What Is USB-C? Do You Need USB-C?

September 2nd, 2019 (last updated)

With so many Macs and Windows laptops now featuring the interface, it’s clear that the USB Type-C connector is here to stay. Here’s why that’s a good thing—and how to understand both its subtleties and where it’s headed.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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