USB has become ubiquitous as the way to connect our mobile devices to power sources and to other devices. There are currently seven different types of USB connectors already in use: USB 2.0 A, B, mini B and micro B; and USB 3.0 A, B and micro B. There's about to be one more: the USB Type-C.
In fact, the upcoming Type-C plug just might end up being the one plug to rule them all: A single USB connector that links everything from a PC's keyboard and mouse to external storage devices and displays.
"The Type-C plug is a big step forward," says Jeff Ravencraft, chairman of the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), the organization that oversees the USB standard. "It might be confusing at first during the transition, but the Type-C plug could greatly simplify things over time by consolidating and replacing the larger USB connectors."
The Type-C connector made its debut this month at Intel's Developers Forum in Shenzhen, China. It looks a lot like the current flat oval-shaped Micro USB plug, although at 8.3mm x 2.5mm, it is wider and thicker than the current Micro USB connector (which is 6.8mm x 1.8mm).
The new connector has a very specific difference from its predecessors, though: Like Apple's Lightning plug, the Type-C connector is vertically symmetrical with contacts on both sides.
As a result, unlike today's USB plugs, there's no up or down orientation required when inserting it; the connector works just as well either way. This can put an end to the awkward trial and error process of fumbling with a USB plug, trying to figure out the right way to plug it in. When it's correctly seated, it audibly clicks as a confirmation.
The Type-C plug arrives at an opportune time because the SuperSpeed USB 3.1 10 Gbps spec, introduced last year, is gaining traction in the industry; new controller chips for devices, hosts and hubs are expected in the coming months that will use the new standard. Called SuperSpeed+ for short, the new spec is backward compatible to the older USB specs, and with the right equipment on both ends, will be able to move up to 10Gbps of data back and forth. That puts it on a par with the Thunderbolt technology used by Apple, and represents a big step up from USB 2.0's peak of 480Mbps and the 4.8Gbps limit of the current first-generation USB 3.0 spec.
This doesn't only mean faster data backup and retrieval from, say, an external hard drive, but it potentially opens up USB 3.1 for a variety of new uses. For instance, it has roughly the same peak bandwidth available as an HDMI 1.4 connection and is capable of potentially carrying a 4096 x 2304 video stream at 30 fps.
How USB deals with power has been updated in other ways as well. Currently, a typical micro USB plug can dole out roughly enough power to charge a phone or tablet. The new Type-Cs incorporate and implement the USB Power Delivery spec that was ratified in 2012. As a result, a Type-C plug can work with devices that require five, 12 or 20 volts of electricity; it tops out at delivering 100 watts of power.
This can allow it to not only charge phones and slates but the extra power available can be used to run hubs and displays -- it could even handle a 4K display or several monitors in an array. "USB is the only spec that can deliver power plus video over a single cable," says Ravencraft. "It's revolutionary, not evolutionary."
The changeover to the Type-C plug won't happen overnight. The plug's approval by the USB-IF is still pending, but will likely be ratified sometime during the summer. After that, if the past is any indication, there will be a six-to-nine-month period during which manufacturers of notebooks, tablets, phones and peripherals will evaluate the new spec and start to design it into their next-generation products.
Ravencraft says that the new plug already has momentum with manufacturers. "There's a lot of excitement in the industry about the Type-C connector, and they're pushing to get new products to market quickly," he says. He adds that there may be demos of both USB 3.1 and the Type-C plug at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this coming January.
After that, it'll likely take a couple of years for equipment with the Type-C connector to start displacing the current USB plugs and cables. In fact, Ravencraft thinks that there will be adapters and dongles that will allow the new technology to coexist with the older USB cables and gear, although you might not get the full advantage of the speed and power upgrades.
Eventually, though, most computers, phones, tablets, hard drives and hubs will have the new plug. At that point, the Type-C connector will have arrived.
Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.