USB-C explained: How to get the most from it (and why it's great)

The era of USB-C computing is here. We’ve got tips on how to take advantage of those new ports on your laptop, phone or tablet.


You’ve probably noticed something strange about the latest phones, tablets and laptops at your company: The familiar rectangular Type-A USB ports are gone, replaced by smaller oblong connectors. Welcome to the USB-C era of business computing. While iPhones and iPads stick with Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector, USB-C is now part and parcel of most laptops, phones and tablets made today. Even the latest MacBooks have a USB-C port.


What is USB-C?

USB Type-C, usually referred to as just USB-C, is a relatively new type of connector for delivering data and power to and from computing devices. Because the USB-C plug is symmetrical, it can be inserted either way, eliminating the frustrations of earlier USB ports and putting it on a par with Apple’s reversible Lightning plug. This alone makes it a hit for me, but USB-C is also closely linked to several powerful new technologies, including USB 3.1, Thunderbolt 3, and USB Power Delivery.


Most USB-C ports are built on the USB 3.1 data-transfer standard. The second-generation protocol of USB 3.1 can theoretically deliver data speeds of up to 10Gbps — twice as fast as USB 3.0 and first-gen USB 3.1, which both top out at 5Gbps. (Look for devices that say “USB 3.1 Rev 2,” “USB 3.1 Gen 2,” “SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps” or “SuperSpeed+” to get support for the faster spec.)


And on many laptops and desktops, the USB-C specification also supports Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 data-transfer technology. A USB-C port equipped with Thunderbolt 3 can push data speeds to a theoretical limit of 40Gbps. To show how far we’ve come, that’s four times faster than USB 3.1 and more than 3,000 times faster than the original USB 1 spec of 12Mbps.

With increased data-transfer speeds comes the ability to push video over the same connection. USB-C’s Alternate Mode (or “Alt Mode”) for video enables adapters to output video from that same USB-C port to HDMI, DisplayPort, VGA and other types of video connectors on displays, TVs and projectors.

What’s more, USB-C supports the USB Power Delivery (USB PD) specification. A USB 2.0 port can deliver just 2.5 watts of power, about enough to charge a phone. USB 3.1 ups this figure to about 15 watts. But USB PD can deliver up to 100 watts of power, more than six times what USB 3.1 can. This opens up the potential for laptop-powered projectors based on USB-C.

All that said, you’ll need to make some changes and buy some accessories to take full advantage of the new port. This guide can help ease the transition by showing what you can do with USB-C and what you’ll need to make it work.


Be careful, though, because not all USB-C devices support all of the latest USB-C specs. For instance, just about every USB-C flash drive supports the earlier USB 3.1 Rev 1 protocol, a lot of tablets and phones don’t support Alt Mode video, and we are in the early days of USB Power Delivery, with few devices going beyond 40 or 60 watts. In other words, read the spec sheet carefully so you know what you’re getting before you buy.


This article first appeared at: https://www.computerworld.com/article/2488194/computer-hardware/usb-c-explained-how-to-get-the-most-from-it-and-why-its-great.html



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