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Bench Talk for Design Engineers

Bench Talk


Bench Talk for Design Engineers | The Official Blog of Mouser Electronics

What USB Type-C Means for the Upcoming Generation of Consumer Electronics Mirko Bernacchi

When Apple announced its newest MacBook last year with a single, strange, rounded port, it shocked and puzzled the world. How could a laptop with just one single connection interface be usable, and of all the port types available, why did Apple choose USB Type-C, a format barely off the assembly line, with next to no device support?

The decision to go with a single, poorly supported port probably didn’t help new MacBooks fly off the shelves on launch day, but it was a big stamp of legitimacy for a very exciting format that until then, barely anyone had ever heard of.

Faster, more powerful, and with the capability for simultaneous charging and data transfer, USB Type-C is more than just a newer, better version of USB. Apple, Google and an increasing number of device makers, are betting that this little port will change how we charge, and connect our devices.

What is USB Type C?

About the same size as Micro-USB, USB Type-C, or USB-C for short, has a rounded, symmetric shape that fits into ports easily yet securely, and works either way up, solving the problem that everyone has faced where they have to stick a USB plug in three times before it eventually goes in. Unlike micro USB cables which have a full -size cable on the other end, USB Type-C cables have the same tiny connector on both ends, making them extremely portable as well as easy to use (Figure 1).

USB Type-C Connector

Figure 1: USB Type-C front view.

But easy to plug connectors are just the beginning; USB-C is also much faster than previous USB standards. It uses USB 3.1 to offer speeds of up to 10Gbps, matching the original version of Thunderbolt and 10GbE networking. This doesn’t just let external drives run faster, it lets USB-C replace HDMI and even Ethernet connections.
The most salient feature of USB-C however, is definitely its charging capability. USB-C uses the USB Power Delivery standard to carry up to 100W, allowing it to charge laptops or power hungry peripherals like external drives, while simultaneously transferring data. It also features bidirectional charging enabling laptops to charge phones or be charged by a portable power bank. Five different power profiles from 5V, 2A to 20V, 5A allow devices to negotiate just the amount of power they need.

The MacBook Effect

Any new format coming into a mature ecosystem has huge hurdles to overcome. While USB-C has many advantages over existing USB standards, the fact that the current cables and plugs already work, makes it hard to convince consumers to try something they haven’t heard about. That’s why the radical decision by Apple to make USB-C the only port on the MacBook may have been just the kick in the pants this up-and-coming standard needed.

If the MacBook had sported an additional USB or mini-USB port, owners could bypass the USB-C port and attach peripherals using current-generation technology. No such luck. Unlike the updated Chromebook Pixel which had both full size and USB-C ports, on the MacBook, USB-C was the only connection option, so owners were forced to seek compatible devices.

Apple’s thriving ecosystem has naturally answered the call with a range of drives, hubs, and peripherals. This year, USB-C is showing up in even more products and becoming a must-have feature for the latest mobile devices and computer peripherals.

The Evolution of USB

USB-C’s design is a recognition that the way we compute today, with multiple mobile devices and peripherals connected by wireless networks, is a vast departure from the past when desktop computers and Ethernet networking were the norm.

USB used to be for transferring and storing data. These days we do our data transfers wirelessly—and we use USB mainly to charge our devices. But while current generation USB has allowed us to standardize charging for mobile devices, it’s too low powered to charge our laptops, and often struggles even to charge our tablets and smartphones quickly.

USB-C takes what USB charging started and runs with it. With its much higher power delivery capability, simultaneous data and charging, and bidirectional power, it enables a future with less cabling, fewer power adapters, and simplified charging at home or on the go.

Less Cabling

Forget separate power and data cables. While enterprise data centers will still use dedicated storage interfaces for the fastest speeds, USB Type C’s 10Gbps is as fast as Thunderbolt, more than sufficient for consumer computing purposes.

Simplified Charging—At Home or On the Go

With up to 100W, devices like laptops, hard drives, and even speakers and monitors can be powered off USB Type C. Devices will converge around USB Type C the same way the current generation of mobile phones and tablets have around USB charging, minimizing the number of adapters we need to carry around.

With bidirectional charging, you can charge your phone off your laptop just like before, or you can even charge your laptop off a powr bank or phone.

Monitors as Hubs and Docking Stations

USB-C can be used to drive displays up to 4K, and can do so while providing or receiving power at the same time. Your HDMI or Displayport cable cannot do that.  With simultaneous display and charging capability, it makes sense for monitors and TVs to become hubs or docking stations.

When you get home, you could plug your phone to your monitor to be charged, and connect your laptop to the monitor, which has a keyboard and mouse attached.  That single, tiny USB-C cable from your monitor then acts as a docking solution that transmits 4K video, syncs your phone, and charges the laptop at the same time.

The Tiny Plug that Could

Sometimes if it ain’t broke, it’s still worth fixing. Good old USB has done a great job connecting our devices and even powering our mobile phones and tablets until now, but the limitations of that 20-year-old connector are starting to show.

USB-C is a recognition that USB’s importance has evolved from a data transfer protocol to a charging standard. It gives us the power to charge all our devices as well as the ability to connect everything, minimizing proprietary cables and adapters.

The biggest barrier to a new port is usually adoption, but Apple’s inclusion of USB-C in its 2015 MacBook as the only port, has kick started the first generation of USB-C devices, and it’s becoming a key feature on the new generation of smartphones, tablets, and peripherals. It’s only a matter of time before USB-C becomes the tiny plug that connects, and charges, all our devices.

For a more in-depth look at the technical side of USB Type C, check out this post.

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Mirko Bernacchi joined the Italian branch of Mouser Electronics in Assago in 2012 as a Technical Support Specialist. With more than 25 years of experience in electronics, Mirko provides expert technical assistance and support as well as customer service for our Italian office. He worked as a test development engineer at Celestica and Service for Electronic Manufacturing. At IBM he was a Burn-in memory modules test engineer and an Optical transceiver card test engineer, responsible for the installation of new test equipment, production test problem management and supplier interface as well as the introduction of new test routines.

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