Hardware

What is USB-C?

What is USB-C?
This tiny connector is the future

If you’re not a seasoned techie, the names of the various USBs can be confusing. USB-C, for example, is now included in many of the newest laptops, tablets and even phones, but what does it actually mean? Here’s a simple guide to USB-C (or, to give its full name, USB Type-C).

In short, USB-C is seen as a replacement to, well, almost everything: the older USB standards, video outputs and even the beloved 3.5mm audio jack. It’s certainly an attractive idea – one port instead of many.

What is USB-C: The connector

However, and this where it potentially get confusing, USB-C doesn’t actually have anything to do with power or transfer rates – it only refers to the shape of the connector.

As you can see from the image below, it’s a lot smaller than USB Type-A (say “USB” to someone and they’ll picture USB-A) and, joy of joys, is reversible so you won’t have to flip it over to plug it in.

What is USB-C?
The USB-C connector has a distinctive lozenge shape

The theory is that USB-C will be a one-size-fits-all solution to the eternal “has anyone got a cable for a [insert smartphone here]?” problem, which can only be a good thing.

What is USB-C: USB PD 

Now we get to the interesting bit. The main benefit of USB-C is that it’s intertwined with three technologies, USB PD, USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3.

USB PD (or Power Delivery) is all about providing the biggest possible power boost to your device. The USB PD in USB-C delivers up to 100 watts (easily enough to run a laptop) – while the cable is also transmitting data. In essence, say goodbye to separate power cables.

Apple and Google have both embraced the idea of using USB-C to charge devices – although the former technically uses Thunderbolt 3 (see below) – and it’s easy to see other brands following suit.

Note: if you’re buying a third-party USB-C cable, make sure that it also supports USB PD if you’re going to be using it to charge. You’ll also need to check it delivers enough wattage to power your chosen device.

What is USB-C: USB 3.1

USB 3.1, on the other hand, is about transfer rates – effectively, the “speed” of the cable. As you’d expect from a new technology, USB 3.1 delivers a far faster rate than its predecessor, USB 3. While the latter had a bandwidth of 5Gbit/s, the former doubles that figure to 10Gbits/s.

But, annoyingly, not all USB-C cables come equipped with USB 3.1 – so make sure to double-check before you buy a third-party alternative. Also, there’s an even faster choice…

USB-C 3.1 vs Thunderbolt 3

To make things slightly more confusing, Apple uses an Intel-invented technology called Thunderbolt 3 in its newest cables. You’ll also find it on a few premium Windows laptops.

There’s a lot of cross-over: all Thunderbolt 3 cables will work as USB-C cables and vice versa (if they’re good quality). However, if you plug a Thunderbolt docking station into a plain USB-C 3.1 port then nothing will happen.

So why has Apple gone down a slightly different road? The answer’s simple: speed. Thunderbolt 3 is blisteringly fast. If the cable is less than half a metre long, the tech can achieve a whopping data transfer rate of 40Gbit/s.

That makes it the fastest cable in town, but you’ll have to pay a high price. While you can pick up a decent third-party USB 3.1 cable for around a tenner, a Thunderbolt 3 cable will set you back £20 or, if you buy the official Apple offering, £39.

READ NEXT: What type of USB is this?

About the author

Max Figgett

Max has written for numerous websites and magazines over the years. Whether it’s about ancient hardware or software secrets, no Big Tech Question is too obscure for him to tackle.

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