What In The World Is USB Type−C

Face it: You know the USB connector has gone mainstream when it starts appearing in cars. Just about every model sold today (trucks and SUVs, too) has at least one if not two USB ports in it. And most of the time, drivers and passengers use them to charge their smartphones, occasionally playing music or uploading a contact list for hands−free calling. (In case you hadn’t noticed, USB connectors are showing up in airplanes, on newer cruise ships, and on trains, too!)

The USB port has become so ubiquitous that it’s even starting to appear on high−end connected appliances. There’s not a whole lot that this versatile data/power connection can’t do, and you can now buy USB switchers – basically, spiffed−up versions of the old USB “octopus” cable hubs, but with individually−selected outputs for things like switching KVM (keyboard/video/mouse) ports in AV applications.

Now, there’s a new version of USB coming to town – 3.0. It runs a lot faster than 2.0 (maximum data rate in excess of 5 GB/s) with a correspondingly higher clock speed; one that is high enough to actually create interference with 2.4 GHz Wi−Fi connectivity in smartphones and tablets (which is why you don’t see USB 3.0 on those gadgets yet!).

With a new specification comes a new connector, the 24−pin Type−C plug. It’s a lot smaller than the older Type−A plug we’re used to, and it also features a symmetrical, reversible design – you can plug it in either way, and it will still work. (We just heard a big cheer from all of you who spend minutes trying to figure out which way to plug in your Micro USB connector and charge your phone at 11:30 PM!)

There’s more to USB 3.0 than just a faster connection, though. Unlike the current specification, USB 3.0 can deliver up to 100 watts of power, in either direction, which simultaneously streaming serial data. The latest extension of the standard − USB 3.1 – ups the data streaming rate to 10 Gb/s, about what first−generation Thunderbolt (PCI−X over DisplayPort) could handle.

Back to the connector. Type−C came into being because Type−A is too large for mobile devices and ultra−slim notebooks. Ultimately, it will replace the Type−A connector completely, and that’s not just because it’s a small, reversible connector.

The USB 3.0/3.1 specification also creates what’s known as an Alternate Mode. In short, you can use some or all of the pins on a USB Type−C plug to carry display data, turning your USB connection into a display connection. VESA’s DisplayPort 1.3 connector and Lattice’s superMHL plug were the first to support Alternate mode through USB Type−C, and HDMI recently joined the fun in early September.

That’s a lot of stuff to jam into any connector, let alone one this small!! Yet, this is the way the world of interfacing is headed; getting rid of all the unique, incompatible plugs and jacks we relied on for so many years with our computers, televisions, and personal electronics. If a manufacturer of thin laptops, phones, and tablets hasn’t gone completely wireless yet, chances are the connector of choice on their latest gadgets will be USB Type−C.

Perhaps the coolest feature of Type−C is that it is a “smart” connector. If you plug one end into a USB port on your laptop and the other into an HDMI connector on your display, the laptop interface will know things are operating in display mode and configure the port accordingly. Yank that plug out and tie it up to a wall transformer, and bingo – you’re in charging mode.

In Alternate Mode, the source and display resolution will determine how many pins are to be used on the connector. With HDMI, version 2.0is supported (3840x2160p/60, 8−bit RGB color), and with DisplayPort, you can up that to 10−bit 4K. Higher versions of DisplayPort and the relatively−new superMHL interface standard also use Display Stream Compression, which means you can push an 8K signal (7680x4320 pixels) at 60 Hz through that same Type−C plug. (So many pixels, so little space…)

And there you have it – perhaps the USB plug to end all plugs. USB Type−C can replace Type−A, Mini (still used a lot on printers and scanners), and the two different “micro” versions found on phones and cameras. That would simplify things considerably, wouldn’t it−

And now you know…


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