replacing the jack with USB-C.
"There are high performance flash drives that can survive sub-zero temperatures, or extreme heat of up to 394 degrees F."
Audio quality for USB-C has a lot of promise.
USB Audio Device Class (USB ADC) 3.0, which is on par with USB 3.0 and higher, shows tremendous promise as a worthy standard that all USB-C devices should adopt.
This audio class consumes less power than USB 2.0 and delivers better sound quality.
USB ADC 3.0 supports up to 32-bit/384kHz stereo audio, which is the same as 2.0 but an upgrade over 1.0's 24-bit/96kHz maximum.
3.0 also includes USB Basic Audio Device Definition (BADD) with compatible devices.
BADD sets and defines standards for common audio device features.
A host device using USB ADC 3.0 will know precisely how to implement and configure options like microphone support or in-line controls.
BADD was optional in the past, which lead to inconsistent audio quality, but now this feature would be standard across all USB ADC 3.0 devices.
3.0 also introduces support for extra "Multi-Function Processing Units."
These software units include:
"USB flash drives can even withstand tons of pressure without giving in."
USB-C and Video: C-ing is believing
For gamers and 4K fanatics, USB-C is about to make your lives much more comfortable.
For years, we all had to deal with big bulky, cumbersome cables if we wanted to enjoy 1080p or 4K quality video.
But not anymore.
With the evolution of USB-C, we can soon expect to see HDMI and even display ports that support 4K video slowly fade away.
That's because this thinner, sleeker cable can efficiently transmit 4K content as well as data.
This means you can connect your laptop or desktop with a USB 3.1 Type-C cable to your favorite 4K monitor or TV and enjoy the full power your 4K content.
Right now there are not many monitors or TVs that support direct USB 3.1 Type-C connection.
However, until those industries catch up, you can still use enjoy your content thanks to USB 3.1 Type-C adapters.
If your mobile device or computer has a USB 3.1 Type-C port, you can use a compatible adapter or dongle to enjoy your content.
USB flash drives can be made in nearly an unlimited number of shapes, sizes, and designs.
Getting flashy with USB-C flash drives
There's no question that USB-C flash drives are the fastest flash drives on the planet capable of insane speeds.
Some drives also offer dual USB capabilities such as USB Type A and C plugs on one device.
But it gets better:
The latest Andriod devices now allow you to connect many compatible USB Type-C flash drives directly into the phone for extra storage space.
For years, smartphone users were stuck dealing with tiny SD cards for extra memory.
But now, you can simply plug in their flash drive and access files just as you would on your laptop or desktop computer.
Carrying a USB stick containing vital health and family contact information can be useful while traveling.
Serious USB-C SSD storage
While USB-C flash drives are fantastic, the most exciting storage possibilities lie in the marriage of USB-C and SSD drives.
As mentioned earlier, USB-C can deliver insane data transfer speeds reaching up to 20 gigabytes per second using the latest USB 3.2 standard. Even the USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 connections can hit speeds of 10 gigabytes per second, with 3.0 offering a respectable 5 gigabytes per second.
For PC builders salivating over these speeds, you may have to wait a bit longer.
Currently, most boards only offer SATA connections for internal SDD drives.
So far SATA 3.0 connections only offer speeds of up to 6 gigabytes per second, which is lower than USB 3.1 that runs up to 10 gigabytes per second.
And even M.2 PCIe Gen 2 x4 lane connections fall short at 16 gigabytes per second to USB Type-C 3.2 connections that can hit speeds of 20 gigabytes per second.
But alas, for now, builders will just have to be content with M.2 PCIe and SATA onboard connections.
But there's some good news:
USB-C is available for external SDD drives, and newer boards are slowly starting to offer more USB 3.1 Type-C connections. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait a little longer before we see motherboards offering USB 3.2 Type-C connections.
Here's the best part:
If you're a savvy builder, you can install Windows 10 on a USB 3.1 gen 2 Type-C SSD drive using special programs like WinToUSB.
Here's a video showing you how.
Now you've got a boot drive that hits faster speeds than even the latest M.2 PCIe SSD card.
A lot of world travelers also carry USB flash drives containing copies of their driver's license, passport, travel insurance info, hotel bookings, and emergency contact information.
How to Convert Your SATA SSD to USB-C
Here are a few steps for repurposing an SSD drive from a laptop and turn it into a USB-C storage drive.
Or you could do this:
Create a system image and restore into a new bootable USB-C Windows 10 drive using the instructions from the above video.
- Remove the drive from your old laptop.
- Next, unscrew and take off the enclosure's cover.
- Insert the drive into the new USB-C enclosure's SATA connector.
- Side the case cover back onto the drive and screw into place.
- Using a male-to-male USB-C cable, plug the SSD into a computer.
- After the system recognizes the drive, you can elect to format it.
USB flash drives can be used to infect computers with viruses such as a Trojan Horse that can give remote users access to information.
How to Make a USB-C Survival Travel Kit
When traveling, this USB-C survival travel kit is the perfect companion for your laptop.
With the right USB-C adapters you can make life much more comfortable when your traveling. You can even use USB-C ports with older USB 2.0, 3.0 and 3.1 accessories.
Here's a list of the items you'll need to make your own kit:
Troubleshooting USB-C in Windows 10
Here are some solutions to some common problems USB-C devices run encounter in Windows 10.
Your USB-C device has reported an issue
If your USB-C device is not working correctly and you have no idea why we suggest checking for this error code, then make a formal report to Microsoft who may be able to assist further.
Slow USB-C charger connected
If you encounter a slow USB-C charge, then chances are you may have the wrong charger for your device.
However, it could also be something else entirely.
- First, make sure the charger is one that comes with your device.
- If it's not, then purchase a charger from the manufacturer or a store that sells the current type.
- Never trust off-brand cheap chargers because their chance of failing is relatively high.
- Be sure to check the physical connection between the charger and the Windows 10 computer.
- If the connection is secure, then try cleaning the USB-C port with a can of compressed air.
USB or Thunderbolt device may have limited functionality
If you see this error, then there may be a problem between some of the features for USB-C and your Windows 10 computer that Microsoft has yet to figure out.
Or, perhaps, you're connecting the USB-C device to your computer through an external hub.
First, make sure that your device and the computer you're trying to connect to support the same features.
By the way:
It's also wise to try making a direct connection because it could be compatibility issues with the third-party dock.
PC or phone isn't charging
If your device isn't charging, then you've got a severe problem.
Assuming that the problem is linked to the USB-C connection, it's once again a good idea to check and make sure you're using the device's original charger.
You can also follow the steps mentioned above of using compressed air to clean the USB-C ports.
The USB device might not work at all
It's also possible that you've reached the point where your USB-C device isn't working at all.
The best step to take would be to download and install the latest updates for your device.
If you're using a windows phone (for some strange reason) then you need to take the following steps:
- Swipe the app list.
- Navigate to Settings.
- Then to Update & Security.
- Go to Phone update.
- Tap Check for updates.
After checking for the most recent updates, download and install any that may be available.
Digital connection possibly limited
This error is a common problem.
However, that doesn't necessarily mean it's the fault of your device.
Chances are, your Windows 10 computer doesn't currently support certain features, or your USB-C device is connected via a third-party hub.
But here's what to do:
To find out if your Windows computer supports certain features on your device such as DisplayPort or MHL alternate modes, you can search Microsoft's database for a possible patch or update.
Use a different USB port
Because not all USB-C ports may support the same features, it's always a good idea to try your device on a different USB-C port.
Ports can sometimes suffer damage and fail.
If you believe that your USB-C port's damaged, find a reputable technician who can replace it.
Challenges Facing USB-C
While USB-C has many current benefits and future promise as a dominant port protocol standard, there are also a few pressing challenges.
A running theme throughout many of the concerns regarding USB-C focuses more on consistency than actual flaws in the design.
One problem facing USB-3 is inconsistent charging performance.
Moving phones between different charges, even with the same voltage rating and current, can often produce different charging speeds.
There's also the fact that replacing the shorter USB-C cord included with your phone with a longer third-party charging cable can cause the same problem.
The main issue is that not all devices use USB-C 3.1 gen 2 technology for their ports.
Think about this:
If you have a phone that has a USB USB-C 3.1 gen 2 port and charge using a USB-C power adapter that's 3.1 gen 1 (aka 3.0), then you're not going to get the best charging speeds.
In other words:
One end of the connection supports slower speeds than the other.
Therefore, the charging speed will default to the slower speed.
Data, Audio, and Video Issues
The same inconsistent standards plague USB-C cables when it comes to data, audio, and video.
As mentioned earlier:
USB-C can support "Alternate Modes" such as HDMI, MHL, DisplayPort, Ethernet, and audio protocols.
However, the problem is that not every device will support these alternative protocols.
Why is that, you ask?
It's because they're not required to do it.
USB-C battery pack may not see the need for supporting HDMI.
But the problem in this logic lies in the fact that users might expect "Alternate Modes" functionality in all USB-C products.
Basically, different USB-C ports can vary in the types of functions they support, making it a frustrating game to figure out compatibility.
It's hard to know what functions a USB-C port using device supports just by looking at their specs.
Combating the Challenges Facing USB-C
USB-C has suffered mainly from issues arising from the wild wild west atmosphere of USB-C manufacturing standards.
However, recently the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) announced plans to start fixing this problem
The USB-IF is a support organization for the advancement and adoption of USB technology.
They announced in January 2019 the launch of their USB-Type-C Authentication Program.
Furthermore, this program is a milestone for the optional USB security protocol.
The USB Type-C Authorization specification defines cryptographic-based authentication for USB Type-C chargers and devices.
“USB-IF is excited to launch the USB Type-C Authentication Program, providing OEMs with the flexibility to implement a security framework that best fits their specific product requirements,” said USB-IF President and COO Jeff Ravencraft.
“As the USB Type-C ecosystem continues to grow, companies can further provide the security that consumers have come to expect from certified USB devices.”
The main points of the USB Type-C Authentication solution:
"DigiCert is excited to work with USB-IF and its CA Program Participants from the industry at large to provide the technical expertise and scale needed for the USB Type-C Authentication Program, and we look forward to implementation,” said Geoffrey Noakes, Vice President, IoT Business Development at DigiCert.
Here's the bottom line:
This represents an important step in reducing threats from shady characters who would plant malicious firmware-hardware into USB devices thus allowing them to exploit the connection.
More to the point
I know this stuff doesn't sound exciting or probably makes a lot of sense right now.
However, what this represents is the first step in achieving a universal authentication standard for any company producing a product with a USB-C port.
In other words:
We are on our way to seeing companies adopt uniform standards for USB-C ports or at least have to label their inferior USB-C ports in their advertising and packaging.
We are not there yet, but it's a great start.
Once third-party manufacturers understand that they make money selling products with crappy USB-C ports made with cheap materials and inferior support for USB 3.1 gen 2 devices, things will start to improve.
The answer to for all of the challenges facing USB-C revolve around adopting a uniform standard for manufacturers to follow.
In the future, all third-party manufacturers may have little choice but to adopt all USB 3.1 gen 2 standards and features for all their devices and accessories.
Moreover, this ideal could work if enough customers know to look for an easy to recognize certification.
In the meantime, this video may help you determine USB 3.1 gen 2 compliance.
The Future of USB-C
USB-C has a complicated history and will most certainly follow a long road of new challenges and adaptions.
However, despite the issues mentioned above, and possibly new ones yet to surface, USB-C is still the of technology.
On top of that, the underlying standards will continue to improve, and soon products across the board will be united by USB-C.
These improvements will continue with the introduction of USB 3.2 in 2019.
But for now:
Be extra vigilant when buying something that has USB-C ports.
More specifically, when buying third-party accessories and devices with USB-C ports.
You should be able to tell if it follows USB 3.1 gen 2 standard by looking at the specs and looking for the power, data transfer, and other supported standards.
Unfortunately, too many manufacturers are lazy in that regard, so you may have to do a little research to find the right product that uses that standard.
You can also contact the manufacturer directly if it's hard to find elsewhere.
But chin up:
This annoying compatibility situation will improve as newer hardware comes into the marketplace.
Also, it will in improve as the need to support legacy devices begins to die off as it did with older connections.
Does anyone still remember VGA cables?
Plus, as the technology continues to grow leaps and bounds, prices for USB 3.1 gen 2 Type-C devices will also fall.
Right now we all should continue to pressure companies to provide better product labels and more detailed specification listings to help users avoid USB-C compatibility pitfalls.
We hope you've found this information on USB-C helpful in helping you understand this exciting new technology.
Remember to double check the specs on your devices and accessories, and when in doubt ask questions.
Meanwhile, stay connected and enjoy the ride.
Do you have any thoughts about USB technology or the evolution of data transfer and charging? Let us know in the comments!
Kent Beck link to his wiki