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Standardisation at last?

Matt Pluckrose, managing director of Desktop Ideas, on the new USB-C ports.

We have all got used to changes in the cables and connectors that power and connect our devices to power and our data hosts. Just when they seemed
to make sense to us, all the major tech companies have found a new standard which hopefully can bring standardisation over time. This new standard is known as USB-C and its design features reversible, symmetrical ends so there is no longer a wrong way to insert a cable into a port. But the significance of this is far more significant than that for laptops, tablet and smartphone users. The new connector technology means we should see quicker charging of gadgets, faster transfer of data and, as the design is somewhat smaller than its ancestors, slimmer devices.

USB-A was the original design. The Type-A connector was the one that plugs into a computer – into, not surprisingly, a Type-A port. Most host devices such as desktops, laptops and games consoles have these. USB-B is the connector that is on the other end and usually, this plugs into a peripheral such as a printer, phone or external hard drive. The port that a Type-B connector plugs into is called a Type-B port.

Over the last few years, we have seen the Mini-B USB get smaller and this is what was found on smaller and older portable devices. This type of port and connector is no longer being produced so is heading into “gadget history”. Micro-B USB is used on smartphones and tablets that aren’t Apple devices such as the iPhone and iPad. The explosion in popularity of smart devices has led to a corresponding boom in popularity for this connector and style.

USB-C came last year. Intel is behind this initiative as Brad Saunders, USB 3.0 Promoter Group chairman, said at the original announcement in December, adding: “While USB technology is well established as the favoured choice for connecting and powering devices, we recognise the need to develop a new connector to meet evolving design trends in terms of size and usability.”

USB-C replaces all the Type-B connectors and ports at the peripheral end and in time will most likely all but completely replace Type-A connectors and ports at the host end. Around the same size as a Micro-B connector, the Type-C should fit every type of peripheral making it universal across all devices.

What other benefits does USB-C offer me?

USB-C will support USB 3.1 allowing data transfers of up to 10GB per second – that’s very quick! It will also have a much higher power output of 20V (100W) and 5A. This means that in addition to charging smartphones and tablets, the technology can power laptops as well. (Most notebooks draw around 60W of power.) The power output with USB-C means that many devices such as HDD drives will no longer need a separate power adaptor. The technology also allows for bi-directional power. This means that not only can a host power an accessory but an accessory could also recharge its host device. This could mean we don’t need as many different power adapters and USB cables, leaving us with a single cable capable of working with all devices.

Can it connect to other types of port?

USB-C ports can support many different protocols using something called “alternate modes”. This means you can have adapters that output HDMI, VGA, DisplayPort, or other connections from a single USB port. Apple’s store features a USB-C Digital Multiport Adaptor that does just this. This means fewer types of port on the host device in the future so they can become smaller, thinner and more appealing.

What about backwards compatibility? The physical connection isn’t backwards compatible but the underlying standard is. This means that with the right type of adapter, your devices can connect to USB-C devices without any compatibility issues other than the need to find the right physical cable. The new cable won’t see all the old types of USB disappear overnight – there will be a slow transition with computers having both types of ports for some time, apart from Apple who is fully adopting the new standard.

When will we see USB-C in  our devices?

The answer is now! The latest Apple MacBook sports a single USB-C port to do just about everything, except for the 3.5mm headphone socket. The latest Chromebook Pixel has two USB-C ports as well as normal USB-A ports. HP has introduced USB-C into its latest tablet-cum-laptop, the Pavilion x2, although, unlike Apple, it is bursting with ports. It won’t be long and this new standard will be the one we are all familiar with and, as with all technology, now is the time to be telling your client about what’s happening tomorrow before your competitors do.

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