Though USB-C itself is a fairly new advancement, the USB standard has actually been around since the mid-1990s. It was originally developed by the USB Implementers Forum, also sometimes referred to as USB IF.
Back in the early days of personal computing (or at least, personal computing as we think of it today), you could be talking about potentially dozens of different types of cables that would be required to connect all of your important accessories to your desktop or laptop computer. Keyboards, mice, printers, digital cameras, media players, hard disk drives – all of them had different types of cables, making it difficult for your average user to keep everything straight (and even more difficult for professional users to troubleshoot problems and perform maintenance).
With this issue in mind, USB was born in an effort to standardize the connection of computer peripherals. Over the course of the next few years it was able to essentially replace a wide range of earlier interfaces that you may remember if you’re above a certain age, like serial ports and parallel ports. As an added bonus, the USB standard of the age was also able to supply power for portable devices. If you ever wondered how you could use the same cable to both sync your click-wheel iPod (remember those?) and charge it at the same time, you have the USB standard to thank.
But as technology itself continues to advance, industry standards like USB must advance right along with it. After USB version 1.0 was officially released to the general public in January 1996, it went through a series of important revisions over the next few years. USB 2.0 was finally released in April of 2000, for example, offering data transfer speeds of up to 480 Mbit/s (compared to the 1.5 Mbit/s) that USB 1.0 was capable of.
November of 2008 saw the release of USB 3.0, which is also sometimes referred to as USB 3.1 Generation 1 when going by that standard. This revision was capable of data transfer speeds of up to 5 Gbit/s.
This is also a particularly important period in computing history because USB-C (also called USB Type-C Specification 1.0) was being developed at essentially the same time. Unlike the standard plug that USB cables had maintained for almost two decades, USB-C represented a dramatic shift in nearly every way. That plug was replaced by a new, small reversible-plug connected for all USB devices – meaning that not only was it about a third of the size of the original USB plug, but it also worked regardless of which way you plugged it in. Anyone who has ever tried to plug their smartphone into the charger in the dark can tell you that this is very much a welcome addition.
As an added advantage, USB-C also means that you no longer have to keep a ton of different USB cables laying around to help plug in various devices. Any device that fully supports USB-C will work with any USB-C cable you happen to have, no exceptions.
As another added benefit, a USB-C plug connects to both host and accessory devices – meaning that you no longer had to deal with two different types of connectors and cables depending on the situation you found yourself in. This didn’t just make things easier today, but it also future-proofed things against the changing demands of tomorrow.
But the real benefit of the USB-C revision ultimately came down to the qualities that mattered most: the technical specifications. A lot of full-featured USB-C cables are called “SuperSpeed” or “SuperSpeed+” for a reason – they’re capable of a maximum data transfer of up to 10 Gbit/s at full duplex. On the power supply end of the equation, all USB-C cables must also carry a minimum current of 3 A (up to 50 W at 20V). They can also carry high-power 5 A current up to 100 W. If you’ve got a particular device (like an Apple iPad Pro) that supports “Quick Charge” capability, for example, you essentially have the USB-C standard to thank for making this all possible.
Another one of the major, major benefits of USB-C as a concept ultimately comes down to a single word: versatility. Up until this point, all USB cables could essentially do two basic things: they could charge (or provide power to) a particular device and they could send data back and forth from your computer to said device. All of this was important, but USB-C truly takes things to the next level.
USB-C cables support a wide variety of different protocols that you can choose from depending on your needs. They can be used as an output display port, for example, allowing you to connect VGA, HDMI and other types of cables to the USB-C port on your computer through a single specialized USB-C adapter. This means that the next time you buy a new computer, you don’t have to spend extra money to make sure that it comes with a video card with an HDMI output. Thanks to USB Type C, it absolutely does – you just need an adapter for the goal you’re trying to accomplish.
The USB Type C standard also makes it possible for cable manufacturers to include an Audio Adaptor Accessory Mode, which would make it possible for a single USB-C cable to provide an analog audio signal between connected devices. Though this isn’t mandatory, it would make it easier than ever to connect headphones, speakers and other types of audio equipment to your computer and related devices.
Because the actual USB-C cable plug is so physically small (it’s roughly the size of a MicroUSB plug), this also means that device manufacturers that support this standard can make their own devices smaller in the future. Part of the reason why there is such a big push for Apple to adopt USB Type C in future iPhone releases, for example, is because this would give them an opportunity to make the devices even thinner than they are now.
As stated, USB-C cables are nothing if not incredibly versatile. It’s very easy to find a cable, adapter or other accessory designed for the specific task you have in mind. These include but are obviously not limited to things like:
Undoubtedly, the new USB-C standard connector is a new technological innovation which will certainly transform the PC industry. You’re already seeing a wide range of the industry’s biggest names support it with open arms. One thing is for sure: if USB Type C has already come this far in a relatively short amount of time, it is truly exciting to think about what the coming years may hold.