USB Type-C Technology

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USB Type-C Technology

by Michael Gariffo

Docid: 00021024

Publication Date: 2203

Report Type: TUTORIAL


Rapid advancements in the mobile device market have resulted
in smartphones, tablets, and even laptops that are capable of things that would
have required a powerful desktop to accomplish just a few years ago. However,
one area that has remained relatively stagnant is the type of port used to
provide a wired data connection and power source to these devices. Aside from a
few proprietary alternatives like Apple’s Lightning cable, Micro USB was the de facto
protocol for both power and data since the days of flip phones. Its run may
finally be coming to an end, however, as a newer protocol, USB Type-C, is
replacing Micro USB by offering several additional benefits and features that its
aging counterpart cannot. This report profiles the USB Type-C protocol, its
capabilities, and the manufacturers that are integrating it into their

Report Contents:


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Faulkner Reports
Google Mobile
Computer Company Profile

USB types are developed and implemented by the aptly named USB Implementers’
Forum. This non-profit organization has been in existence since 1995 and
includes board members from technology manufacturers such as HP, Microsoft,
STMicroelectronics and others. Industry giants like Apple and Intel also

Typically, each new type of USB connector or port is developed to address a
particular need or issue with existing technology, while also attempting to
maintain the maximum possible level of backwards and forwards compatibility with
other versions of USB ports and connectors. For example, most USB 3.0 devices
can be plugged into a USB 2.0 port and still function despite the fact
that the maximum data transfer rate for USB 3.0 is much higher. This is due to
the efforts by the USB Implementers’ Forum to reduce fragmentation and ensure
universal usability.

While the number of USB connectors and versions already
approved by the group exceeds what can be covered here, we will be taking
a closer look at a particular subset of USB connectors and ports – those
specifically designed to be used on mobile devices. This will include the legacy
Mini USB format as well as the nearly ubiquitous Micro USB and, the topic of
this report, USB Type-C. 


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USB for Portable Devices

Creating USB protocols specifically for mobile or portable devices began with
the introduction of USB Mini. Although this protocol itself went through several
iterations, the most well known – and the only one still in use – is the USB Mini-B
connector and port.2 The first two
iterations, USB Mini-A and USB Mini-AB, did not support the OTG (On-The-Go)
protocol that the USB Implementers’ Forum now requires all mobile technologies
to support. Although USB Mini-B did prove very successful and is indeed still used in numerous devices, it has been largely usurped by Micro
USB. The Micro USB plug and port
architecture have one very important advantage over USB Mini-B plugs and ports:
They are rated for twice as many usage cycles. This refers to the fact that,
while USB Mini-B connectors are expected to last through 5,000 insertions and
removals, Micro USB connectors are expected to last through 10,000 thanks to their
differing construction.3 Given that these ports and plugs
are being used on mobile devices, many of which are plugged in and unplugged
numerous times per day, it is extremely important that the connectors are sturdy. Due to this, the industry was quick to adopt the new, more durable
Micro USB and has been using it ever since.

Figure 1. A Comparison of a USB Mini-B Connector (Left) with a Micro USB Connector (Right)

Figure 1. A Comparison of a USB Mini-B Connector (Left) with a Micro USB Connector (Right)


USB Type-C

Now that we have taken a brief look at USB Type-C’s predecessors and why
they were developed, we can took a look at the titular protocol and examine the
problems that initiated its development. 

USB Type-C provides several benefits over its older
cousins, many of which will be explained in detail during this report. However,
the single most important improvement that it offers over Micro USB, and indeed
over nearly every other consumer electronics connector, is
that its plug is fully reversible. The seemingly simple, binary positioning of a
USB connector has proven so frustrating and such a continual bother over the
years that it has become something of a running gag with technology developers.
Even Intel has joined in on the joke with its attempt to apply quantum mechanics
to solving the mystery of how a plug that has only two sides can often take 3 or
more tries to insert correctly. 

Figure 2. Intel’s Comedic Take on Explaining USB Plug
Insertion Difficulties with Quantum Mechanics

Figure 2. Intel's Comedic Take on Explaining USB Plug Insertion Difficulties with Quantum Mechanics

Source: Intel

All joking aside, the issue is a
bothersome one and a particular obstacle that other manufacturers took seriously
enough that they developed their own connectors to rectify it, such as a two-sided
Micro USB plug from some third-party
manufacturers and Apple’s well-known reversible Lightning connector. To
accomplish the task of creating a foolproof plug and port, the USB Type-C
connector is symmetrical, making it nearly impossible to insert incorrectly as
it will function both "right-side-up" and

Figure 3. A Comparison of USB Type-C (Left) with Apple’s Lightning Connector (Center) and Micro USB (Right)

Figure 3. A Comparison of USB Type-C (Left) with Apple's Lightning Connector (Center) and Micro USB (Right)

Source: Ars Technica

As readers can see in the above image, despite
its extra capabilities (covered in more detail below) and its
symmetrical nature, the USB Type-C plug is almost identical in size to the
existing Micro USB plug. Although they are not directly compatible with ports
designed for each other, the similarity in size does mean that device
manufacturers who want to switch from the older Micro USB protocol to a USB Type-C port will very likely be able to fit the new design with only modest
tooling changes. This is a very important distinction for the technology branch
of manufacturing where even a minor change could cost a product’s
creator tens of millions of dollars to implement across its production

USB Type-C’s Advantages

For some naysayers, the aforementioned benefit
of being unable to insert a USB Type-C connector incorrectly may not be enough.
For these folks, the protocol offers several additional benefits. These

  • True symmetry – USB Type-C is designed
    to replace not only Micro USB but also the older
    USB A and USB B type plugs more typically associated with desktop and laptop
    computers. This means that, unlike most existing USB cables, which typically
    feature a different connector on each end, a USB Type-C cable can have the
    exact same plug on both ends. This promises a new level of ubiquity,
    furthering the USB Implementers’ Forum’s goal of creating the most
    foolproof, easy-to-use connector possible. It should be noted that, although
    it is possible, even ideal, for a USB Type-C cable to include the new
    connector on both ends, most cables currently being produced terminate in a
    USB Type-C connector on only one end with the other typically ending in a
    legacy USB 2.0 or 3.0 connector. This is due to the relative newness of USB
    Type-C and the fact that in most situations only one of the two devices being connected is equipped with a USB Type-C port. Expect this to become less of an
    issue as more manufacturers integrate the new technology. 
  • USB 3.1 Speeds – Where Micro USB was
    designed to work with the USB 2.0 protocol (maximum speed 480Mbps), USB
    Type-C was created to be compatible with the USB 3.1 Superspeed+ protocol.
    This provides a maximum possible data transfer rate of 10Gbps, or more than
    10 times faster than USB 2.0.4 Not only does this significantly
    increase the rate at which raw data can be transferred and stored, but it
    also opens up USB Type-C as an option for transmitting types of data that
    have traditionally been the domain of other connector types, including
    high-definition video and extremely high bitrate audio, all while still
    maintaining enough power delivery to charge a laptop-class device. It is this
    flexibility that likely caused Apple to choose a USB Type-C port as very
    nearly the only connector included on its recent Macbook computers, as well
    as choosing it to replace their own Lightning connector on the iPad Pro. 
  • Thunderbolt – This transmission protocol, like USB 3.1 above,
    allows USB Type-C cables to be used for high-speed data transfer to and from
    peripherals that were previously powered by a non-USB transmission
    technology, or were simply impossible before now. One of the best examples
    of this is the possibility of adding external video card enclosures to
    laptops. Where a laptop generally used to be stuck with the video card that
    was originally built into it, these new enclosures allow a desktop-class
    video card to be inserted in an external enclosure and connected to the
    laptop via a Thunderbolt port, which uses the same technology and
    protocols as USB Type-C. The result is the ability to upgrade the graphical
    processing power of nearly any laptop or tablet that has a Thunderbolt port,
    greatly improve its gaming or video processing potential. It should be noted
    that not all USB Type-C ports support the current dominant Thunderbolt 3
    generation, and even fewer support the just-reaching-the-market Thunderbolt
    4 protocol. That said, the latest edition of Thunderbolt promises the same
    40Gbps throughput of Thunderbolt 3 but adds the impressive ability to run
    two 4K displays or a single 8K display over the same cable providing power
    to those displays, among other benefits.
  • Bi-Directional Power – Where older USB
    protocols are designed only to provide power output in one direction,
    typically from a PC or USB adapter to a mobile device, USB Type-C can
    transfer power in either direction.5 This opens up several
    possibilities, including the provision of data and power over a single cable
    to a peripheral like a portable display, as well as the option to use a
    mobile device as a power bank for other mobile devices. This may seem
    strange given the typically diminutive batteries found in many smartphones
    and tablets. However, given the current wearable device boom, the even
    smaller batteries found in many smartwatches and fitness trackers could
    benefit greatly from the safety net of being able to grab a charge from
    their owners’ other mobile devices simply by having a two-sided USB Type-C
    cable connecting them. There are, of course, wireless solutions that
    solve the same problem. However, all current wireless charging protocols
    offer only a small fraction of the wattage a USB Type-C connection is
    capable of outputting.

In addition to these features, USB Type-C is also
designed to be the most future-proof iteration of the technology yet, with the
potential to work alongside or replace several other connectors and
technologies. The protocol’s potential is limited only by its (currently, very
high) data transfer rate and its adoption by manufacturers.

Current View

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Will it become the new standard?

All these benefits will amount to exactly zero for the average
user if manufacturers are unwilling or unable to adopt the new technology. As
anyone who has been in any sector of the technology industry can tell you, even
great ideas sometimes fall flat for no other reason than the market is simply
not ready for them. This could be due to manufacturing issues, lack of support
from noteworthy manufacturers, or simply the public's resistance to change. In
fact, this last reason may be the hardest to overcome of all. While most
smartphone, tablet, and other mobile device owners have a drawer full of Micro
USB cords that have proven extremely handy over the years, few will have
anywhere near as many USB Type-C accessories. This means an extra outlay on the
cost of new accessories or accessory adapters that will be required for things
like charging docks, data cables, and other peripherals required for the use of
most data- and power-hungry devices. However, since technology can never remain
stagnant, even the most curmudgeonly users typically have to give in eventually
when a new, obviously superior technology comes along, even if it means shelling
out a few extra bucks.

Before users can accept a new protocol, it must first be integrated into
readily available devices. To this end, USB Type-C is rapidly becoming the
industry standard for multiple purposes, with several of the most important tech
manufacturers in the world having integrated it into some of their flagship
product lines. Below is a list of some of the major tech makers that have
already launched products with integrated USB Type-C technology, as well as the
devices which they used to introduce the protocol, and a selection of devices
currently on offer which use USB Type-C.

Figure 4. A Comparison of the I/O Ports on Apple’s USB Type-C Equipped 2015 MacBook (Left) and Its Previous Model (Right)

Figure 4. A Comparison of the I/O Ports on Apple's USB Type-C Equipped 2015 MacBook (Left) and Its Previous Model (Right)

Source: 9to5Mac

  • Apple
    • 2015 MacBook – Apple’s somewhat controversial 2015 MacBook
      was the first to include a single USB Type-C port with no other I/O ports aside from a
      headphone jack for analog audio. This served as the device’s power input
      as well as just about every other hardware I/O the PC may require.
      Some customers were quick to complain that this severely limited the
      laptop’s usability while others maligned the number of adapters this
      would require them to purchase in order to use their existing
      peripherals. Nonetheless, Apple’s full-fledged adoption of USB Type-C
      as the sole port on its then newest MacBook was a huge vote of confidence
      from one of the highest powered tech makers in the world. 
    • Current Devices – All late gen MacBook laptops,
      iMacs, and Mac Pros, as well as the latest models of iPad Pro. Rumors
      also continue to suggest Apple may switch the iPhone to USB Type-C within the next
      several generations.
  • Google
    • Nexus 5X and 6P – Google’s 2015 pair of flagship smartphones
      both used a USB Type-C connector for power and data. This directly
      replaced the Micro USB connector the company had been relying on since
      its first entry into the smartphone market many years prior. 
    • Current Devices – Google’s 2016 flagship
      smartphones, and its first entries into
      the new Pixel flagship smartphone line, were also equipped with USB
      Type-C ports, suggesting the company was entirely pleased with their
      performance in the previous generation of devices. USB C’s usage has
      continued in the Pixel line through this day. Additionally, the
      company’s past several ChromeOS-based portables have used USB Type-C ports, although
      the company typically does not rely solely on the new connectors. Unlike Apple,
      Google generally also includes more traditional USB 3.0 ports alongside the newer
  • Samsung
    • Galaxy Note 7 – Samsung’s ill-fated Galaxy Note 7 was the
      company’s first smartphone to use USB Type-C. Although the Note 7 was
      ultimately recalled (twice) and cancelled, the use of USB Type-C technology
      had nothing to do with the battery overheating issues that plagued the
    • Current Devices – Samsung continues to use the USB
      Type-C port to support charging and data for all of its current smartphone
      lines, as well as most of its tablets. The company has also integrated the
      port, alongside legacy USB technologies, into its Chromebook portables.
  • Other Companies and Uses- Nearly every major PC
    manufacturer in the world now includes at least one USB Type-C port in their
    current desktop and laptop models, including Dell, Lenovo, HP, and many
    more. Additionally, USB Type-C ports have become the connection protocol of
    choice for some of the latest video devices, including high-end graphics
    cards, virtual reality (VR) headsets, and other peripherals. In the case of
    VR, USB Type-C offers the option to run a single cable that can handle
    power, video, and control inputs, an invaluable capability when older
    devices have required multiple cables for these purposes.

Given that USB Type-C has only been around for a relatively short time,
this is a particularly impressive collection of manufacturers and devices who
have already adopted the technology. Very likely, the higher data rates, higher
and bi-directional power transfer capabilities, and added convenience of a
symmetrical connector have not only drawn the attention of these tech giants but
will likely continue to expand the technology’s adopters. 


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USB Type-C is already the dominant power and data connectivity option for
mobile devices from some of the most important technology manufacturers in the
world. It is, however, still not quite as
ubiquitous as Micro USB, simply because that protocol had many years of
lead time. The development of new USB protocols takes several years due to
the often-slow nature of tehcnology development as well as the very
large, very powerful group of stakeholders who must agree on a new protocol
before it can be approved and integrated into new products. That said, USB
Type-C is well on its way to establishing itself. Perhaps the best indicator of
this is Apple's wholehearted adoption of the protocol for not just its MacBook refreshes, but also its traditionally Lightning-based iPad Pro
line. Some rumors even suggest that Apple may switch to the USB Type-C connector
for its iPhone models within the next few years. If this comes to pass, it would
greatly please European regulators who have been clamoring for a unified mobile
device charging standard for years. It would also create perhaps the single
most unified period in mobile device connectivity the market has ever seen.

Thankfully for consumers, the apparently ascendant connection protocol of the
moment is poised to provide a variety of new benefits. USB Type-C is superior to
its predecessor in the transmission of both data and power while also being
easier to use and more flexible in the roles it can fulfill. It is for this
reason that it is being adopted for tasks as mundane as charging smartphones
and as cutting-edge as running entire VR headsets over a single cable. No other
protocol on the market can offer this level of flexibility or comprehensive
connectivity, and nothing on the horizon shows any promise of being able to do
so within the next several years.

100 percent certainty of future events may never be possible, particularly in the
tech industry, but all signs point to USB Type-C being as sure a bet as anyone
can ever expect for becoming and remaining the new dominant standard for charging and syncing
mobile devices as well as facilitating data transfer between electronic devices
for years to come. 


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About the Author

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Michael Gariffo is an editor for Faulkner Information Services. He
tracks and writes about enterprise software, the Web, and the IT services
sector, as well as telecommunications and data networking.

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