Published on 29th March, 2016 by Cable Chick

USB Type-C Explained in plain English

USB Type-C Explained in plain English


USB Type-C Explained in plain English

What is USB Type-C? How does it fit in with existing versions of USB? USB Type-C and USB 3.1 Gen 2 are explained simply in our in-depth article on the latest reversible connector!

A new plug and socket combo

The USB Implementers' Forum (USB-IF, the group of companies who develop USB) is moving towards a unification of the USB standard in an effort to simplify and streamline connections between USB-ready devices. But in doing so, they've introduced a new raft of nomenclature and jargon that can be painful to wrap your head around.

First and foremost, USB Type-C is the name for their new do-everything, go-everywhere plug and socket pair. It boasts a compact, reversible design plus a boost to the data and power rates it can achieve. USB Type-C can also be implemented with Alternate Mode capabilities such as support for DisplayPort, Thunderbolt and MHL, but these abilities are not available on all Type-C devices. More on them later.

USB USB Type-C Plug
Front and Top views of the USB Type-C Plug.

USB Type-C is easily identified by its new, unique shape. On its own, it isn't compatible with any existing USB plug types (not even micro-USB), but through adapters it can be backwards compatible all the way down to USB 1.1. It's designed to support as many peripherals and gadgets as it possibly can so that users can continue to use all their old gear with a basic adapter (see below).

USB USB Type-C Female Socket
A USB 3.1 Gen 2 socket on a PC.

Goodbye USB 3.0 (Hello 3.1)

USB-IF have retroactively renamed the old USB 3.0 standard, and have rolled its implementation into USB 3.1. In the near future, new devices which feature the old USB 3.0-style plugs will designate them as USB 3.1 Gen 1. For consumers, this is nothing more than crossing out the old name and writing in the new one, but for hardware developers it makes things easier as there is now just one standard to deal with: USB 3.1.

Unfortunately, there are still many feature options to choose from, and one size will rarely fit all.

USB 3.1 Gen 1 vs USB 3.1 Gen 2

USB 3.1 LogosUSB 3.1 Gen 1 is the new name for the old USB 3.0 spec. Gen 1 keeps the 5Gbps speed limit and 900mA power rate limit from USB 3.0, and will still be seen with the familiar Type-A and Type-B connectors in addition to sometimes using the new Type-C one. That's right - hardware developers have the option to make a shiny new Type-C socket run at USB 3.0 speeds (or even USB 2.0 speeds). USB 3.1 Gen 1 is designated as SUPERSPEED USB.

USB 3.1 Gen 2 is the full-strength Type-C-only implementation of the new standard. It has a whopping 10Gbps bandwidth rating and up to 3A of power handling (with 5A available in Power Delivery mode). USB 3.1 Gen 2 is designated as SUPERSPEED+ USB.

Alternate Modes

USB Type-C can also support direct communication with some non-USB devices, such as computer monitors and televisions, by using an Alternate Mode.

Not all Alternate Modes will be supported by all Type-C sockets, and some USB hardware vendors are being deliberately coy about their specific implementation of Alternate Modes such as Thunderbolt 3, leaving users with devices that don't support all of the features they expected.

Thunderbolt 3 can double the USB Type-C bandwidth to 40Gbps, allowing for a single output to drive up to two 4K displays at 60Hz over DisplayPort, Mini-DisplayPort and even HDMI, DVI or VGA on supported screens.

Power Delivery mode allows for USB Type-C to provide up to 100 Watts of power to a secondary device for charging purposes, or up to 60 Watts for devices that use both power and data at the same time. Sleep and Charge is also possible on devices such as desktop computers, allowing connected gadgets to charge even when the computer is powered off.

MHL could make a comeback in new mobile devices thanks to USB Type-C. MHL offers direct wired connection to an external display using HDMI video and audio data. Recently, MHL implementation over the old Micro-USB standard has diminished, but USB-C standards could make it easy to include for smartphones and tablets in the future.

Alternate Mode abilities allow the Type-C socket to send out data in a completely different, non-USB format, so no adapters, converters, drivers or extra software are required, which will cut down on clunky and expensive peripherals. However, be careful to check the user guides, advertising material, manufacturers specifications and even online tech forums to double check that your new PC, laptop or tablet will have the ability to perform the Alternate Mode tasks you require.

Bad Type-C Cables

Early in the adoption of USB Type-C, there were reports of some cables frying devices, which ran a scare through the tech community. As it turned out, some manufacturers used incorrectly specced 10kΩ resistors in their cables, which resulted in the wrong amount of power being requested from the source device. This could cause an overload and did indeed brick some expensive equipment.

Happily, all the manufacturers we know of have solved this problem, and we haven't heard of any ongoing power problems in the market. Certainly, the Type-C cables we stock here at Cable Chick have always been up to specification, with the correct 56kΩ resistor used. However, that brief period of uncertainty has created an opportunity for unscrupulous companies to sell all-new snake oil to consumers still wary of the problem.

Additional third-party certifications and hollow branding campaigns have preyed on many consumers, and we urge customers to be mindful of any company that claims to have a special USB cable manufacturing process or a certification requirement beyond what the USB-IF stipulates. It could well be a load of hot air.

Extruded vs Folded Plugs

USB Type C with a seamOne of the favourite 'how-to-spot-a-bad-USB-C' tips going around the internet is that 'good' USB-C cables must have an extruded metal shell as opposed to the traditional folded and stamped method of all previous USB plugs. Considering that the outer shell is not a conductor and is largely in place to hold the internal pins together, this claim is absolute rubbish so long as the cable is made to USB-IF spec.

We've seen plenty of well made cables that use both the new extrusion method and the folded-and-stamped method, so don't waste your time chasing one type of cable over the other. What matters most is that you're purchasing from a reputable source that backs their products with a good warranty (and your Consumer Rights and Guarantees for Australian retailers).

What devices will have USB Type-C?

  • Motherboards - Many new PC motherboards are shipping with either native, on-board USB-C support, or include PCI expansion cards to offer a Type-C or Type-A socket. Be careful, here, as some Thunderbolt 3 / Alpine Ridge-ready motherboards are shipping without any Alternate Mode support!
  • Notebooks - Some notebook and netbook manufacturers are now available with Type-C. The Chromebook Pixel and Asus Transformer Flip Book are two early adopters, and we've seen firsthand an Asus run dual 4K screens from a single Type-C socket using our adapter and MST hub.
  • Tablets - Tablet PCs like the Nokia N1 and Asus ZenPad S8 have also been released with Type-C sockets for charging, data and OTG functions.
  • Smartphones - Mobiles are the big winner with dozens of phones already available with Type-C sockets for charging, data and OTG functions. Brands like LG, Google, OnePlus and Microsoft are already on the market.
  • External Hard Drives - Portable HDDs will also win with USB-C, with a handful of brands already selling ~10Gbps SSDs
  • USB Flash Drives - For something even more portable, be on the lookout for memory sticks which can plug and play between PCs and Smartphones.

More peripherals will also come into the market, slowly replacing the older Type-A connected devices we're used to. Printers, Scanners, Keyboards, Mice, Media Streaming Devices, Network Storage and more will eventually start to offer Type-C as standard. For now, many devices will be locked to the USB 3.1 Gen 1 speeds of 5Gbps, but soon enough we expect to see things move to SuperSpeed+ 10Gbps as the norm.

Do you need a Type-C cable?

All Type-C to Type-C cables will be capable of 10Gbps bandwith and should also be good for 3A power (we don't yet know what effect cable length will have on USB-C, as only 1 metre cables are currently available for tesing). While all Type-C to Type-A cables will be limited to 5Gbps for USB 3.0 devices and to 480Mbps for USB 2.0 devices. There is no 10Gbps Type-A implementation.

In the early honeymoon period for Type-C, most devices which use Type-C will also ship with a Type-C cable, but this isn't always the case and it only takes one destructive toddler or naughty pet to ruin your only Type-C cable in seconds. Cable Chick offers a variety of Type-C cables and adapters, all of which pass our own testing requirements and have already made many customers happy. Our catalogue of Type-C will only grow from here!

For standard Type-C cables and adapters (Both 10Gbps and 5Gbps), we have the following on offer:

 
 

For special Type-C peripherals and Alternate Mode adapters, the following are available:

 
 

Does USB Type-C leave you all at sea?

USB Type-C will become easier to understand over time, but right now things are messy. If you have any questions or corrections for us, please contact us!