Landing on a single standard to rule them all is an elusive aim in the realm of personal technology. At best, you end up in a format war, and one faction emerges victorious for a few years until an entirely new technology takes it out. VHS ate Betamax, then was ousted by DVD, which faded in the face of Blu-ray, a standard that itself knocked off its chief rival, HD DVD, and is now facing its own mortality at the hands of online streaming services.
But USB-C is different. And perhaps it's even becoming as truly universal as its acronym (Universal Serial Bus) suggests.
USB Type-C ports are now found on all manner of devices from simple external hard drives to smartphone charging cables. While every USB-C port looks the same, not every one offers the same capabilities. USB-C may be appearing everywhere, but it doesn't serve the same functions everywhere.
Here's a guide to everything USB-C can do, and which of its features you should look for when buying your next USB-C device.
What Is USB-C?
USB-C is an industry-standard connector for transmitting both data and power on a single cable. The USB-C connector was developed by the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), the group of companies that has developed, certified, and shepherded the USB standard over the years. The USB-IF counts more than 700 companies in its membership, among them Apple, Dell, HP, Intel, Microsoft, and Samsung.
This broad acceptance by the big dogs is important, because it's part of why USB-C has been so readily accepted by PC manufacturers. Contrast this with the earlier Apple-promoted (and developed) Lightning and MagSafe connectors, which had limited acceptance beyond Apple products, and which, because of USB-C, are soon to be obsolete.
Is USB-C Like Micro USB?
The USB-C connector looks similar to a micro USB connector at first glance, though it's more oval in shape and slightly thicker to accommodate its best feature: flippability.
Like Lightning and MagSafe, the USB-C connector has no up or down orientation. Line up the connector properly, and you never have to flip it over to plug it in; the "right way" is always up. The cables also have the same connector on both ends, so you don't have to figure out which end goes where. That has not been the case with all the USB cables we've been using for the past 20 years. Most of the time, you have different connectors at each end.
USB-C and USB 3.1: The Numbers Beneath the Port
The default protocol used over the USB-C connector is USB 3.1, which, at 10Gbps, is theoretically twice as fast as USB 3.0. The minor wrinkle is that USB 3.1 ports can also exist in the original, larger shape; these ports (the rectangles we all know) are called USB 3.1 Type-A. But aside from on desktops, it's much more common to see USB 3.1 ports with USB-C physical connectors.
The USB-IF has defined the USB 3.1 Gen 1 standard as meeting the same interface and data-signaling rates as USB 3.0. So, when you see USB 3.1 Gen 1, it basically works at the same 5Gbps maximum speeds as USB 3.0. USB 3.1 Gen 2, on the other hand, refers to data-signaling rates at up to 10Gbps, double that of USB 3.0, and matching the peak theoretical speeds of single-channel Thunderbolt. (It requires both device and port to support the Gen 2 standard, though, to hit those speed heights.)
Going forward, however, the lingo around USB 3 will get even more confusing. The upcoming USB 3.2 specification, which will also be a replacement for all of the existing nomenclature, absorbs all prior 3.x specifications. That means the older USB 3.0 standard, which offers 5Gbps speeds, will now be called USB 3.2 Gen 1. Meanwhile, the 10Gbps USB 3.1 will be rebranded as USB 3.2 Gen 2.
Also on the horizon: USB 3.2 ports will be capable, in some cases, of maximum speeds of 20Gbps, and that iteration of the port will be called USB 3.2 Gen 2x2. The USB-IF decided on "2x2" because the new standard doubles the data lanes within a USB-C cable to achieve the 20Gbps transfer speed. The first USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 ports could show up on devices later this year.
Underlying Support: The Many Roles of USB-C
You might think of your old USB Type-A port simply as a data port for connecting drives or peripherals like mice. But USB-C, depending on the specific port's implementation, can do much more.
USB-C's support for sending simultaneous video signals and power streams means that you might be able to connect to and power a native DisplayPort, MHL, or HDMI device, or connect to almost anything else, assuming you have the proper adapter and cables. (See below for more on adapters.) The USB-C spec even factors in audio transmissions over the interface, but so far it has not replaced the 3.5mm headphone jack on computers as it has on some Android phones.
Make sure to check the specs on any PC you're thinking of buying, because not all USB-C ports are alike. So far, every one we've seen supports both data transfers and power delivery over USB-C. But while the USB-C standard supports connecting DisplayPort and/or HDMI displays with an adapter, not every PC maker has connected the ports to every system's graphics hardware. Some USB-C ports on a system may support video-out connectivity, while others may not; or none may. Looking at the details is important.
Thunderbolt 3: Layering More Speed on USB-C
Perhaps the most useful protocol that a USB-C port can support is Thunderbolt 3. This adds support for up to 40Gbps of throughput, alongside reduced power consumption and the ability to move as much as 100 watts of power over the interface.
A USB-C port with support for Thunderbolt 3 means that a single cable is all you need to push power and transfer a large amount of information (up to and including two 60Hz 4K displays) to and from even a complex device like a computer, something many laptop manufacturers have been quick to take advantage of. The top-of-the-line version of Apple's MacBook Pro, for example, boasts four of these connectors, which is as many as we've seen to date, and it gives you more expansion potential than you ever had with earlier versions of USB.
Now, like with DisplayPort over USB-C, not every USB-C port you see necessarily has Thunderbolt 3 support. (Look for a little lightning bolt next to the port.) But that will change with the upcoming USB 4 standard. USB 4 ports will support Thunderbolt 3 speeds by default, while remaining backward-compatible with USB 3. Some new devices will likely have both USB 4 and USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 ports, both of which will make use of the physical connector shape of USB-C.
Adapters and Cables
USB-C is electrically compatible with older USB 3.0 ports, and, as we discussed above, is completely compatible with USB 3.1 ports. But because of the new style of port, adapters or cables with both of the required plugs are indeed required if you want to connect anything that doesn't have the USB-C plug.
Sometimes a new laptop will come with these; in other cases, you may have to purchase them separately. Apple, for instance, sells a variety of USB cables and adapters for connecting USB-C to other technologies such as Lightning or Ethernet. You can also find a variety of these for PCs if you browse online retailers. Some even support older or more esoteric protocols, to ensure a device you have from years ago will work on today's hardware. It's easy to find USB-C-to-DVI adapters, for example, but we've also come across some that split to two RS-232 serial connections.
The good news, though, is that if you invest in a couple of normal USB-C cables (they're now widely available for less than $10), they will work with anything and everything that supports USB-C. That's a big step up from the situation of the recent past, where pulling a mini USB cable out of your bag to charge your smartphone with a micro USB port was almost as useless as grabbing a Nokia Pop-Port or a Sony Ericsson charger.
Plus, newer PC docks have now widely integrated USB-C. Having only one USB-C port is not a problem: You can find USB-C docking solutions available, both from PC manufacturers like Dell and HP, and from third-party accessory makers like Belkin and OWC. These docks can recharge your laptop, give you access to extra ports (including Ethernet, HDMI, USB 3.0, and VGA), and add support for multiple monitors.
Do You Need USB-C?
The presence (or absence) of a USB-C port is increasingly becoming a consideration when buying a PC. If you buy an ultrathin laptop, it will almost certainly have at least one USB-C port, which will catapult you into the ecosystem automatically. If you're more of a lover of desktops, you're certain to find the ports there, too, with at least one on the motherboard-side I/O panel and likely more on high-end and gaming desktops.
Even if you don't need USB-C now—and since even power users probably don't have much hardware that can fully task it, especially where Thunderbolt 3 is involved—you will before long. We're only scratching the surface of what USB-C can do, but one thing is certain: The next generation of cross-platform connectors is quickly replacing the old guard just as the original USB standard replaced Apple Desktop Bus (ADB), FireWire, parallel, PS/2, SCSI, and serial ports on Macs and PCs. USB-C truly is one port to rule them all, and its reign has just begun.