The Promise and Confusion of USB Type-C

Okay, I’ll admit it. It’s not exactly the sexiest topic in the world.

But, when it comes to the practical, day-to-day existence with all of our modern devices, connectivity is an important story. When you survey the landscape of connectivity topics, it’s hard to ignore the impact various types of USB have had. Sure, the multiple new wireless standards tend to get a lot more attention. However, for most people, wired connections between devices are still an extremely common means of making things work and no wired connection is more ubiquitous than USB. (Except for power, but we’ll get to that in a second.)

The latest iteration of the USB connector is called Type-C, and while it was officially introduced in 2014, it’s really just starting to appear on the devices we can buy and use. Apple’s 2015 MacBook was among the first to support the new connector but it’s now showing up on all kinds of Windows PCs, smartphones, monitors, docking stations, storage peripherals and more. Like Apple’s Lightning connector, the USB Type-C connector is reversible, meaning you can plug it in in any orientation and it will work (and won’t get jammed in the wrong way).

USB Type-C is also associated with, though officially different from, USB version 3.1, which is currently the highest speed iteration of the standard. It supports transfer rates of 10 Gb/sec, a nearly 1,000x improvement over the 1996-era USB 1.0 spec, which topped out at 12 Mb/sec.

Equally important, USB Type-C supports several alternate modes, most notably the ability to carry up to 100W of power over the line, as well as the ability to drive up to two 4K displays at a 60Hz refresh rate. Best of all, it can do this simultaneously with data transfer, allowing a single connector to theoretically deliver power, data and video over a single line. Truly, this should be the one cable to rule them all.

As we all know, however, there’s often a big difference between theory and practice. The crux of the problem is that not all USB Type-C connectors support all of these different capabilities and, with one important exception, it’s almost impossible for an average person to figure out what a given USB Type-C equipped device supports without doing a good deal of research.

The key exception is for Thunderbolt 3.0, a technology originally developed by Intel. It’s a different interface standard than USB 3.1, but uses the same USB Type-C connectors. Thunderbolt 3.0 connectors (which, by the way, are different than previous versions of Thunderbolt—versions 1 and 2 used the same connectors as the mini-DisplayPort video standard) are marked by a lightning bolt next to the connector, making them easy for almost anyone to identify. To be clear however, they aren’t the same as the somewhat similarly shaped Lightning connectors used by Apple (which, ironically, don’t have a lightning bolt next to them). Confused? You’re not alone.

Arguably, Thunderbolt 3.0 is essentially a superset of USB 3.1, as it can carry full USB 3.1 signals at 10 Gb/sec, as well as PCIe 3.0, HDMI 2.0 or DisplayPort 1.2 video signals, 100W of power, and Thunderbolt data connections at up to 40 Gb/sec, all over a single USB Type-C connection. The only downside to Thunderbolt 3 is that it requires a dedicated Thunderbolt controller chip in any device that supports it, which adds cost. Also, full-bandwidth Thunderbolt 3 cables can be expensive, because they require active electronics inside them.

Standard USB Type-C, on the other hand, can be implemented by device makers a bit less expensively and full bandwidth cables, while also active, tend to be cheaper than Thunderbolt versions. However, along with this cost decrease comes the opportunity for confusion. Just because a device has USB Type-C connectors does not mean it supports power or any other alternate mode, such as support for video standards DisplayPort or MHL (used on some smartphones to drive larger displays). In fact, technically, it’s even possible to have USB Type-C ports that don’t support USB 3.1, although in reality, that’s highly unlikely to ever occur.

The real problem is there are no simple means of demarcation or labelling for different varieties of USB Type-C. One of the goals of the standard was to produce a much smaller connector that would fit on smaller devices—leaving little room for any type of icon.[pullquote]The real problem is there are no simple means of demarcation or labelling for different varieties of USB Type-C.”[/pullquote]

The other issue is, with the launch of USB Type-C, we’re seeing one of the first iterations of what I would call “virtualization” of the port. Until recently, each port had its own connector and carried its own type of signal. USB carried data to peripherals, Ethernet handled networking, video connectors such as HDMI and DisplayPort carried video, etc. Now the rise of multipurpose ports such as USB Type-C have broken that 1:1 correlation between ports and functions. While this consolidation is clearly an important technical step forward, it also points out the opportunity for confusion if user education and basic labelling techniques are overlooked.

On the bright side, this “virtualization” of ports will lead to a wide variety of the most useful docking stations and port replicators we’ve ever seen, particularly for notebook PCs, tablets, and even smartphones. You’ll be able to plug one cable into your device and get access to every single port you can imagine, as well as providing power back to the device. We’ll also start to see new types of peripherals, such as single cable monitors act as hubs to other devices, receiving power and video from the host device, while also enabling the connection of speakers, USB storage, and even a second daisy-chained monitor.

Eventually, most of these connections will likely become wireless but, given the need for power and the expected challenges around delivering wireless power to many devices, it’s clear variations on USB Type-C, particularly Thunderbolt 3.0 and later iterations, will be around for some time to come.

The proliferation of USB Type-C clearly marks the dawn of a great new era of connectivity for our devices, but it may require a bit of homework on your part to fully enjoy it.

Published by

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

658 thoughts on “The Promise and Confusion of USB Type-C”

  1. It’s even more complicated than that:

    – USB Type C is a physical port, nothing more. It can be used for USB 2, USB 3.0, or more normally for USB 3.1gen1 or gen2, and Thunderbolt 3. It’s so “unlikely to ever occur” that some devices with USB2 Type-C are already out.

    – USB 3.1 does not exist. It’s either USB 3.1 gen1 or USB 3.1 gen2. Gen1 is simply renamed USB 3.0 (a purely PR move that seems to be working nicely) so 5Gb/s (that’s what the one-port MacBook has), only gen2 has the 10Gb/s speed.

    – Alternate mode is not the same as optional specification. USB Power delivery (PD) is optional, DisplayPort is an alternate mode. Options are official and few, Alternate Modes are conventional and the sky’s the limit as long as the host and client can agree on how the data traveling on the cable is formatted (that requires hardware, firmware and/or software support): you can get DisplayPort, but also PCIe, SATA, there’s even a SCSI disk protocol…

    – I’m unsure if TB3 ports will also always support USB PD 2.0 and everything else or if Intel’s just happens to.

    So basically, you’ve got to read a device’s doc to know what that USB-C port is capable of: USB 5Gbps, USB 10Gbps, TB3, charging, DisplayPort… They couldn’t even come up with a color scheme for the connector to differentiate charging from non-charging and USB3.x vs TB3, let alone other variants and options.

    1. Funny you say that. Just two days ago I was accidentally “charging” a USB-C device with an HDMI cable with a minidisplay adapter on the end. The cables were next to each other…

      1. I think I’ll buy colored cables and stickers. My iBrother requested hot pink Belkin cables for his iPhones, I understand why when I see my mess of black cables.
        I rue the moment my parents switch over. Dad already managed to plug an ethernet cable in the USB port (or the reverse), because… well, it fits ! (and here goes my sunday ^^)

    2. Good points all. I hadn’t heard about USB Type-C with USB 2, but as I pointed out, knew it was possible. Also, with regard to optional specs like USB power delivery and alternate mode, the bottom line is they’re both optional and, as you mention, there’s no color coding or anything else to let you know whether any of these are supported.
      As for Thunderbolt 3, my understanding is yes, it does support the USB Power Delivery by default.

  2. What’s confusing and hard to find an answer is what happens when a charger with the Type C cable for a 12-inch Macbook is plugged into an Android phone with a Type C connector, or a phone charger or is plugged into the Mac.

    1. Yes, that’s two of many problematic scenarios. In theory, the MacBook could charge the phone, but the phone charger doesn’t have enough juice to charge the Mac. You need to do the homework to figure that out….the very reason I wrote this column.

  3. Just buying a USB-C cable on Amazon takes a lot of a lot of effort. Do I want the $3 cable that doesn’t work with a Pixel but works with a MacBook? Or do I want the $10 cable that has been tested by a Google engineer and probably works with a Pixel? I guess I’ll try the $3 cable to try with my cheap Chinese Intel Atom X5-Z8300 tablet.
    Now I see it, Intel is a leading member of the USB committee and look at the marketing name for the Cherry Trail processor! Confusion abounds! Intel loves confusion!

    1. I’d go with the extra $7 for a nicely-built, spec-compliant cable. Cables never die so you’ll use it for years, bad cables are bad at everything (charging, transferring data, working with any and all devices/chargers), and devices can be finicky about which cable they’ll work/charge with.
      Ditto for chargers and power supplies. Cables and PSUs are the only things I buy premium even when optimizing for cost. I use AmazonBasics USB2 cables, wait for a sale and buy a bunch. Not sure if they do USB-C yet ?

      1. I haven’t found a good supply of Lightning cables. I’ve tried the AmazonBasics Lightning cables and they don’t last long. Some just stop working (broken cable?) while others fray a lot. I definitely have found some brands are better than others. Unfortunately, I haven’t found price to be the indicator of longevity.
        It looks like Amazon has plans to provide a number of USB-C cables but none are available yet.

  4. What, they did not room for a single letter or number to differentiate between functionality? That is clearly not true, and the current lack of labeling is going to be a nightmare when trying to get the right cable.

  5. Superb post however I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this topic? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit more.

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