We'll first see USB-C on Apple's upcoming pricey MacBook line, but it won't be unique to Apple laptops. Just what is USB-C, anyway, and why would we want to use it?
Chances are that you're familiar with USB — that's Universal Serial Bus to its more polite friends — the data and power interconnect standard that replaced a whole host of different connectors back in the late 1990s. Every laptop has one. USB-C is the latest iteration of the USB standard, technically sitting as the connector of choice for USB 3.1 connections. As such, you may see such terms used interchangeably, but they're not quite the same thing.
USB-C? What happened to USB-A and USB-B?
Nothing's happened to USB-A or USB-B at all. It's just that you've been using them for decades now without specifically referring to them as such.
USB type A connectors are probably what you think of when anyone says "USB"; a rectangular socket or plug of the type most commonly found on laptops and desktops. USB Type B in its full size plug iteration is the type that you'd most commonly find plugged into printers. It's a more square-shaped plug, but the USB-B connector also encompasses the two smaller sized and more commonly used USB connections: the older mini-B plug, and the micro-B that every single smartphone (save for Apple's iPhone) uses for charging and data connections these days.
USB has always been designed with backwards compatibility in mind, which is why you can still plug a USB 1.0 device into a USB 3.0 hub today and have it work. That won't change with USB-C/3.1, although you will need adaptors for any older devices due to USB-C's different shape.
What's so special about USB-C anyway?
As a connector, the most striking thing about USB-C is that it's fully reversible. That means an end to the days where you struggled with the orientation of a USB plug, because USB-C will work either way. The connector itself is also identical at both ends, so there's no potential for confusion there.
Where USB-C really shines aside from the convenience factor is in its implementation of USB 3.1, a standard which allows for a much higher data transfer rate, up to a theoretical 10Gbit/s, putting it on par with the first generation of Thunderbolt connections.
USB-C/USB 3.1 is also capable of acting as a video output source, again due to its higher potential data throughput. For now, that's likely to come via adaptors out to HDMI/Displayport/VGA connectors, but in theory the standard should allow for output monitors with a single plug. Again, it's early days for the standard, so those kinds of peripherals will be some way off.
USB 3.1 also allows for a much higher power throughput, up to 100w, which is why Apple's using it as the charging connector for the new MacBook as well. Again, it's all backwards compatible all the way back to USB 1.0, so older USB accessories will still work.
What that will mean for laptops such as the new MacBook that only ship with USB-C connectors is that you're going to need converters to connect up peripherals that don't have USB-C sockets on the other end. Unless you're planning on daisy chaining numerous MacBooks or buying Google's new Chromebook Pixel, that's going to be everything for now. Apple has announced a range of adaptors to cover most needs, but you'll need to budget for them, especially with the poor exchange rate at the moment.
USB 3.1 isn't absolutely exclusively paired with USB-C, and as such it's entirely feasible for a hardware developer to produce USB 3.1 hardware with the older USB-A type connectors. Asus, for example, has motherboards just announced that do precisely that, although it's most likely that the convenience factor of USB-C will see it dominate over time.
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