There’s a big change coming to the way you plug in to and charge your favorite digital devices, and it’s in the form of the new USB Type-C.
March 9, 2015
Review: The Holy Grail of (USB) Cables
New cable is the closest we'll get to a universal (even Apple agrees) power cord for devices.
Demoed for the first time at the CES in Las Vegas just this past month, the Type-C is the newest version of the USB cable/connector tech users have been plugging into their computers for decades. Designed to eventually replace the classic USB (Type-A, often on computers and laptops), as well as its smaller sibling, the micro USB (Type-B, used heavily by smartphones and tablets), what will likely be the new standard in digital devices is finally set to see limited shipments in 2015.
As it’s more widely adopted and replaces its predecessors, the Type-C could be the closest we’ve come to the holy grail of cables: an all-in-one solution—powerful enough to be a universal go-to for data transfer and charging, but still small enough to fit mobile devices. It could more or less replace everything, and open up some really cool new doors in the tech world as well.
As one might expect, the new cable is extremely fast—10Gbps, up to 20 times faster than standard 2.0 USB, and twice as fast as the latest USB 3.0. The power capacity has skyrocketed tenfold (up to 20V/100W), and as you can see in photos, the new design can be flipped and reversed for any port, meaning Americans can permanently forego the embarrassment and social shame of needing an extra attempt (or two) before successfully plugging in their favorite devices.
These are nice touches but it’s important to note that they aren’t just run-of-the-mill upgrades in data exchange, charging speeds and convenience—the Type-C is going to change computer design tremendously, and in a number of different ways.
First, the smaller design allows for thinner devices (even smaller Chromebooks, laptops and tablets). Second, the uptick in power capacity will allow the Type-C to also become the power cable for many computers, ending the need for a separate charger. Third, whereas current USB cables travel only one way—from the larger Type-A to the smaller Type-B side—Type-C flows in both directions and will have the same Type-C connector on both ends, allowing all types of devices to connect and exchange power while only needing one type of cable or port.
So not only will devices be smaller because of the size of individual ports, but fewer ports will be needed on a host computer, and a lot fewer cables will be needed in general.
The Type-C USB essentially replaces HDMI (which lacks the ability to carry power) and just about any other type of digital cable or connector. It also opens up an entire new market since products that need a lot of electricity, such as portable TVs, will run off a single USB connection with Type-C carrying both plenty of power and HD data.
These are subtle changes when looking at the effect on one buyer, but there’s potential here for a borderline revolution in connectivity and simplicity between digital devices, where everything, even TVs and large equipment, are powered and connected via one simple cable.
It will also be great for the environment on macro terms; more than three billion USB cables are produced every year and that number will no doubt shrink or at least grow more slowly as the Type-C is standardized. Some older cables will become obsolete at first, but when looking at figures that big, there’s going to be some serious environmental benefits to producing less stuff. A lot less copper and rubber is going to be pulled out of the earth.
The wildcard in this quest for One Cable To Rule Them All has always rested in Cupertino, Calif. in Apple’s engineering labs. Apple has never been afraid to stay within its own ecosystem, most recently with the Lightning and Thunderbolt cables. These are great products of course—it’s Apple—but the company’s decision to spurn the Micro-USB for the Lightning Charger two years ago made some wonder if a truly universal cable would ever happen (or if Apple cared at all about the environmental benefits of nearly a billion Android and iOS users being able to plug in on the same turf).
Fortunately, Apple has aggressively backed the Type-C, and it’s the main reason hopes are so high that cable unity is inevitably and quickly coming to Silicon Valley. The Type-C USB will likely be a major part of Apple’s newest MacBooks and MacBook Airs, and will allow the high-end company to finally produce smaller, cheaper laptops without sacrificing performance. It’s why the company committed 18 engineers to the Type-C USB open project over the last few years, more than any other firm.
Naturally, Apple isn’t doing this for the convenience and benefits of society at-large, or to make things easier on Android and Windows users. But regardless of Apple’s intentions, the results are the same: if the company commits to using the Type-C across its mobile and laptop computers, we’re headed for a digital world where literally every phone, tablet, computer and peripheral digital device can run, charge and connect to others with the same universal cable. It would be difficult to overstate the potential benefits of efficiency that could trickle from both the macro level to the micro if and when this happens.
The first units to sport the new USB in the U.S. will be the Nokia N1 tablet, which is already selling successfully in Asia. Though the new cable will take time to catch on, it only takes a fleeting memory of the 2002-era of boxes full of different mangled cell phone chargers and connector-on-connectors to see how big of a change this is, and where the industry is likely headed permanently.