Developed initially in July 2016, the USB-C connector has been hailed as superior to USB-A, the connector commonly associated with the general term “USB.” However, USB-A remains the most common type of connector, and the default for many devices.
So what is USB-C? What is it, exactly, that makes USB-C cables superior, and why haven’t they risen to become the new standard?
How USB-C Cables Work
USB-C is a type of USB connector system, with 24 pins and rotational symmetry in the connector.
Let’s look at what makes a USB-C connector superior to USB-A:
- 24 pins, compared to 9 pins. A conventional USB-A 3.0 connector has 9 pins through which it can transmit data, power, and video. A USB-C connector has 24 pins, or nearly 3 times as many. A conventional USB-A 3.0 port would be capped at a transfer rate of 5 Gbps, while USB-C can transfer up to 40 Gbps in certain protocols. It’s better capable of streaming high-definition video, it’s faster when it comes to transferring files, and it’s even faster at charging devices, since it can transmit more electricity at once.
- Multiple modes. It’s also important to realize that USB-C connectors can support multiple different modes. Conventional USB-A connectors could only transfer data; however, USB-C can support non-USB protocols like DisplayPort or Thunderbolt 3. If your computer has a fully functional USB-C port, you could hypothetically connect up to 3 different display monitors with the help of a single USB-C adapter.
- Higher voltage. USB-C can also charge bigger and more demanding devices. USB-A charging protocols could support a maximum of 5V; this was fine for small devices, like smartphones or portable speakers. But with the USB-C power delivery system, you can charge at 20V with access at up to 5A—that’s 100W of charging. For reference, a 15-inch MacBook Pro charges at 87W.
- Connector shape. USB-C also offers a handful of advantages due to its unique connector shape. USB-C is much smaller and slimmer than its USB-A counterpart; while not many people will see the immediate benefits of this, it can lead to slimmer and more manageable cabling. More importantly, the USB-C connector is fully reversible. If you’ve ever plugged in a USB-A connector, you’ve probably felt the pain of attempting to insert it upside-down. While not especially time consuming, this can be annoying; the reversible USB-C shape solves this problem immediately.
Why Aren’t USB-C Ports and Cables More Common?
For the past few years, most new computers have shipped with an available USB-C port. It’s beginning to gain ground, and has increased in popularity among techies and non-techies alike. That said, considering the massive advantages of USB-C, it’s surprising why the connector hasn’t completely replaced USB-A.
Why hasn’t USB-C become the new standard?
- Consumer familiarity. We’ve had access to USB-A ports for many years, and we’ve gotten used to how they work. All our most important devices have USB connectors, and many of us have USB-A ports built directly into the walls of our home. USB-C is new, confusing, and most importantly, different. If a consumer wants to upgrade to USB-C, they’ll need adapters or dongles, or may need to replace or upgrade some of their devices. It’s an annoyance at best and a confusing nightmare at worst.
- As you might suspect, a more advanced piece of technology like USB-C is more expensive to produce (and therefore to buy) than its USB-A counterpart. This makes some device manufacturers reluctant to adopt it, and makes some consumers hesitant to move forward with it—especially when considering the other complications preventing USB-C from taking off.
- Device charging speed. The faster charging speed promised by USB-C cables isn’t always a guarantee. Certain models of phone actually slow down their charging speed when you’re using a cable other than the one provided with the device. In other words, you might plug your device into a faster port, only to deal with a slower charging rate.
- Cable differences. For the most part, all USB-A connectors were interchangeable; you could plug just about any USB-A cable into any USB-A port, and expect it to work normally. However, different USB-C cables and ports may or may not function as you expect. Many USB-C cables on the market are currently running on 2.0, rather than 3.1, because they’re designed for charging almost exclusively. If you’re trying to transfer data, play videos, or accomplish other functions, they may not work—or they may work very slowly.
It may be some time before USB-C becomes a suitable full replacement for older models of connector. However, it has some massive advantages that are difficult to ignore. Over time, cable manufacturers and technology companies will likely iron out the issues keeping USB-C from truly taking off.