At the office, home or school, USB-C has arrived. We’ve got tips on how to take advantage of those new ports, along with a peek at the future of data transfer and video.
You’ve probably noticed something strange about many of the latest phones, tablets, and laptops at your company: The familiar rectangular Type-A USB ports are gone, replaced by smaller oblong connectors. USB-C has taken over at work, at home, and at school.
While many iPhone and iPad models stick with Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector, USB-C is now part and parcel of most laptops, phones, and tablets made today. Even the latest MacBooks and Chromebooks are part of the movement to USB-C.
What is USB-C?
USB Type-C usually referred to as just USB-C, is a relatively new connector for delivering data and power to and from computing devices. Because the USB-C plug is symmetrical, it can be inserted either way, eliminating the frustrations of earlier USB ports and putting it on a par with Apple’s reversible Lightning plug.
This alone makes it a hit for me, but USB-C is closely linked to several powerful new technologies, including Thunderbolt and USB Power Delivery, that can change how we think about our gear and working in the office, on the road, or at home.
Most USB-C ports are built on the second-generation USB 3.1 data-transfer standard, which can theoretically deliver data at speeds of up to 10Gbps — twice as fast as USB 3.0 and first-gen USB 3.1, which both top out at 5Gbps. The key is to get devices that say “USB 3.1 Rev 2,” “USB 3.1 Gen 2,” “SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps,” or “SuperSpeed+” to get support for the faster spec.
Confusing matters more, the current USB 3.2 standard is mostly a restatement of USB 3.1 specs. For instance, USB 3.2 Gen 1 and 2 are the same as USB 3.1 Gen 1 and 2. The new spec that’s actually noteworthy is USB 3.2 Gen 2X2, which has a pair of 10Gbps lanes of data traffic available for a total of 20Gbps. So far, however, it hasn’t caught on with device manufacturers, so it’s hard to find it on any devices in the wild. That might change in the coming year as new controller chips come out.
To make sure the data gets through at higher speeds, always get high-quality cables. They will often have the SuperSpeed logo and a “10” on them to show they’re capable of moving 10Gbps. The good news is that there’s a good chance that this spaghetti bowl of cable standards could disappear with the next rev of the USB spec with a universal USB cable. More on that later.
Speed, power, and video delivery
A big bonus is that on many laptops and desktops, the USB-C specification also supports Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 data-transfer technology. A USB-C port equipped with Thunderbolt 3 can push data speeds to a theoretical limit of 40Gbps. To show how far we’ve come, that’s four times faster than USB 3.1 and more than 3,000 times faster than the original USB 1 spec of 12Mbps.
With increased data-transfer speeds comes the ability to push video over the same connection. USB-C’s Alternate Mode (or “Alt Mode” for short) for video enables adapters to output video from that same USB-C port to HDMI, DisplayPort, VGA, and other types of video connectors on displays, TVs, and projectors. It pays huge dividends for the ultramobile among us by allowing many recent phones and tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab S7+ and Note and Tab 6 systems, to directly plug into a monitor at home or a projector in the office.
What’s more, USB-C supports the USB Power Delivery (USB PD) specification. A USB 2.0 port can deliver just 2.5 watts of power, about enough to charge a phone, slowly. USB 3.1 ups this figure to about 15 watts. But USB PD can deliver up to 100 watts of power, more than six times what USB 3.1 can. This opens up the potential for laptop-powered projectors based on USB-C, but today it is mostly used for high-power chargers and external battery packs.
Next up: USB4
With USB-C accepted as the de facto connector today, the next step is USB4. It can move up to 40Gbps, provide at least 15 watts of power for accessories, and support two 4K displays or a single 8K display. To its credit, USB4 will continue with the small oblong connector that USB-C brought to the party and will work with existing devices, including USB 2.0 ones. (You will need the right adapter for devices without a USB-C port, though.)
Behind the scenes, USB4 uses the Thunderbolt 4 spec. It sets up bidirectional lanes of data that should help things like videoconferencing, which require two-way data flow to prevent congestion and jams. In addition to extra security to prevent a hack attack, Thunderbolt 4 will be compatible with Thunderbolt 3 devices, like docking stations and External Graphics Processing Units (eGPUs). It includes dynamic data flow that is adjusted to suit the devices, so older devices won’t slow down newer ones.
On the downside, you’ll need a Thunderbolt 4 cable to make it work, but there’s a potential bonus: all Thunderbolt 4 cables will be able to be used on anything from USB 2 (with adapter) through USB4 systems. This will make it as close to a universal data cable as exists today. They’ll be available in 2-meter lengths (about 6½ feet), more than twice the standard 0.8-meter length of current USB-C cables. The key to looking for when shopping is that they will have the iconic Thunderbolt lightning icon and a 4 on the plug.
The USB4/Thunderbolt 4 spec is built into Intel’s 11th-generation Tiger Lake processors, although the company and others will have standalone USB4 controller chips. The first computers with Thunderbolt 4 ports might appear in late 2020 and devices that plug into them early the next year.
Making USB-C work for you
In the here and now, you’ll need to make some changes and buy some accessories to take full advantage of USB-C. This guide can help ease the transition by showing what you can do with USB-C and what you’ll need to make it work.
Be careful, because not all USB-C devices support all of the latest USB-C specs. For instance, just about every USB-C flash drive supports the earlier USB 3.1 Rev 1 protocol, some tablets and phones don’t support Alt Mode video, and we are in the early days of USB Power Delivery, with few devices going beyond 40 or 60 watts. In other words, read the spec sheet carefully so you know what you’re getting before you buy it.
These tools, tips, and DIY projects can help make the transition to a USB-C world easier.
Make a USB-C travel kit
The good news is that USB-C ports can be used with most older USB 2, 3.0, and 3.1 accessories. The bad news is that you’ll need the right adapters and cables, and so far, I haven’t seen a complete kit available. I’ve made my own USB-C survival kit that has six key cables and adapters inside an old zippered case.
Here’s what it contains:
It’s not part of my travel kit, but there’s one additional adapter I’ve found useful at home. Sadly, many Android phones and tablets now lack a headphone jack, making listening to music or being heard on the office Zoom call next to impossible. While I have USB-C earbuds, I usually can’t find them when I need them. When that happens, I use a headphone jack adapter with a set of earbuds with my Samsung Galaxy Note 20 phone.
Apple, Samsung, and other manufacturers sell adapters for about $9 to $15, but I’ve found that generic ones that cost half as much are just as good. I keep a few on hand.
Take your data with you
There’s no shortage of USB-C flash drives for those who like to carry their data with them. The best part is that all you do is insert the drive, and after it is assigned a drive letter, its capacity is available.
SanDiskSanDisk’s Ultra Dual Drive USB Type-C can transfer data at up to 150Mbps.
However, most USB-C drives, like SanDisk’s Ultra Dual Drive USB Type-C, still rely on the USB 3.1 Rev 1 hardware that limits its speed to 150Mbps.
Data hogs will appreciate another approach: carry a large-capacity external drive, like HP’s P700 SSD. It measures 0.4 x 2.6 x 3.6 in., or about the size of a deck of cards, but weighs only 2 ounces. It can hold between 256GB and 1TB of data on flash storage chips and uses the USB 3.1 Rev 2 hardware. According to HP, it can move data as fast as 8Gbps and comes with the cables you’ll need to connect it with a computer, old or new. It costs about $100 for 500GB.
There’s a cheaper way: make one yourself. I did this with a $35 StarTech.com Tool-Free Enclosure that holds a 2.5-in. SATA 500GB SSD drive I took out of a broken laptop. It uses the second-generation USB 3.1 spec and took less than a minute to put together. Here’s how to do it without a screwdriver insight.