USB Type-C: Where It Came From and Where It’s Going

USB Type-C is the Cable Connection of the Future; It's Smaller, Faster -- and Can Transmit Data, Display and Even Power All at the Same Time


March 10, 2015

Amid the growing challenges presented by designing and building increasingly thinner and lighter laptops,  several companies got together to develop a new spec for USB,  the universal connection standard born out of Intel’s labs in the 1990’s but eventually widely adopted thanks to Apple and the iMac G3.

The new spec, known as USB Type-C, initially grew out of talks between AMD, HP, Intel, and Microsoft while developing USB 3.1 and eventually involved dozens of other companies, but Apple and Google are among the first to implement it in laptops. More companies are expected to announce products soon in the effort to further simplify the plug-in experience.

The single new USB Type-C connector that replaces power, USB Standard-A, DisplayPort, HDMI and VGA on the new Apple MacBook.

USB, short for Universal Serial Bus, is nearly two decades old now. The connection standard has influenced how we connect our computers to peripherals and data devices; it’s even standardized how we charge many of our mobile devices.

USB Type-C, which came about in the planning of the USB 3.1 standard (SuperSpeed USB 10 Gbps), is capable of providing data, display, and even power all through a single port. What sets it ahead of all previous connectors is that it’s completely reversible, so there’s no chance of plugging it in “upside down.”

Apple, a company that favors proprietary connectors on its iPhone, iPad and iPod products, has embraced USB Type-C on its latest MacBook. The new connector replaces every I/O port except for the headphone jack, helping enable a thin form factor just 13.1 mm thick. USB Type-C’s ability to supply 100W has even caused Apple to do away with its venerable MagSafe power connector.

Google, on the other hand, is taking a less immediate approach with its new Chromebook Pixel, which features two USB Type-C ports but also retains a pair of USB Standard-A connectors and an SD card reader to bridge both new and existing gadgets.

Thanks to USB Type-C being a standard, accessories and adapters will work on both the MacBook and Chromebook. USB Type-C powered devices can even share the same charger as long as power requirements are met.

The new Chromebook Pixel features USB Type-C for charging and new devices along with USB Standard-A connectors for compatibility.

Like the USB standards before it, the new connector is the result of a group effort from over three dozen computer companies. Intel, in addition to chairing the specification committee, devoted two dozen engineers and drafted a significant portion of the standard. However, Intel engineer Brad Saunders, chairman of the USB 3.0 promoter group, insists that the USB Type-C spec was a collaborative effort where Intel was merely a catalyst.

USB Type-C connector placed on top of a Standard-A testing board. The USB Type-C connector is one-third the size of Standard-A.

“The physical connector design was driven by multiple connector suppliers that collaborated and created the design, openly. We collaboratively set the requirements, and the connector suppliers delivered to those requirements,” said Saunders. “We were interested in how the USB Type-C connector works, especially in the areas of signal integrity and radio frequency interference and mitigation.”

The Type-C connector standard went from concept in July 2013 to finalized spec on August 12, 2014. While the new connector may bear striking similarities to the size of the USB 2.0 Micro-B connector used on many smartphones today, and the reversibility of Apple’s Lightning connector, USB Type-C was driven by rapidly evolving product industrial design requirements.

“The initial start of this was getting to thinner notebook PCs,” said Saunders. “In fact, this was driven by 2-in-1s and other new platform designs where the product was going to get so thin that the USB Standard-A connector [the one commonly found on systems today] was too big. That’s what drove this, not the phone.”

The Nokia N1 tablet is the first shipping product to use USB Type-C.
Image credit: Nokia

Of course, the compact size and improved technical features of the new connector are well suited to next-generation mobile designs as well. The Nokia N1 tablet, available now in China, features the USB Type-C connector working with Android 5.0 Lollipop on a 2.3GHz Intel Atom Z3580 processor.

While most people would say fewer wires and thinner laptops are a good thing, replacing all those ports will require a new dongle to be able to use existing flash drives and external monitors. Indeed, amid all the glowing first impressions for the new MacBook, there was also grumbling over the $79 price of the Apple dongle. But since USB Type-C is a standardized connector, there will be plenty of third party options.

“This is a disruptive change, but by no means are we saying that other connectors are obsolete,” said Saunders.

In these early stages, it’s easy to make a strong case for the compact and capable USB Type-C connector on laptops and other mobile devices, but there are far-reaching technical benefits that will apply to the desktop PCs as well.

“The reason the desktop community will eventually adopt it will probably be because of an ease of use issue, making it easy to plug something in behind a PC – I can plug this thing in behind my back – but even more likely the reason they’ll adopt it is for the performance benefit,” Saunders explained. “The USB Standard-A connector today is limited to 10 Gbps on a single channel of data. USB Type-C is designed with more wires and higher frequencies, so there’s a roadmap to adding more functionality and going faster. When those things become relevant, enthusiast PCs will want to use USB Type-C.”

This content was originally published on the Intel Free Press website.

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