A single standard to rule them all is mostly elusive in the realm of personal technology. At best, there’s a format war and one emerges victorious for a few years until an entirely new technology comes along. To wit, VHS ate Betamax but then was replaced entirely by the DVD, which is now facing extinction in the face of Blu-ray, a standard that itself slaughtered its chief rival, HD DVD.
But USB-C is different, perhaps even truly as universal as its acronym (Universal Serial Bus) suggests. It is now found on all manner of devices from simple external hard drives to smartphone charging cables. But while every USB-C port looks the same, not every one offers the same capabilities. Here’s a guide to everything it can do, and which of its features you should look for when buying your next USB-C device.
What Is USB-C?
USB-C is the industry-standard connector for transmitting both data and power. The USB-C connector was developed by the USB Implementers Forum, the group of companies that has developed, certified, and shepherded the USB standard. It counts more than 700 companies in its membership, including Apple, Dell, HP, Intel, Microsoft, and Samsung. This is important, because it’s part of why USB-C has been so readily accepted by PC manufacturers. Contrast this with the earlier Apple-promoted (and developed) Lightning and MagSafe connectors, which had limited acceptance beyond Apple products, and, because of USB-C, are soon to be completely obsolete.
Is It Like Micro USB?
The USB-C connector looks similar to a micro USB connector at first glance, though it’s more oval-shaped and slightly thicker to accommodate its best feature: Like Lightning and MagSafe, the USB-C connector has no up or down orientation. Line up the connector properly, and you don’t have to flip it to plug it in. The cables also have the same connector on both ends, so you don’t have to figure out which end goes where, which has not been the case with all the USB cables we’ve been using for the past 20 years.
USB-C and USB 3.1
The default protocol with the USB-C connector is USB 3.1, which, at 10Gbps, is theoretically twice as fast as USB 3.0. The minor wrinkle is that USB 3.1 ports can also exist in the original, larger shape; these ports are called USB 3.1 Type-A. But aside from on desktops, it’s much more common to see USB 3.1 ports with USB-C connectors.
The USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) has defined the USB 3.1 Gen 1 standard as meeting the same interface and data signaling rates as USB 3.0. So when you see USB 3.1 Gen 1, it basically works at the same 5Gbps speeds as USB 3.0. USB 3.1 Gen 2 refers to data signaling rates at 10Gbps, double that of USB 3.0, and matching the speeds of single-channel Thunderbolt.
USB-C’s support for sending simultaneous video signals and power streams means that you can connect to and power a native DisplayPort, MHL, or HDMI device, or connect to almost anything else assuming you have the proper adapter and cables. (See the next section for more on this.) The USB-C spec even includes audio transmissions, but so far it has not replaced the 3.5mm headphone jack on computers as it has on phones like the Essential Phone PH-1. This and many other high-end Android phones, such as the Google Pixel 2 XL, use the USB-C interface for charging and data transfer instead of their former go-to, micro USB, even if they also include a conventional 3.5mm headphone jack.
Make sure to check the specs on any PC you’re thinking of buying, because not all USB-C ports are alike. So far, every one we’ve seen supports both data transfers and power delivery over USB-C. But while the USB-C standard supports connecting DisplayPort and/or HDMI displays with an adapter, not every PC maker has connected the ports to every system’s graphics hardware.
Perhaps the most useful protocol USB-C supports is Thunderbolt 3. This adds 40Gbps bandwidth, reduced power consumption, and the ability to move as much as 100 watts of power. A USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3 means a single cable is all you need to power and transfer a large amount of information (up to and including two 60Hz 4K displays) to and from even a complex device like a computer, something many laptop manufacturers have been quick to take advantage of. The top-of-the-line version of Apple’s MacBook Pro boasts four of these connectors, which is as many as we’ve seen to date, and gives you more expandability potential than you ever had with earlier versions of USB.
Adapters and Cables
USB-C is electrically compatible with older USB 3.0 ports, and, as we discussed above, is completely compatible with USB 3.1 ports. But because of the new style of port, adapters or cables with both of the required plugs are indeed required if you want to connect anything that doesn’t have the USB-C plug. Sometimes a new laptop will come with these, in other cases you may have to purchase them separately. Apple, for instance, sells a variety of USB cables and adapters for connecting to other technologies such as Lightning ($25 for a 1-meter cable) or Ethernet ($34.95 for an adapter). You can also find a variety of these for PCs as well if you browse online retailers. Some even support older or more esoteric protocols, to ensure a device you have from years ago will work on today’s hardware: It was easy to find USB-C–to–DVI adapters, for example, but we also came across one that split to two RS-232 serial connections.
The good news, though, is that if you invest in a couple of normal USB-C cables (they range in price from $10 to $30), they will work with anything and everything that supports USB-C. That’s a big step up from the situation of the recent past, where pulling a mini USB cable out of your bag to charge your micro USB–equipped phone was almost as useless as grabbing a Nokia Pop-Port or Sony Ericsson charger.
Have only one USB-C port? Don’t fret, as there are now multiple USB-C docking solutions available, both from PC manufacturers like Dell and HP, and third-party accessory makers like Belkin, Caldigit, and OWC. These docks can recharge your laptop, give you access to extra ports including Ethernet, HDMI, USB 3.0, and VGA, and add support for multiple monitors.
Do You Need USB-C?
The presence (or absence) of a USB-C port is increasingly becoming a consideration when buying a PC. If you buy an ultrathin laptop, it will almost certainly have a USB-C port, which will catapult you into the ecosystem automatically. If you’re more of a lover of desktops, you’re almost certain to find the ports there, too, particularly on high-end and gaming desktops. In a few years, USB ports using the old Type-A style connector will be much harder to find—and who’ll want to put up with their sluggish speeds at that point, anyway?
Even if you don’t need USB-C now—and since even power users probably don’t have much hardware that can fully task it, especially if Thunderbolt 3 is involved—you will before long. We’re only scratching the surface of what USB-C can do, but one thing is certain: The next generation of cross-platform connectors is quickly replacing the old guard just as the original USB standard replaced Apple Desktop Bus (ADB), FireWire, parallel, PS/2, SCSI, and serial ports on Macs and PCs. USB-C truly is one port to rule them all.