USB Type-C: One cable to connect them all

CNET editor Dong Ngo explains the USB standard and the significance of the latest USB Type-C.

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USB Type-C will replace all these current different types of USB cables. Dong Ngo/CNET

Look around your house and chances are you that have a least a few devices equipped with Universal Serial Bus (USB) cables. On average, some 3 billion USB ports are shipped each year, by far the most successful type of peripheral connection.

In years, though, USB is getting competition and it now trails behind the new Thunderbolt standard both in speed and ease of use. This is the gap that the latest in USB development, the USB Type-C, finalized just earlier this month, intends to fill.

Before you can understand USB Type-C, however, you need to know the difference between USB Type-A and Type-B, and tell between the various versions of the USB standard. Generally, version refers to the speed and functionality of the USB cable, while the USB Type refers to the physical shape and the wiring of the ports and plugs.

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For the most part, Type-A ends (left of the coin) of the USB cables remains the same across existing USB versions. Dong Ngo/CNET

USB Type-A

Also known as USB Standard-A, USB Type-A is the original design for the USB standard with a flat and rectangular shape.

On a typical USB cable, the Type A connector, aka the A-male connector, is the end that goes into a host, such as a computer. And on a host, the USB port (or receptacle) where the Type A-male goes into, is called an A-female port. Type-A ports are mostly in host devices, including desktop computers, laptops, game consoles, media players and so on. There are very few peripheral devices that use a Type-A port.

Different USB versions including USB 1.1, USB 2.0, USB 3.0 (more on versions below) currently share the same USB Type-A design. That means a Type-A connector is always compatible with a Type-A port event if the device and host use different USB versions. For example, a USB 3.0 external hard drive also works with a USB 2.0 port, and vice versa.

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Type-A USB port for USB 3.0 (blue) and USB 2.0 on the back of a computer. Dong Ngo/CNET

Similarly, small devices such as a mouse, keyboard, or network adapter that have hard-wired USB cables always use Type-A connectors. That's true also for things without cables, such as a thumb drive.

Though USB 3.0's connectors and ports have have more pins than those of USB 2.0 versions to deliver faster speed and higher power output, these pins are organized in a way that doesn't prevent them from physically working with the older version.

Also note that there are smaller Type-A plugs and connectors, including Mini Type-A and Micro Type-A, but there are very few devices that use these designs.

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Popular USB Type-B: From left Standard-B, Mini-B, Micro-B, Micro-B USB 3.0, and Standard-B USB 3.0. Dong Ngo/CNET

USB Type-B

Typically, the Type-B connector is the other end of a standard USB cable that plugs into peripheral device (such as a printer, a phone, or an external hard drive). It's also known as Type B-male. On the peripheral device, the USB port is called Type B-female.

Since the peripheral devices vary a great deal in shape and size, the Type-B connector and its respective port also come in many different designs. Up to now there have been five popular designs for the USB Type-B's plugs and connectors. And since the Type-A end of a USB cable remains the same, the Type-B end is used to determine the name of the cable itself. (Wikipedia has a great USB connector mating matrix that you can consult.)

The original standard (Standard-B): This design was first made for USB 1.1 and is also used in USB 2.0. It's mostly for connecting large peripheral devices, such as printers or scanners to a computer.

Mini-USB (or Mini-B USB): Significantly smaller, the Mini-USB Type-B ports are found in older portable devices, such as digital cameras, smartphones, and older portable drives. This design is becoming obsolete.

Micro-USB (or Micro-B USB): Slightly smaller than Mini-USB, the Micro-USB Type-B port is currently the most popular USB port design for latest smartphones and tablets.

Micro-USB 3.0 (or Micro-B USB 3.0): This is the widest design and mostly used for USB 3.0 portable drives. Most of the time, the Type-A end of the cable is blue.

Standard-B USB 3.0: This design is very similar to the Standard-B, however, it's designed to handle USB 3.0 speed. Most of the time, both ends of the cable are blue.

Note that there's also another, less popular, USB 3.0 Powered-B plug and connector. This design has two additional pins to provide extra power to the peripheral device. Also, there's relatively a rare Micro Type-AB port that allows the device to work as either a host or a peripheral device.

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A few proprietary USB cables for Samsung and Apple devices. Dong Ngo/CNET

Proprietary USB

Not all devices use standard USB cables mentioned above. Instead, some of them use a proprietary design in the place of the Type-B plug and connector. The most famous example of these devices are the iPhone and the iPad, where either a 30-pin or lightning connector takes place of the Type-B end. The Type-A end, however, is still the standard size.

USB revisions

Top speed Max power output Power direction Cable configuration Availability
USB 1.1 12Mbps 2.5V, 500mA Host to peripheral Type-A to Type-B 1998
USB 2.0 480Mbps 2.5V, 1.8A Host to peripheral Type-A to Type-B 2000
USB 3.0 5Gbps 5V, 1.8A Host to peripheral Type-A to Type-B 2008
USB 3.1 10Gbps 20V, 5A Bi-directional Type-C both ends, reversible plug orientation 2015

USB versions

USB 1.1: Released in August 1998, this is the first USB version to be widely adopted (the original version 1.0 never made it into consumer products). It has a top speed of 12Mbps (though in many cases only performs at 1.2Mbps). It's largely obsolete.

USB 2.0: Released in April 2000, it has a max speed of 480Mbps in Hi-Speed mode, or 12Mbps in Full-Speed mode. It currently has the max power out put of 2.5V, 1.8A and is backward-compatible with USB 1.1.

USB 3.0: Released in November 2008, USB 3.0 has the top speed of 5Gbps in SuperSpeed mode. A USB 3.0 port (and connector) is usually colored blue. USB 3.0 is backward-compatible with USB 2.0 but its port can deliver up to 5V, 1.8A of power.

USB 3.1: Released in July 26, 2013, USB 3.1 doubles the speed of USB 3.0 to 10Gbps (now called SuperSpeed+ or SuperSpeed USB 10 Gbps), making it as fast as the original Thunderbolt standard. USB 3.1 is backward-compatible with USB 3.0 and USB 2.0. USB 3.1 has three power profiles (according to USB Power Delivery Specification), and allows larger devices to draw power from a host: up to 2A at 5V (for a power consumption of up to 10W), and optionally up to 5A at either 12V (60W) or 20V (100W). The first USB 3.1 products are expected to be available next year, and will mostly use USB Type-C design.

USB Type-C

Physically, the Type-C port and connector is about the same size as that of the Micro-B USB mentioned above. A Type-C port measure just 8.4mm by 2.6mm. This means it's small enough to work for even the smallest peripheral devices. With Type-C, a USB cable's both ends will be the same, allowing for reversible plug orientation. You also don't need to worry about plugging it in upside down.

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Foxconn

Set to be available next year, Type-C USB will support USB 3.1 with the top speed of 10Gbps and has much high power output of up to 20V(100W) and 5A. Considering most 15-inch notebook computers require just around 60W of power, this means in the future laptop computers can be charged the way tablets and smartphones are now, via their little USB port.

Type-C USB also allows for bi-directional power, so apart from charging the peripheral device, when applicable, a peripheral device could also charge a host device. All this means you can do away with an array of proprietary power adapters and USB cables, and move to a single robust and tiny solution that works for all devices. Type-C USB will significantly cut down the a amount of wires currently needed to make devices work.

Backward-compatible but adapters required

Type-C USB and USB 3.1 are backward-compatible with USB 3.0 and USB 2.0. However, with Type-C USB, the Type-A ports and plugs are no longer included. This means before Type-C becomes universal, existing host and peripheral devices will need an adapter to work with other Type-C-enabled devices.

This is the fist time adapters are required with USB, and likely the only time, at least for the the foreseeable future. USB Implementers Forum, the group responsible for the development of USB, says that Type-C USB is designed to be future-proof, meaning the design will be used for future and faster USB versions.

It will take a few years for Type-C become as popular as the current Type-A, but when it does it will simplify the way we work with devices. There will be just one tiny cable needed for any device, for both data and power connections.

Tags:
Peripherals
About the author

CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews networking and storage products, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.

 

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