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ExtremeTech Explains: What is USB-C?

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When buying a new computer or smartphone, there’s a very good chance it’ll have a USB Type-C port. This port will become the standard for data connections in the next few years, but it could also be the way you listen to audio and charge your devices. USB Type-C, often called just USB-C, comes with a lot of advantages, but the shift from the ports you know and tolerate will be a bit painful at first. Still, USB-C is cool, and you should be excited.

The first thing you’ll notice about USB-C is that it’s small. It’s only a bit larger than a micro USB and much more compact than the rectangular USB-A connector we’ve lived with for the last 20 years. Anyone who has tried (and tried and tried) to get a USB plug inserted the right way will be pleased about one feature of Type-C — it’s fully reversible. The plug is symmetrical and works both ways, so you don’t have to stress about figuring out the orientation of the port. In addition, the design of USB-C is much more robust, so it should last longer than older USB hardware.

USB Type-C is designed to be bi-directional. While there are currently a lot of cables that are USB-A at one end and C at the other, the endgame is to make everything USB-C at both ends. That means one single port on everything. A bidirectional Type-C cable can transmit video signals, audio, and as much as 100W of power (with the USB-PD standard). It can do that in either direction, too. So you can use one phone to charge another. You have to be careful with Type-C cables. Poorly designed ones can fry your electronics.

There’s a lot of overlap between USB Type-C and the USB 3.0/3.1 standard. However, these are different things. Type-C is technically just a physical design, not a data transmission standard. It’s possible to have a Type-C cable that’s still just USB 2.0. You need to check the specs of any cable or device you’re buying with USB-C ports to know for sure. USB 2.0 has a maximum speed of 280Mbps, but 3.0 steps up to 5Gbps and 3.1 is 10Gbps.

type-c

The versatility of USB-C is a benefit, but you’ll probably need to adjust the way you use devices. When paired with USB 3.1, Type-C can easily power multiple devices and operate in different modes — charging, outputting audio, transmitting data to multiple peripherals, and so on. Some devices have switched to only using USB Type-C. Many smartphones have ditched the headphone jack, and some computers like the MacBook and Pixelbook are all Type-C. For now, that means using adapters, but there will come a day when everything is Type-C. That day can’t come soon enough.

Check out our ExtremeTech Explains series for more in-depth coverage of today’s hottest tech topics.

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