USB Type-C is available on more and more devices, whether smartphones, laptops, headphones or monitors. Its greatest strength is its versatility, since it is capable of transmitting data, video streams or energy through the same cable. However, this versatility comes at the cost of simplicity, since it’s difficult to tell at a glance what a USB Type-C port is capable of. We will therefore explore the different possibilities of this and its limits to allow you to see more clearly.
Even if Apple adopts it for its iPhone 15, we can say it: we are in the era of USB-C. We have tips on how to take advantage of these new ports on your laptop, smartphone or tablet.
What exactly is USB Type-C?
USB Type-C, generally called simply USB-C, is the universal connector pushed by USB-IF, which we know for USB transfer standards. So there is a difference between USB-C, connectorAnd USB, the data transfer standard (USB 2.0, USB 3, etc.). The two should not be confused.
The main advantage of the USB-C socket is its symmetry. A cable can be inserted in either direction, eliminating the frustrations of previous USB ports and putting it on par with Apple’s reversible Lightning jack (before iPhone 15). Additionally, USB-C is also closely linked to several very exciting new technologies, including USB4, Thunderbolt 4, and USB Power Delivery.
USB Type-C is not a new USB protocol standard. It’s simply a new connector that can accommodate USB, yes, but also other protocols, such as HDMI. It is so very important to distinguish between the connector, USB Type-C, and the data passing through the cable.
We can thus imagine the USB Type-C connector as a pipe, independent of the flow passing inside. And in this connector, it is possible to pass different protocols, for different uses such as:
- Audio & Video
- USB Power Delivery
- Proprietary technologies: OnePlus Dash Charge or Warp Charge, Huawei Super Charge, Qualcomm QuickCharge, etc.
The most complicated thing is that the possibilities of the USB-C port can change from one device to another. For example, in some devices, USB Type-C ports may support certain versions of the USB protocol, but not video or power protocols. To take a concrete case, a port can be USB Power Delivery certified, but only be limited to USB 2.0 in terms of data. Likewise, a connector can support USB 3.1 Gen 2 without being able to pass an HDMI stream, or without supporting USB Power Delivery.
This great versatility has notably enabled the emergence of USB-C hubs which allow you to transform a laptop into a sedentary workstation with a single cable.
And unfortunately there is no guarantee regarding the functionality of the USB Type-C port on your smartphone. Manufacturers will therefore have to play the game to know what is possible and what is not, by clearly displaying the characteristics on the product sheet or box of the onboard USB Type-C port.
In 2021, USB-IF standardized USB-C 2.1. We are still talking about the same reversible connector here, but this update of the standard/specification gives it new possibilities. Since it is the same connector, the new version is perfectly backward compatible.
USB-C 2.1 notably adds the possibility of charging devices up to 240W, compared to 100W previously, the management of USB4 and DisplayPort 2.0. Again, these are not guarantees, but new optional possibilities if you have a compatible device and cable.
A USB-C cable is often capable of transporting data. But there are a multitude of possible standards. Here are the most important ones to navigate.
Created by USB-IF, USB-C can obviously integrate a USB transfer protocol. There is, however, no connection between USB speed or protocol generation and the use of a USB-C port. You can just as easily have USB 2.0 as USB4.
With USB4, things still change since the only authorized connector is USB-C. There will therefore be no USB4 port or device in Type-A or Type-B format. This standard notably offers a speed of up to 40 Gbit/s and places emphasis on interoperability with other protocols such as HDMI or DisplayPort.
In data transfers, manufacturers can also offer Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 4. This is an Intel technology with greater specifications than USB. Thunderbolt 4 aims to be the most complete version of USB-C possible. A sort of guarantee for the consumer to have everything they need. This requires additional costs for manufacturers, and Thunderbolt is generally reserved for high-end products.
Like USB4, Thunderbolt 3 and 4 only exist through the USB-C connector.
Audio and video
Within the USB Type-C specification is a handy feature, which you might hear about if you’re interested in this topic: Alternate Fashion. It is this part of the specification that allows a variety of video and audio protocols to pass within USB Type-C. So this alternative mode, in reference to the main mode (which was to pass data, as always on USB) makes it possible to pass several protocols, as illustrated below.
Since the end of 2014, USB Type-C has been capable of carrying a DisplayPort 1.3 signal thanks to theAlternate Fashion, as shown below. With DisplayPort 1.3, it is possible to connect two 4K screens at 60 frames per second or one 5K screen.
VESA, the organization responsible for the DisplayPort standard, announced the arrival of support for DisplayPort 1.4 over USB Type-C. This makes it possible to provide support for an 8K stream (7680 × 4320 pixels, or more than 33 million pixels compared to 8 million pixels for 4K UHD) at 60 frames per second, or support for 4K at 120 frames per second.
Since USB-C 2.1, DisplayPort 2.0 is available in Alternate Mode. Enough to manage three 8K screens (7680 x 4320 pixels) at 120 Hz with 10-bit encoding (HDR) or one 16K screen at 60 Hz with 10-bit encoding.
Still in the video department, the USB Type-C connector can also carry an HDMI signal. This is also an alt-mode for USB-C which allows transmission of HDMI 1.4b, limited to Full HD at 120 Hz or 4K at 30 Hz.
Please note, it is common for cables or adapters to actually use the DisplayPort Alt-Mode of USB-C to offer an HDMI port (thanks to active signal processing).
Finally, the all-purpose connector that is USB Type-C is not limited to video. It can also pass an audio signal with the USB Audio standard, more complete than the previous one. This is particularly practical on a smartphone to retrieve a wired audio signal.
The last important point about the USB Type-C connector concerns its power management of peripherals.
If the USB standard was originally content to provide 2.5W (5V at 500 mA), it has evolved with the arrival of Power Delivery designed to charge mobile devices. With USB-C 2.1, the connector can offer up to 240W in Power Delivery. This requires special cables and devices to achieve this level of electrical power.
The advantage is to be able to charge all types of devices with this universal connector: smartphones, headsets, but also PCs and mixed reality headsets. In principle, there is no risk in connecting a low-power device to a powerful charger. The protocol requires the device and charger to negotiate how much charging power to use. As a result, a Bluetooth headset charging at 10W will never require more, even on a 100W charger.
|10W||5V||2A||Smartphone, connected objects|
|Low consumption computer|
|Profile 4: 60 W||5V
|Profile 5: 100 W||5V
|Docks, hubs, screen, gaming PC|
If you have doubts about your purchase, we recommend that you take a look at our guide to chargers, or that of portable batteries.
How to identify a USB-C cable or port?
It is sometimes complicated to identify the capabilities of a USB-C port on a laptop or that of a USB-C cable. The USB-IF has implemented signage to better understand the capabilities of a port.
Intel also offers an icon allowing you to recognize a Thunderbolt port with a lightning bolt symbol, be careful not to confuse it with a port dedicated to electrical charging.
Towards a simpler future
USB-C is increasingly being adopted beyond even consumer electronics. Above all, after some difficulties, manufacturers are increasingly integrating the specifications of USB-C to offer the best features.
For the last holdouts, the adoption of USB-C will be a forced march. The EU has in fact decided to impose the connector as a universal charging port on the market from 2024. Apple will notably adopt it with the iPhone 15.
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