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USB-C explained: How to get the most from it (and why it keeps getting better)

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You’ve probably noticed something strange about many of the latest phones, tablets and laptops at your company: The familiar rectangular Type-A USB ports are gone, replaced by smaller oblong connectors. USB-C has taken over at work, at home and at school.

While many iPhone and iPad models stick with Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector, USB-C is now part and parcel of most laptops, phones and tablets made today. Even the latest MacBooks and Chromebooks are part of the movement to USB-C.

What is USB-C?

USB Type-C, usually referred to as just USB-C, is a relatively new connector for delivering data and power to and from computing devices. Because the USB-C plug is symmetrical, it can be inserted either way, eliminating the frustrations of earlier USB ports and putting it on a par with Apple’s reversible Lightning plug.

This alone makes it a hit for me, but USB-C is closely linked to several powerful new technologies, including Thunderbolt and USB Power Delivery, that can change how we think about our gear and working in the office, on the road or at home.

Melissa Riofrio/IDG

The Type-C USB port (second from left) on this Acer laptop is noticeably smaller than the two older Type-A USB ports to its right.

Most USB-C ports are built on the second-generation USB 3.1 data-transfer standard, which can theoretically deliver data at speeds of up to 10Gbps — twice as fast as USB 3.0 and first-gen USB 3.1, which both top out at 5Gbps. The key is to get devices that say “USB 3.1 Rev 2,” “USB 3.1 Gen 2,” “SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps,” or “SuperSpeed+” to get support for the faster spec.

Confusing matters more, the current USB 3.2 standard is mostly a restatement of USB 3.1 specs. For instance, USB 3.2 Gen 1 and 2 are the same as USB 3.1 Gen 1 and 2. The new spec that’s actually noteworthy is USB 3.2 Gen 2X2, which has a pair of 10Gbps lanes of data traffic available for a total of 20Gbps. So far, however, it hasn’t caught on with device manufacturers, so it’s hard to find it on any devices in the wild. That might change in the coming year as new controller chips come out.

To make sure the data gets through at higher speeds, always get high-quality cables. They will often have the SuperSpeed logo and a “10” on them to show they’re capable of moving 10Gbps. The good news is that there’s a good chance that this spaghetti bowl of cable standards could disappear with the next rev of the USB spec with a universal USB cable. More on that later.

Speed, power, and video delivery

A big bonus is that on many laptops and desktops, the USB-C specification also supports Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 data-transfer technology. A USB-C port equipped with Thunderbolt 3 can push data speeds to a theoretical limit of 40Gbps. To show how far we’ve come, that’s four times faster than USB 3.1 and more than 3,000 times faster than the original USB 1 spec of 12Mbps.

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