We take a look at the new cable on the block, and shed some light on the future of connectivity…
The future may be wireless, but in the meantime our pockets and bags remain a tangle of cords and adapters. Thankfully, there’s a new connectivity standard out there looking to unclutter your many cables. Join us as we take a closer look at USB Type C – what it is, how it works, and what’s coming round the bend…
What is USB Type C?
USB Type C (or simply USB-C) is fast emerging as the new industry standard, set to replace the traditional USB (Type A) and micro USB (Type B) connections. The U in USB stands for Universal (The SB is for ‘Serial Bus’, just so you know), which means it can be used by any company, anywhere. It’s the new kid on the block, but smartphone manufacturers have been embracing the new technology since 2015 with the release of Google’s Nexus 6P and 5X, the OnePlus 2, the LG G5 and the HTC 10. Likewise, Apple’s latest MacBook Pro has also caused a bit of a stir by including only USB-C ports, instead of their traditional bigger brother. So how exactly does it differ?
Well for one thing, unlike traditional USB cables, USB-C has the same connections on both sides, so it doesn’t matter which way you plug it in. It’s about a third of the size of an old Type A USB connector, but it’s also faster and more powerful; with a top data transfer speed of 10Gbps and the ability deliver a power output of up to 20 volts (100 watts) and 5 amps*.
So what does that mean in practice? Well, imagine you’re transferring a 700Mb movie from your laptop onto your phone. With an older USB to Micro-USB phone cable, you’d probably be done in around 70 seconds. With USB-C? Less than a second.
Likewise, charging speed gets a huge shot in the arm via USB-C, with compatible phones able to boast top-up times in the minutes, rather than hours. USB-C also allows for bidirectional power, which means that, where compatible, you could charge your laptop from your phone, rather than just the other way round.
In short? The ability to transfer data, audio, video, and power all at once makes USB-C light years smarter than its older siblings.
Where does Apple’s Lightning cable fit in?
While newer Android and Windows smartphones are starting to sport USB-C, if you have an iPhone, iPad or iPod, chances are you use a Lightning cable, which is a different beast entirely. Apple first introduced the 8-pin digital Lightning connector in 2012 as a replacement for the original, wide and flat 30-pin dock connector, and it was designed specifically to charge and connect these kinds of low-power accessories – that’s as opposed to USB-C, which is positioned as a ‘one-size fits all’ solution. The Lightning cable’s launch coincided with the release of the iPhone 5, and it was billed by Apple as a fully digital connection featuring “a smart interface that uses only the signals that each accessory requires.”
Like USB-C, one of the most noteworthy things about the Lightning connector is its reversibility; it was the first connector designed to figure out which way you’d plugged it in and reroute electrical signals to work either way. And it’s recently been back in the spotlight thanks to the launch of the iPhone 7, which saw Apple drop the traditional headphone jack in favour of ones that connect via a Lightning cable.
On the technical side, there’s a slight difference in how each cable works too. A USB–C connector is like a socket in its design, in that it receives information via pins built into your device. Lighting, on the other hand has exposed pins right on the cable’s connector, which then plug into receivers in your device. There’s a bit of debate among experts as to which design is better – the Lightning connection may have more issues with dirty pins or damaged wiring, whereas any stresses on the flat Lightning cable are less likely to result in damage to your phone port. In reality, this one’s more a matter of personal preference.
What does all this mean for you?
In many ways, Lightning and USB–C represent different solutions to similar ideas, but due to the fact that it’s faster, universal and multiplatform, the latter is now being rolled out across a much broader range of devices – including Apple’s own MacBooks. So will USB–C replace the Lightning cable on iPhones too? Only time will tell.
What we know for sure is that you can expect it to replace almost everything else in the near future – including HDMI, SD card readers and power ports on everything from laptops to TVs. USB-C has been developed by the USB Implementers Forum, a group that counts more than 700 companies in its membership including Apple, Dell, HP, Intel, Microsoft and Samsung, so mark our words: it will soon be as prevalent as the traditional USB cable is now. The good news? while all this may mean more cables and adapters in the short-term, it should ultimately result in less cables and fewer ports overall.
One cable to rule them all and one cable to bind them? It sure sounds a lot more desirable than a messy tangle of wires.
Want more tech trivia? Check out this piece on the science behind mobile payments.
*Data transfer speed sources: