What is USB Type C? Find out how it works and the benefits of Thunderbolt 3 and 4

Evolving more every day, the USB input technology allows speed in transmitting data and charging devices

What is USB Type C? Why would you want this? USB-C is the emerging standard for uploading and transferring data. It's currently included in devices like the newest notebooks, phones and tablets, and over time it will spread to just about anything that uses the older and larger USB connector.

Although specifications for USB-C were first published in 2014, it was only in the past year that the technology became popular. It is now becoming a true replacement not only for the older USB standards, but also for other standards such as Thunderbolt and DisplayPort. Testing is underway to provide a new USB audio standard using USB-C as a potential replacement for the 3,5mm audio jack.

Here we'll introduce you to what USB Type C is and where you can find it in your life.

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what is usb type c
USB Type C

What is USB Type C?

The USB-C features a new smaller connector shape that is reversible so it's easier to connect. USB-C cables can carry much more power, so they can be used to charge larger devices such as notebooks. They also offer up to twice the transfer speed of USB 3 to 10 Gbps. Although connectors are not backward compatible, the defaults are, so adapters can be used ​​with older devices.

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USB-C is also closely tied to other new standards – such as USB 3.1 for faster speeds and USB Power Delivery for better power delivery through USB connections. USB-C is the first USB technology that allows a transfer rate high enough to charge notebook batteries.

This is the latest pattern to come into the picture and essentially the evolution of the Micro-USB. The USB Type-C (commonly known just as “USB-C”) is a reversible connector with a much higher data transfer rate and charging capacity. It has effectively replaced Micro-USB in most new devices outside of Apple's iDevices and is even starting to appear as a standard charging solution on many notebooks.

Chances are you have devices in your house that at least one uses this type of connector.

Is USB-C like micro USB?

The USB-C connector looks similar to a micro USB connector at first glance, although it's more oval in shape and a little thicker to accommodate its best feature: flipping capability.

Like Lightning and MagSafe, the USB-C connector does not have an up or down orientation. Align the connector correctly and you'll never have to turn it over to connect it; the “right way” is always up. Standard cables also have the same connector on both ends, so you don't have to figure out which end goes where. This has not been the case with every USB cable we've used for the past 20 years. Most of the time you have different connectors on each end.

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Type-C introduces a new connector format

Once you know what USB Type-C is, understand that USB Type-C has a new, tiny physical connector – almost the size of a micro USB connector. The USB-C connector itself can support several new and interesting USB standards, such as USB 3.1 and USB power supply (USB PD).

The standard USB connector you are most familiar with is USB Type-A. Even when we switched from USB 1 to USB 2 and to modern USB 3 devices, this connector remained the same. It's as big as ever and it only connects one way (which is obviously never the way you try to connect it the first time). But as devices got smaller and thinner, those huge USB ports just didn't fit. This gave rise to many other formats of USB connectors, such as “micro” and “mini” connectors.

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The usb input types

This strange collection of different shaped connectors for different sized devices is finally coming to an end. USB Type-C offers a new very small connector standard and knowing what USB Type-C is today is very important.

It's about a third the size of an older USB Type A plug. This is a single connector standard that every device must be able to use. You'll only need a single cable, whether you're connecting an external hard drive to your notebook or charging your smartphone from a USB charger. This tiny connector is small enough to fit on a super-slim mobile device, but also powerful enough to connect all the peripherals you want to your notebook. The cable itself has USB Type C connectors on both ends – it's a single connector.

USB-C offers a lot to like. It's reversible, so you no longer need to turn the connector at least three times looking for the correct fit. It's a unique USB connector format that all devices must adopt, so you won't have to keep many different USB cables with different connector formats for your various devices. And you will no longer have massive ports taking up an unnecessary amount of space on thinner devices.

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Type-C USB ports can also support a variety of different protocols using “alternative modes,” which allows you to have adapters that output HDMI, VGA, DisplayPort, or other types of connections from this single USB port. Apple's USB-C Digital Multiport Adapter is a good example of this, offering an adapter that lets you connect an HDMI, VGA, larger USB Type A connectors, and a smaller USB Type C connector through a single port. The confusion of USB, HDMI, DisplayPort, VGA and power ports on typical notebooks can be simplified into a single type of port.

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Usb input

USB-C, USB PD and power supply

The USB PD specification is also closely tied to USB Type-C. Currently, a USB 2.0 connection provides up to 2,5 watts of power – enough to charge your phone or tablet, but that's about it. The USB PD specification supported by USB-C increases this power supply to 100 watts. It is bidirectional, so a device can send or receive energy.

And that energy can be transferred at the same time the device is transmitting data over the connection. This type of power delivery can even allow you to charge a notebook, which typically requires up to about 60 watts.

The new MacBook Apple and Google's new Chromebook Pixel use their USB-C ports as charging ports. USB-C could mean the end of all proprietary notebook charging cables, with everything being charged via a standard USB connection. You can even charge your notebook with one of those portable batteries you carry in your smartphones and other portable devices today.

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You could connect your notebook to an external display connected with a power cord, and that external display would charge your notebook as you used it as an external display – all via a small USB Type-C connection.

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USB ports increasingly replace others

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However, there is a problem – at least for the moment. Just because a device or cable supports USB-C does not necessarily mean that it also supports USB PD. Therefore, you will need to make sure that the devices and cables you purchase are USB-C and USB PD compatible. However, already knowing what USB Type C is, you come out ahead.

The HP Chromebook X360 14 is a portable computer that features two SuperSpeed ​​USB Type-C, with a signal rate of 5 Gbps, plus everything you need to perform basic everyday tasks, smoothly and conveniently.

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USB-C, USB 3.1 and transfer rates

USB 3.1 is a new USB standard. The theoretical bandwidth of USB 3 is 5 Gbps, while USB 3.1 is 10 Gbps. That's double the bandwidth – as fast as a first-generation Thunderbolt connector.

However, USB Type-C is not the same as USB 3.1. USB Type-C is just the shape of a connector and the underlying technology could be just USB 2 or USB 3.0. In fact, Nokia's N1 Android tablet uses a USB Type-C connector, but underneath it's all USB 2.0 – not even USB 3.0.

However, these technologies are closely related. When buying devices, you just need to keep an eye on the details and make sure you're buying devices (and cables) that support USB 3.1. That's why it's important to know what USB Type C is and pay attention to all these details.

Thunderbolt 3 and 4: Further increasing USB-C speed

Perhaps the most useful protocol a USB-C port can support is Thunderbolt 3 or the emerging Thunderbolt 4. Either adds support for up to 40 Gbps of transfer rate, with reduced power consumption and the ability to move up to 100 watts of power over the interface.

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A USB-C port with Thunderbolt 3 or 4 support means a single cable is all you need to power and transfer a large amount of information (up to and including video data for two 4Hz 60K monitors) to and from a complex device like a computer, something that many laptop manufacturers quickly took advantage of.

Some models of Apple's MacBook Pro have four Thunderbolt 3 connectors, which are as many as we've seen so far, and offer more expansion potential than you've had with previous versions of USB.

Now, as with DisplayPort over USB-C, not all USB-C ports you see necessarily support Thunderbolt 3 or 4. Check the device specs or device documentation for the Thunderbolt details to be sure. Some devices may have more than one USB-C port, with only a few supporting a Thunderbolt specification.

This Thunderbolt uncertainty will change with the USB-4 standard. The USB-4 ports, which started showing up on laptops scattered here in early 2021, support Thunderbolt 3 speeds by default, while remaining backwards compatible with USB 3. They use the same physical connector format as USB-C.

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Thunderbolt Compatible Inputs

Backward compatibility

The physical USB-C connector is not backward compatible, but the underlying USB standard is. You cannot connect older USB devices to a small, modern USB-C port, nor can you connect a USB-C connector to a larger, older USB port. But that doesn't mean you have to discard all your old peripherals, but it's important to know what USB Type C is.

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USB 3.1 is still backwards compatible with USB, so you just need a physical adapter with a USB-C connector on one end and a larger, older USB port on the other. You can then connect your older devices directly to a USB Type-C port.

Realistically, many computers will have larger USB Type-C ports and larger USB Type-A ports for the immediate future – like Google's Chromebook Pixel. You'll be able to transition slowly from your old devices, getting new peripherals with USB Type-C connectors. Even if you have a computer with only USB Type-C ports like Apple's new MacBook, adapters and hubs will fill the gap.

USB Type-C is a worthwhile upgrade. It's causing success on newer MacBooks and some mobile devices, but it's not Apple-only or mobile technology. As time goes on, USB-C will appear on more and more devices of all kinds. USB-C might even replace the Lightning connector on Apple iPhones and iPads one day.

Lightning doesn't have many advantages over USB Type-C, other than being a patented standard for which Apple can charge licensing fees. Imagine the day when your Android-using friends need a recharge and you don't have to make the sorry excuse of “Sorry, I only have an iPhone charger”!

Quick FAQ

What is USB Type-C used for?

It is much faster than any other type of USB connector. USB-C cables are also used to transfer power – they are commonly used to charge portable devices, smartphones, laptops and even security cameras. A standard USB-C connector can provide 2,5 watts of power, which is the same as most USB-A connectors.

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What is the difference between USB and USB Type-C?

The USB-C features a new, smaller connector shape that is reversible for easy connection. USB-C cables can carry much more power, so they can be used to charge larger devices such as laptops. They also offer up to twice the transfer speed of USB, ranging from 3 to 10 Gbps.

Are USB Type-C and USB 3.0 the same?

The main difference between USB-C and USB 3 is that one is a USB connector type, while the other is a speed standard for USB cables in general. USB-C refers to a type of physical connection on modern devices. It is a thin, elongated oval connector that is reversible.

Is USB 2.0 the same as USB-C?

Yes. USB Type-C is backward compatible with USB 2.0 and 3.0 devices. However, you will need an adapter because the USB Type-C connector is shaped differently than the connectors on the USB 2.0 and 3.0 cables.

How many types of USB are there?

Based on the physical design of the connectors and ports, there are three different types of USB cables: USB Type A, USB Type B and USB Type C. Based on the functionality of the USB connectors, there are also two different versions of USB: USB 2.0 and USB 3.0.

Does USB Type C charge faster?

USB-C can charge your device up to 70% faster than standard 5W charging. This means less time connected while your smartphone reaches 100% charge.

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Paulo Fabris is a journalist, writer, RPG player, gamer, cosplayer, nerd and fan of anime since the time of TV Manchete.