USB-C explained: How to get the most from it (and why it keeps getting better)

At the office, home or school, USB-C has arrived. We’ve got tips on how to take advantage of those new ports, along with a peek at the future of data transfer and video.

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Make a power play

USB-C’s support for the USB Power Delivery (PD) specification is a huge step forward for charging your devices. Instead of being limited to 2.5 watts like USB 2.0 or about 15 watts like USB 3.1, USB PD can dole out up to about 100 watts at 20 volts, easily enough to charge a laptop and more. That means that a portable USB-C charger equipped with USB PD technology can keep your laptop and mobile devices juiced up and ready to go at all times.

I spend a lot of time working out of my car, and I keep a $30 Anker PowerDrive Speed+ 2 Car Charger plugged into the cigarette lighter outlet in the console between the front seats. It has both a traditional USB 3 port for powering my older iPad and a USB-C power port for charging my Galaxy S20 phone at once. This powerful travel companion weighs about an ounce and uses USB PD technology to deliver a total of 49.5 watts of power. The adapter’s LED ring glows blue when it’s working.

When I’m not driving, I take Anker’s PowerCore+ 26800 PD battery pack with me to keep my devices charged. No lightweight, it tips the scales at 1.3 lbs. and has a 26.8 amp-hour lithium battery pack inside. It costs $96 and comes with an AC adapter for quickly charging its cells. When it’s fully charged, the circular charge indicator’s 10 LEDs glow. They flash when there’s less than 10% left.

usb c explained 10 anker powercore 26800 pd battery pack Brian Nadel/IDG

The Anker PowerCore+ 26800 PD battery pack can easily charge multiple mobile devices or even a laptop.

It includes a pair of USB 3 ports and a USB-C port. Plug it into a laptop, phone or tablet, and the system’s battery icon shows that it’s charging. The PowerCore+ nearly doubled the time away from an AC outlet for my Tab S7+ tablet from 10 hours and 40 minutes to 20 hours and 15 minutes, plenty for the longest transpacific flight or a day spent working in coffee shops and office lobbies.

Drive a display

USB-C’s combination of faster data transfer and increased power delivery opens the way for a new class of devices that take advantage of both. For example, AOC’s I1601FWUX 15.6-in. display brings together several of the most interesting aspects of USB-C. At 9.3 x 14.8 x 0.4 in. and weighing 1.8 lb., the portable monitor lets you say buh-bye to HDMI or VGA cables, because its USB-C cable carries both power and video.

The $200 display uses Alt Mode video, and, according to the company, works with Windows 7, 8, or 10 and macOS 10.12.1 or later. It’s undocumented, but it worked fine with my Android-based Samsung Tab Pro S7+ tablet. Setting it up is easy: just plug it in and set the I1601FWUX screen to mirror or extend the tablet’s display. It can show 1920 x 1080 and tops out at displaying 262,000 colors. 

usb c explained 11 aoc display with tablet Brian Nadel/IDG

The AOC I1601FWUX display’s USB-C cable carries both power and video.

I especially liked marking up documents or sketching items on the Tab Pro S7+ using its stylus, all while viewing the action on the AOC portable display. On the downside, all the display’s power came from my Tab S7+ tablet, reducing its battery life from 10:40 to 4:05 (hours:minutes).

An excellent complement to a laptop, tablet, or phone for small group presentations, demos or just desk work, the I1601FWUX points the way for a generation of self-powered devices, such as bigger and, I hope, interactive displays as well as projectors.

Troubleshooting USB-C in Windows 10

The fact that there isn’t much to adjust or configure with USB (C or otherwise) is a testament to its technological success. In almost all cases, it just works.

In addition to notifying you of a problem, the Windows 10 Settings screen has a way to bring unresponsive USB devices back to life. If you’re having USB problems on a Windows 10 device, try these tips.

1. Go to the Device Manager by right-clicking on the PC in File Explorer and then clicking Properties. Double-click the Universal Serial Bus controllers line. Open the Power Management tab and uncheck the box next to “Allow the computer to turn off this device to save power” to keep the port powered up, but be warned: your battery might drain faster because of this change.

usb c explained 12 usb root hub power management IDG

Adjusting USB power settings in Device Manager. (Click image to enlarge it.)

2. Updating the USB drivers couldn’t hurt. You can do this by going back to the Universal Serial Bus line in the Device Manager and giving it a right-click. At this point, click on Update driver.

3. Got a printer that won’t print? Start at the Control Panel, open Troubleshooting, click Printer, and go through the troubleshooting routine that appears.

usb c explained 13 printer troubleshoot IDG

Windows 10 has a printer troubleshooter that can help sort out USB-C printing woes. (Click image to enlarge it.)

4. Finally, check the specs of the computer, device, and cable to make sure they all match.

My last tip works for any USB-C device, not just Windows systems: When all else fails, try cleaning the physical USB-C port, because dust, dirt and who knows what else might be preventing an electrical connection. Try using compressed air to blow out the loose stuff and then gently clean the port with a plastic toothpick. I use a CVS Health Interdental Brush & Toothpick to give the port a good cleaning. You’d be surprised what comes out.

usb c explained 14 toothpick clean Brian Nadel/IDG

You'd be surprised what detritus can collect in a port and interfere with the connection.

Hopefully you now have a clean machine, ready for work.

This article was originally published in March 2018 and updated in October 2020.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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