USB-C: Revolutionizing Connectivity

USB-C was designed to be a universal connector, both transferring data and supplying power to devices. The idea is simple – use the same connector and the same cable both to transfer all types of signal and connect and power a variety of devices. With a transfer rate of up to 40 Gb/s and the ability to deliver up to 240 W of power, the Type-C USB is well on the way to becoming the new standard.

If we look at the devices we use, they have an array of different cables and connectors, used in turn to connect to other devices. The range of terms used – such as HDMI, VGA and USB – are headache-inducing for many, with each relating to its own particular type of cable and connector. There seems to be a never-ending influx of new standards and things would be so much easier if there were a single universal one that would replace all the others.

But it’s not easy to establish standards, of course – it all depends on the readiness of manufacturers and consumers to accept them. Technology, especially information technology, rapidly develops and frequently replaces old standards with new ones, making significant impacts as kilobytes are replaced by megabytes, megabytes by gigabytes, and gigabytes by terabytes. Yesterday’s seemingly optimum solution is tomorrow replaced by something new and better.

One new standard that has gained in popularity in recent years and has got everyone talking is USB-C.

What actually is USB-C?

USB-C is a new connector designed both to transfer data and supply power to devices. Unlike its predecessors (USB-A and USB-B), USB-C is smaller in size and more practical, with dimensions more reminiscent of Micro-USB. This diminutive connector is small enough to fit in mobile phones but at the same time powerful enough to connect any peripheral to your laptop.

The idea is pretty simple – use a single cable and a single connector to connect a variety of devices (audio devices, external hard drives, monitors, speakers, tablets and even laptops).

USB type C

The idea behind the solution

The familiar rectangular-shaped old connectors like USB-A were primarily used for connecting peripherals or transferring data at low rates, with a maximum power rating of 1 A.

The problem was that you always had to carry a bunch of different cables around with you which could easily be lost, and if you did lose one you could not be sure that somebody would have a spare you could use.

Murphy’s Law also dictates that when you try to insert a USB-A connector it will always be the wrong way up, a constant source of frustration to all of us who use them, even its inventor. In that regard the new Type-C connector comes as a refreshing change: it is symmetrical and works regardless of orientation, so whichever way up you insert it you know you will get it in first time.

USB ports and cables

The benefits of USB-C

Adopting new technology is no easy task, especially when it requires improved aesthetics, practicality, and significant benefits over its predecessor. It’s the benefits that contribute most to acceptance. Thus, new technologies must overcome the shortcomings of the past, enabling seamless progress without obstacles. Innovations that do not bridge the gap in this way will fail to gain traction.

At first glance it is clear that the Type-C connector is smaller and more practical for plugging in. But we need to take a closer look to see all of the new features it brings with it.

These new features relate to:

  1. Data transfer rates and power delivery
  2. Transfer of different types of signal
  3. Compatibility with older standards
  4.  Compatibility with Thunderbolt 4

We’ve done the research so you don’t have to – read on for a more detailed explanation of each of these features of USB-C as compared to older standards.

Data transfer rates

Data transfer rates are a significant factor for users and those boasted by USB-C set it significantly apart from its predecessors. Its speed means you can transfer important data onto a flash drive in mere moments.

However it is important to note before we get to specific numbers that USB-C is not the same thing as USB 3.0 or 3.1.

USB-C describes the shape and appearance of the connector, while USB 3.0 refers to the type of technology, offering a particular rate of data transfer that can use either USB-C or USB-A.

Adding to the complexity, USB-IF, the standard-defining organization, has been known to rename existing standards while introducing new ones. Thus, the USB 3.0 standard underwent renaming to USB 3.1 and further evolved into USB 3.2 in 2019.

But…

Different connectors can be used with this standard, and hence seemingly identical USB-Cs can have different transfer rates. In practice it is very common for USB-C ports to use outdated standards for data transfer.

So it’s important to realise that there is a USB 3.2. Gen 1, a USB 3.2. Gen 2, a USB 3.2. Gen 2×2 and a USB4. Data transfer rates vary drastically depending on this standard and range from 5 Gbp/s to the amazing 40 Gbp/s offered by USB4. Of course, the higher the speed the less time it takes to transfer data.

If it all sounds a bit complicated the table below will hopefully clear up any confusion. It’s important to note that newer generations of the standard – USB 3.2. Gen 2×2 and USB 4, only use the USB-C connector, which effectively means that only USB-C can provide the highest transfer rates.

Power Delivery

A standard USB-C connector can supply 2.5 W of power, the same as most USB-A connectors, so there is nothing remarkable there. However many devices use a protocol called Power Delivery (PD), which makes it possible for USB-C to supply up to 100W (the latest version up to 240 W) of power. PD (Power Delivery) facilitates bidirectional power transfer, allowing devices to both receive power and supply power to other devices. PD cables can charge laptops and other large devices, which was not possible with the older standards. They can do so 70% faster than would be possible with other connectors.

USB-C and video and audio signals

Unlike its predecessors, USB-C, depending on the specific implementation of the connector, offers a number of possibilities.

One of the most useful is that it can supply enough power to quickly charge a main device, such as a laptop or smartphone. Today numerous models of laptop use USB-C for charging instead of the traditional round jack.

USB-C’s ability to charge and simultaneously send a video signal means that you can connect to and power a DisplayPort, MHL or HDMI device or connect to just about anything else, provided you have the right adapter and cables.

New options have become available in recent times – special USB-C cables that support HDMI, with a Type-C connector at one end and an HDMI connector at the other.

USB-C to HDMI adapter

While the USB-C specification allows for audio transfer, it hasn’t replaced the 3.5 mm headphone jack on PCs as extensively as on phones and tablets.

Compatibility with older standards

Another major advantage of USB-C is the fact that it is compatible with its predecessors in terms of the design of its connector and also the standard used by the connector. Of course, it is not possible to simply plug the small USB-C connector into a rectangular USB-A port. However, adapters are available to facilitate such connections.

Also, the new data transfer standards are backwards compatible with their previous versions – it is the connector on the device that dictates the speed of data transfer.

USB-C vs Thunderbolt 3

Previously, Thunderbolt and USB were completely separate standards. That caused confusion and ultimately frustration over questions of connectors, ports and cables.

With the arrival of USB-C and Thunderbolt 3, these technologies were made cross-compatible. Thunderbolt and USB-C have key differences, but they are largely compatible with each other, which is good news.

We have already explained USB-C, we hope. All that remains is for us to say a little bit about Thunderbolt to give you the complete picture.

Thunderbolt 4

A Thunderbolt 3 cable can transfer up to 40 gigabits of data per second. However in order to achieve these transfer rates you need to use a Thunderbolt cable with a Thunderbolt port and not with a USB-C port.

As standard, Thunderbolt 3 charges devices at 15 W, but devices supporting the PD protocol can charge at up to 100 W, the same as with USB-C. When charging most devices, including laptops, a Thunderbolt 3 cable will provide almost exactly the same charge rate as USB-C.

The latest technology to emerge in this field is Thunderbolt 4, which improves on the Thunderbolt 3 standard. This specification offers the capacity to connect two 4K monitors or a single 8K monitor, as well as a transfer rate of up to 40 Gbp/s.

What's the difference?

The short answer is, very little. Thunderbolt 4 is based on the same basic protocol as USB4, and all Thunderbolt 4 devices support USB4 and vice-versa. In essence, Thunderbolt 4 is USB4 with all the bells and whistles.

However, not all USB4 devices can provide all the features of fully-certified Thunderbolt 4. Like Apple’s version of Thunderbolt 3, Thunderbolt 4 always guarantees the full 40 Gbp/s transfer rate. USB4 however begins at 20 Gbp/s but can achieve Thunderbolt 4’s rate of 40 Gbp/s. That is why you should pay careful attention to marketing materials and check whether the product uses USB 2.0 or USB4.

One of the major differences is that the USB4 port can only support one screen while Thunderbolt 4 can support two 4K screens.

Is USB-C the future of cables and connectors?

Considering the rate at which technology changes, no-one can guarantee that USB-C will become a universal standard. However, we can at least hope so.

Whatever the connector – USB-C or some other type – we will always prefer to have just a single cable and a single connector. That way, we can avoid the frustration of needing a variety of adapters just to perform a simple data transfer.

Although introduced in 2014, USB-C can still be regarded as a relatively new standard. This standard is also constantly being improved on so as to arrive at the best possible solution for all users.

At Digitel we very much welcome this. Great strides are being made in reducing the numbers of cables we use. This fits right in with our vision to get cables out of sight and bring sockets closer to users.

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