Ah, the USB plug. It is as ubiquitous now as it is notorious for never being able to be plugged in right the first time.
But what if I told you that is about to change? That’s right. With the introduction of USB Type-C, the USB Implementers Forum is looking to do away with USB plugs that need to be flipped and flipped again before working. This new plug will change the tech world for the better.
So what exactly is this USB technology, and what will Type-C do for us?
The Current State Of USB
Before we delve into the new tech, let’s explore how USB got to where it is today.
USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, and it’s a standard developed in 1994 by several companies to have a standard for cables and connections between devices that can deliver both data and power. When talking about USB, it’s important to note that there are generations and then types of USB, and these two things coexist.
USB 1.0 started it all, followed by USB 2.0, and our current USB 3.0 (everything you need to know about USB 3.0) — but each of these generations has several types of connectors that are specific to their generation. There are currently Type-A and Type-B connectors that are further complicated by their Standard, Mini, and Micro versions.
Type-A standard 2.0 connectors (above) are the most widely recognized. They’re the big and rectangular, making it difficult to know which end is up or down, since it can only be inserted one way. Type-A USB 1.0 plugs and receptacles basically do not exist anymore, since they were officially released in 1996 but replaced in 2000 with the release of USB 2.0, which is when the USB standard really began to take over.
When most people think of the standard USB plug, it is the Type-A 2.0 version. USB 3.0 was actually released back in 2008, but it has been slow to catch on. Many laptops now incorporate standard Type-A USB 3.0 ports, marked by a bright blue color inside the receptacle, but often they include only one or two 3.0 ports and several more 2.0 ports. Thankfully, standard USB 3.0 plugs and receptacles are the same shape as 2.0 plugs and receptacles, making them completely backwards compatible.
Type-A mini and micro connectors also exist, but are incredibly rare. The mini was discontinued in 2007, while the micro is rarely used in any products. Neither of these were updated with 3.0 versions.
Type-B standard connectors (above) are the squarish ones often seen on printers or scanners. They are also usually found in the 2.0 variety, although blue 3.0 versions do exist similar to how the situation is for Type-A standard connectors.
Type-B mini (above left) and micro (above right) connectors are probably what you are more familiar with. When you think of a mini-USB or micro-USB plug, you’re probably thinking of the USB 2.0 Type-B mini or micro plug. Micro-USB Type-B got the bump to 3.0, but mini was left behind.
However, the new 3.0 Type-B micro (below) is wider than the previous 2.0 Type-B micro, meaning that the 3.0 plug is incompatible with 2.0 receptacles, although 2.0 plugs do still fit in 3.0 receptacles.
Nearly all modern smartphones, aside from the iPhone which uses a proprietary Lightning charger, charge via a 2.0 Type-B micro. The Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy S5 are noticeably different, opting for the more modern 3.0 Type-B micro.
If you’re keeping track, these are all the different kinds of USB plugs and ports currently available:
- Standard Type-A 2.0
- Standard Type-A 3.0
- Standard Type-B 2.0
- Standard Type-B 3.0
- Mini Type-A 2.0 (Discontinued 2007)
- Micro Type-A 2.0 (Rare)
- Mini Type-B 2.0
- Micro Type-B 2.0
- Micro Type-B 3.0
Excluding the discontinued and rare plugs, that’s seven connectors in common usage today. Think that could use a little simplifying?
How Is USB Type-C Better?
Type-C does away with the mini and micro monikers, meaning that there is just one size for computers and smartphones alike — and it eliminates the need for Type-A and Type-B connectors.
The current specification for Type-C plug is slightly wider and thicker than the current 2.0 Type-B micro plugs — the average micro-USB used in smartphones. While this could be a problem for smartphones that keep getting thinner and thinner, it is refreshing to see one plug type that can go into any device without worrying about its type or size.
Because Type-C is being built on the newest generation of USB 3.1, you can expect to see data transfer speeds of up to 10Gbps. That’s twice USB 3.0’s 5Gbps, and much more than the more common USB 2.0’s 480Mbps. It’s even got enough speed to power the video and audio of a 4K Ultra HD display.
In terms of charging, we could see one cable to charge everything. Currently, only low-energy devices can be powered by micro-USB like smartphones, some tablets, and even one Chromebook. Other things, like laptops and monitors, need to be powered by proprietary chargers because of their higher power consumption, which is quite inconvenient.
Most smartphone chargers handle 5 volts at 2 amps, while computers need 20 volts at 5 amps. USB 3.1, and the new Type-C connectors by extension, supports power scalability up to 100 watts, allowing for one cable that can charge at the lower-end smartphone level or higher-end desktop level. Imagine having the same charger for your computer, tablet, camera, and smartphone. Not bad.
The designers of the Type-C design have also made it so that a user will hear a small click noise when inserting the plug into a port. This is a feature many of us probably don’t think that we need in a USB port, but it actually does a lot for reassuring the user that the cable has been plugged in properly.
And best of all, Type-C plugs are reversible. No more flipping around your USB plug trying to get it to fit properly. Whichever way you plug it in, it will work.
When Will We See It?
A finalized specification for Type-C should be coming soon, as the USB-IF said that they would be releasing it around the end of July, but have yet to do so. However, once the USB-IF approves it, it could be a while before we see its mainstream usage in our everyday electronics. USB 3.0 was released in 2008 and just barely begun getting put into computers in the last few years — some computer even ship with only USB 2.0 ports still.
At the earliest, we might see Type-C devices coming out in 2015, but you can probably expect it to take even longer for most manufacturers to work the designs into their future products. Even once that happens, it’s likely that computers will launch with standard Type-A ports alongside the Type-C ports to allow for some adjustment, similar to how many computers nowadays launch with USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports.
There will also be a bevy of adapters for Type-C cables to make them backwards compatible with our current standard Type-A and micro Type-B ports and plugs. The transition between standards is always rough, but hopefully once we’ve switched to Type-C in a few years, everything will work more smoothly.
Do you think the USB-IF is going in the right direction with this new specification? Will you be holding out for a device with the new Type-C ports? Let us know in the comments.
Image Credit: Mini USB cable on the white background, USB connector and cable (type b), USB cable plug isolated on white background, Micro-USB cable and plug isolated on white background, and USB 3.0 cable with type-A and micro-B type connector from Shutterstock, USB Icon and Types USB from Wikipedia, Reddit/Quantum Physics explains USB behavior.