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USB Type-C: All we know on 12-inch Macbook's new port

Tom Morgan
9 Mar 2015
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New reversible USB Type-C standard should revolutionise laptop design

As widely predicted, the newly-launched Apple 12-inch MacBook Air only has a single port. That's one port for everything you need, and it's called USB Type-C. Although Apple is the first to launch with this standard, it's also likely to roll out on Windows-based hardware around the same time and should revolutionise laptop design, allowing for thinner, lighter and smaller computers.

USB Type-C is designed to replace the standard Type-A connector we've been using since USB was first introduced in 1996. Both plug orientation and cable direction are completely reversible, meaning it will function perfectly whether you plug it in right-side up or upside down, and the connector is significantly smaller than USB Type-A. This is great news if you've ever struggled to plug a USB cable into your laptop or PC, and something that users of Apple products have partly eliminated with the Lightning Connector

In terms of physical design, USB Type-C is almost the inverse of a Lightning connector. The connector has a mid-plate which the plug surrounds when you insert it, rather than Apple's proprietary cable which has a protruding plug inserted into a recessed connector.

Making the connector reversible actually prevented Type-C from being as small as it potentially could have been, but at 8.4x2.6mm, it's a massive improvement over the current design. The ports are small enough to fit into portable electronics as well as PC motherboards and laptops. At only 15% larger than the existing Micro USB connection, it won't take much to squeeze one into a smartphone, for example.

Of course, reversible cables are nothing new; Apple's Lightning cable can be plugged in both ways, but to date it is only being used on the company's iPhone and iPad devices – it has yet to make the jump to other gadgets. Type-C has a lot more benefits than ease of use, though, which should encourage manufacturers to make the switch.

THE POSITIVES

Compatible with the USB 3.1 standard, Type-C will support SuperSpeed 10Gbps data transfers – twice the speed currently achievable with USB 3.0 and twenty times faster than USB. That's still not quite as fast as Intel's Thunderbolt standard, with existing first-generation controllers already providing 10Gbps of bandwidth and second-generation controllers managing 20Gbps, but USB has the benefit of far more widely supported. Thunderbolt has only appeared on Apple computers and a few high-end PC motherboards, while USB is practically universally used.

Type-C will deliver data and power simultaneously, and with DisplayPort support it will also be able to send video and audio signals alongside data and power. As with standard DisplayPort, USB Type-C also supports HDMI and VGA, so you can connect to older monitors. It shouldn't matter which direction the video signal is being sent, either; you could potentially charge your smartphone from a laptop while displaying the phone screen on your laptop's display.

The first generation Type-C devices will likely use the older DisplayPort 1.2a standard, which uses a maximum of 5.4Gb/s per lane. This is enough for 4K displays at 60Hz, but later ports would eventually switch to the faster DisplayPort 1.3 which could potentially handle 5K resolution screens.

With support for up to 100 watts of power, a Type-C USB port can also be used to charge your laptop as well as your smartphone or tablet. With a single socket able to replace three (the mains adaptor, full-size USB port and video output) laptop manufacturers can make their systems even thinner, while tablets could effectively become portable desktop replacements through a single cable. Apple has already proved this, with the incredibly tiny 12-inch MacBook

Type-C is also futureproof, with the connector able to scale with the USB standard as it gets faster, meaning there won't be any need for further redesigns further down the road.

THE PITFALLS

It's not a simple matter to replace an accepted standard like USB, however. There are literally millions of devices that use the traditional Type-A connector, and USB Type-C isn't backwards compatible, which may hinder its uptake. Fortunately, adaptor cables will be widely available, so you'll be able to use USB Type-C ports with older devices easily enough; if you want to charge your computer, hook up a display, USB keyboard and external storage, for example, you'll need a USB Type-C port, or devices with pass-through connectors.

The Micro USB3 format struggled to gain any traction in mainstream devices, despite being backwards compatible, and has been mostly relegated to external hard disks, so a brand-new connector that won't work with any of your existing kit is undoubtedly a tough sell. Although Type-C adapters will be launched alongside the new standard to provide backwards compatibility, an industry-wide shift will almost certainly take years.

USB Type-C renders

Whether it will gain widespread adoption is dependent on support from manufacturers, but with engineers from Intel, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia, Nvidia, and Texas Instruments all members of the USB Implementer's Forum, early opinions have been enthusiastic. “Interest in the USB Type-C connector has not only been global, but cross-industry as well,” Brad Saunders, Chairman of the USB 3.0 Promoter Group, said following the announcement the standard had been finalised. “Representatives from the PC, mobile, automotive and IoT industries have been knocking down our door anticipating this new standard." We're still waiting to hear which device manufacturers are on board, as motherboards, smartphones, peripherals and flash drives will all need to be upgraded.

WHEN WILL IT ARRIVE?

We're certainly looking forward to a future where one cable can replace the tangled mess that's currently strewn across our desks, and according to the USB Promoter Group that could be sooner than you think; the MacBook will go on sale on in April, while other devices will ship soon after.

One of the first companies to officially confirm it would be using USB Type-C was Nokia. The announcement came as something of a surprise, as the brand had sold off its devices division to Microsoft earlier in the year, but its first USB Type-C product will be a tablet rather than a smartphone. The N1 tablet is a 7.9in Android device running the latest Android 5.0 Lollipop, complete with Nokia's own custom Z launcher. The reversible Type-C connector will be placed at the bottom of the device, between a pair of stereo speakers.