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New USB cables could replace all other cords

USB Type-C may just be the holy grail of device connectors, replacing even your laptop or TV power cord. Just bear with a bit of muddle while everyone gets on board.

The USB Type-C cable has no right-side up.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

USB, the workhorse port used for everything from phones to cars, is about to get even more useful. But consumers may find the changes puzzling at first.

A new style of USB port called Type-C promises a lot. You can insert cables either way up so there's no fiddling with the proper orientation. The port can also transfer data faster, connect computers to TVs, and supply power to laptops, not just phones.

Sounds great, right? The problem is that it's not going to be clear at the beginning which USB ports will be able to handle which jobs. Your first USB Type-C port won't necessarily come with all the new abilities.

The move to USB Type-C is the latest technology shift that's likely to throw you for a loop. The fact that everyone uses USB amplifies the problem. After the standard settles in, we should all eventually benefit from chargers that work on any laptop, a simplified selection of ports and cables, and less fumbling when it's time to plug something in. You'll just need a little patience.

The current crop of USB Type-C gadgets underscores the inconsistencies. Two laptops that were early with USB Type-C support, Apple's MacBook and Google's Chromebook Pixel 2, each use the port for video and charging as well as traditional USB data-transfer duties. But Google's Nexus 6P and 5X smartphones combine the new port with the older, slower data transfer speeds and don't support video. The USB Type-C port on HP's Pavilion x2 laptop also can't handle video, but the one on HP's newer Spectre x2 can.

The little standard that could

The original Universal Serial Bus standard actually lived up to the ubiquity its name promised, spreading from computers to TVs, cars, tiny data-storage drives and even heated slippers. Its first job was transferring data such as backup files to an external hard drive. Its next job was providing power, most notably to that smartphone that always seems to need charging.

The Huawei-built Google Nexus 6P smartphone has USB Type-C, but not the fast data transfer rates or video support that sometimes accompany the new USB port.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

But now, things get more complicated. That's because USB standards cover two separate domains. First is the physical design of the ports and cables, where the new reversible Type-C plug can replace the half dozen or so USB connectors in use today. Second are the electronics rules governing USB communications. Those are what enable the higher speeds, video support and new power delivery options that Type-C promises. All these features are arriving at about the same time, but not as a package deal.

Consumers initially will be confused, said Jeff Ravencraft, president of the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), the industry group that standardizes the technology. But they'll adjust, he said.

"Next year, a good percentage of not only tablets but laptops are going to support USB Type-C," Ravencraft said, and by the second half of 2016, USB Type-C will be the norm for mainstream consumers, not just techies.

Better living through logos

USB-IF has different approaches to dispel the confusion.

new USB logos

The familiar USB "trident" logo gets new meanings. Overlaid on a battery, it means the USB port is good for charging or running devices that need lots of electrical power. The SS denotes the 5Gbps data-transfer rate of USB 3.0; SS and 10 denotes the 10Gbps speed of USB 3.1.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

First, it is training salespeople at Best Buy, Staples and other retailers so they can explain the new connector to customers. Second, it has created logos that show what each connector is capable of handling.

A battery graphic with the traditional USB "trident" logo shows it can be used for high-power charging. The letters SS linked to the trident show it will transfer data at the 5 gigabits per second "SuperSpeed" rating of USB 3.0. Adding "10" denotes the newest 10Gbps speed of USB 3.1, which is fast enough to back up your 50-gigabyte music library in 40 seconds instead of 14 minutes.

Further logos will indicate support for sending video to monitors and displays.

There's no guarantee these icons will appear, though. For instance, the USB Type-C ports on Google's Chromebook Pixel 2 and Apple's MacBook offer no indication they handle power, video and high-speed data.

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Money and power

Jeff Ravencraft, USB-IF's president

"Next year, a good percentage of not only tablets but laptops are going to support USB Type-C," says Jeff Ravencraft, USB-IF's president.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Why not just build all the features into USB Type-C ports? Money.

"The device would have been more expensive, so we spent the money on things that we felt would be more useful for the customer," said Mike Nash, vice president of customer experience at HP, speaking of the company's choice to leave USB video out of its Pavilion x2, a $300 convertible laptop.

Everyone agrees power is a big deal, though. USB today is OK for charging phones and running external hard drives, but in the future it will be good for powering laptops, monitors, printers and most other gadgets. With support for up to 100 watts -- enough to power all but the largest laptops sold today -- USB power ports should eventually show up on power strips.

"Fast forward five years, and it's going to be nice that you'll be able to go to an airport and charge your notebook without carrying your AC adapter everywhere," said Frank Azor, the Alienware and XPS general manager at Dell.

Inevitable

One thing is not in doubt: USB Type-C's arrival. While older ports will persist for years, eventually Type-C's smaller size and greater abilities will prevail.

"I expect it will ultimately subsume other cords, notably the power cable," said Endpoint Technologies Associates analyst Roger Kay.

USB-IF's Ravencraft said the Type-C transition is moving faster than any tech standard shift he's seen.

"For the MacBook to come with only one connector, and it's Type-C, is about as aggressive as you could get," Ravencraft said. "The adoption is happening faster than we ever dreamed it would."