Lifehacker 101: What Are The Benefits Of USB-C?

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.

Lifehacker 101 is a regular feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?


Comments

    Good 101, thanks.
    It's still stupid for a computer to only have one port though, right?

      1 port, but 802.11ac wifi and bluetooth and a 10 hour battery charge. What are you plugging in? Most non-IT people (99.9% of the population) never plug anything in (besides a power charge).

      So the device might not be for you. But probably fits the need of most of the population (especially students). What was that post the other day about predictors of a device success? It was if IT people dis-like it :-)

        A thumb drive, a camera, an optical drive, a phone (to charge, or tether), a smartwatch (to charge), a monitor, the power supply.
        Pick any two and you're stuffed.

        Last edited 18/03/15 9:47 am

    It won't be long before hubs appear allowing multiple USB2/3 devices to share one usb-c port. Which will get round the need to own lots of converter leads/plugs.

    Most manufacturers (i.e. pretty much everyone except Apple) don't use USB for video, sound or networking so there won't be much need for additional adaptors at least in the short term. Eventually USB might truly be Universal and become the ubiquitous standard for all peripherals, but by then these devices will have caught up. And a USB-C cable will be the stock provided rather than, for example, the VGA cable typically included with monitors.

      I honestly expect video and sound connectors to go wireless before the USB-C really catches on. Chromecasts and the like will be the way to go.

        Wireless video might still need some tweaks to remove any lag, then its perfect :)

    @alex-kidman: We’ll first see USB-C on Apple’s upcoming pricey MacBook line, but it won’t be unique to Apple laptops.

    Source? Because the Nokia N1 was released 7 January and it has USB-C - although it's not an Apple product, and it didn't get pages upon pages of regurgitated press release masquerading as journalism, so it mustn't count, right?

    It amazes me that an article on USB-C, which is developed by an independent, not-for-profit organisation and will be adopted by countless manufacturers, still manages to mention Apple 5 times.

    Last edited 16/03/15 1:09 pm

      Outside of the grey importers, however, the N1 hasn't had an official release here as yet (and indeed, as Luke notes in his Giz hands-on, it's only currently shipping in China, with no word as to Australian availability: http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2015/03/nokia-n1-australian-hands-on/)

      Whereas the MacBook is due here next month. I'd be willing to bet the majority of first-seen products in the hands of actual consumers would be via that route, rather than via the N1 per se. But do carry on.

    Forget Apple for a minute. Like the Nokia N1, think of all the Android style phones and tablets. Apple is unlikely to give up on their lightning connector, that replaced the old 30-pin adapter. So we get two different standards, fighting it out.
    Just like USB vs Firewire in the old days...

      I think you mean Thunderbolt 2.0 vs USB Type-C tbh.

      Lightning simply replaced the 30 pin connector, and Apple has only implemented it on their iPod/iPhone/iPad range. Where as Thunderbolt is found across the Mac range alongside USB 3.0 minus on the new MacBook.

    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.

    It is probably worth pointing out that Apple has only implemented "USB3.1 Gen 1" on their MacBook USB-C connector. "USB3.1 Gen 1" is just good old USB 3.0 encapsulated within the newer USB3.1 spec.

    Therefore, the USB-C port on the new MacBook is limited to 5Gbps, the same as every other USB3.0 port.

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