While there has yet to be a major smartphone announced with a USB Type C connector, we know they're coming. As are tablets, laptops, and pretty much every other kind of USB gadget you can imagine. This is our quick guide to USB Type C (and USB 3.1, which are actually not the same thing), which will go over the benefits of the new standard, as well as discuss the kind of cables you'll probably want to buy in the next couple of years as it is adopted.

Why are we switching to a new port configuration? Are my old cables going to be useless?

Currently, as a consumer, you're likely to encounter four major types of USB connectors. Type A, type B, micro (in various A/B configurations), and mini (also in A/B configurations). Type A is the standard USB port/connector you see on laptops and many USB accessories, the full-sized connector we've had for many years. Type B is, generally, what you use to hook up a USB hub or printer to your laptop or desktop. Mini is most often used on cameras for charging and data transfer. Micro, of course, is what the vast majority of smartphones on the market not made by Apple have.

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A USB Type C port on Google's 2nd gen Chromebook Pixel

The goal of the type C connector is to replace all of them. The USB3.1 Type C connector has better data transfer (up to 10Gbps), power capacity (up to 100W), is smaller than all but two of the previous ports (micro/mini), and boasts the major advantage of being reversible along its X-axis, meaning it won't be such a pain to plug in. Type C in a USB3.1 configuration has native support for things like relatively high-throughput display and multimedia protocols, too, so eventually it will hopefully even replace things like HDMI, DVI, and DisplayPort cables on your laptop.

So, yes, eventually (like, years from now) all of your micro, mini, type A and B USB connectors will become obsolete. I feel your pain - I've amassed a collection of dozens of microUSB cables, and switching to type C is probably going to necessitate throwing most of them out.

But, but, but! It's for the best.

What is USB Type C, and what's so great about it?

First, let's do some terminology primers.

  • USB Type C: The name of the connector and port design for the newest iteration of USB hardware. Type C connectors can be implemented on USB2.0 cables, USB 2.0 hosts, USB3.1 cables, and USB3.1 hosts. There is no requirement of USB3.1, and cables and hosts can be mixed and matched with full legacy support.
  • USB3.1: The name of the latest USB protocol. There are two generations of USB 3.1, the first (formerly known as USB3.0) supports transfer rates up to 5Gbps, the second supports up to 10Gbps. There are other differences, but this is the important one.
  • USB Power Delivery 2.0: This is what allows the "up to 100W" of power transfer, and while it's part of the overall USB3.1 specification "package," it's not only optional on USB3.1, it can even be implemented on USB2.0.

Now, let's bullet out the primary advantages of USB Type C and USB3.1.

  • Speed: USB3.1 Type C (Gen 2) allows data transfer speeds up to 10Gbps. While that's slower than, say, Thunderbolt 2 (20Gbps), it's still insanely fast and should provide enough bandwidth in all but very specific applications.
  • Power: One of USB's historic limitations has been power transfer. With type C, a maximum of 100W can be routed through your USB2.0 or 3.1 cable if the USB Power Delivery 2.0 specification is supported at both ends, more than enough to power all but high-end gaming/workstation laptops.
  • Simplicity: A Type C to Type C cable is reversible at both ends, as well as at the connector itself, and is much smaller than older Type A connectors.

Google also has a pretty good video summary of the standard.

Now, let's break it down in detail.

Speed

That 10Gbps rating is based on generation two of the USB3.1 standard - most of the early devices with USB3.1 ports (new Pixel, new MacBook) are based on generation one. As such, they'll ship with 5Gbps of transfer capacity. This is incumbent upon the port (host), not the cable - all USB3.1 Type C cables support the full 10Gbps transfer rate, but the host has to have a generation two port in order to get those speeds.

5Gbps is still enough for most stuff, however, so this really shouldn't be reason to worry. In addition, your smartphone or tablet can't even read data from its flash storage that quickly - it's a speed ceiling so high that it's not worth worrying about in the next couple of years on your mobile device, most likely.

The bigger caveat is that there will be USB Type C connectors and ports that do not support even 5Gbps, but rather are capped at 480Mbps. The cables are USB2.0 "charging" type C cables, which will support that same 60W of power transfer and the 480Mbps speed rating of modern USB2.0 hosts. They will be substantially cheaper than USB3.1 Type C cables, too, at least for a while. USB2.0 Type C ports will also be a thing, supporting all the standard USB2.0 protocols with the bonus of the universal connector and enhanced power capabilities inherent to type C cables.

Power

100 watts is a lot. That's more than the vast majority of modern laptops require - even a big, beefy Macbook Pro 15 with Retina Display only needs 85. First, though, we need to clear up a basic distinction about USB3.1 / Type C and power.

USB3.1 and USB Type C are not what enable higher power transfer rates on new USB ports, but rather it is a new USB Power Delivery specification (v2.0) that is responsible. This new specification is first being introduced alongside USB3.1 Type C connectors and ports, because it makes the new port and connector that much more appealing to customers. USBPD2.0 (a mouthful, I know) also allows intricate control of power distribution to multiple connected devices, daisy-chaining, and sending power in either direction relative to the host. So, you could charge your laptop with an external charger you'd use with your smartphone (assuming it supported the new USBPD2.0 standard). I realize this is kind of confusing, and I'm sorry, but it's not going to get much better - there are other caveats.

So, you've got USB3.1 Type C port with USB Power Delivery 2.0. That means a maximum power transfer rate of 100W. You might think all USB Type C cables support that 100W of power transfer out of the box, right?

Wrong! In reality, the practical max power transfer rating for USB Type C is more like 60W - 3 amps at 20 volts (3Ax20V=60W). In order to achieve the full 100W (5A at 20V), a type A female bridge connector is currently required, and we have yet to see what implementations will look like for end consumers on real products, even if the adapters themselves are already available.

For smartphones and tablets, this doesn't really matter. Even the fastest fast chargers for phones today don't exceed 15W, and that's 25% of the minimum power transfer spec for USB type C cables. There's plenty of headroom. Additionally, even a USB2.0 Type C cable will still give you that full 60W so long as the new power delivery specification is supported on your charger / end device.

The catch, though, comes down to the aforementioned host support on that end device. USB3.1 Type C and USB Power Delivery v2.0 are two different things, and having USB3.1 Type C does not mean you get USBPD2.0. The new power specification requires new hardware on the host device (as well as the charger on the other end) that is generally lumped in as part of the USB 3.1 specification when you see it covered in the news, though it is not actually required. Additionally, USBPD2.0 can be implemented on a USB2.0 Type C port - USB3.1 isn't even needed.

Simplicity

USB Type C connectors are around 1mm wider and just a tenth or so of a millimeter taller than microUSB connectors, so designing them into a smartphone will probably present no significant challenge for manufacturers. But their ability to be reversed on the X-axis (like Apple's Lightning connector) is a huge advantage over microUSB. When all your stuff uses type C, you'll be a lot less likely to end up in a situation where you can't charge a gadget! Future smartphone chargers (wall warts) will also likely have type C ports, so the cable itself will be reversible end-to-end, something even Apple's Lightning standard doesn't have. There are no real "gotchas" here - this is [very] arguably the best part of the USB Type C standard.

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USB-C compared to Apple Lightning and microUSB connectors, image via Ars Technica

USB3.1 Type C also does power, data, and video - it's an all-in-one. A single powered external "hub" or "dock" device could provide hookups for ethernet, HDMI, external USB, and power. Instead of plugging three or four things into your laptop when you're working at your desk, you'd plug in just one type C cable from the dock - and it could provide you wired internet, access to external storage, an external display, and power. Your phone or tablet, similarly, could use its USB3.1 Type C port to receive power, put out video to an external display, and access an external drive.

USB3.1 host ports can do this because of a concept known as daisy chaining - multiple end devices can be connected in a "chain" to send or receive data or power to or from a host either through connections to each other or via a powered hub. For example, you could connect an external SSD to your laptop, which would power the drive and allow for data transfer, and then connect a second USB Type C connector from the external drive to your smartphone (or a second drive), which would also show up as an external disk on your computer, assuming the external SSD had a USB host chip.

Another example: utilizing a Type C dongle like the one available for the new MacBook, you can charge your laptop while you also have an external USB device and an external monitor connected at the same time - all of them going through the MacBook's single USB3.1 Type C port. Previous iterations of USB didn't really allow for this. Native support for HDMI (via MHL) and DisplayPort video (on most devices, hopefully) along with those high bandwidth and power ceilings mean USB3.1 can do a lot more stuff at once.

When will my smartphone have USB Type C?

Good question! It's hard to say, but you can probably expect some USB Type C smartphones by the end of this year (2015). The industry has no real reason aside from cost (which will inevitably go down) not to adopt it, and plenty of reasons to adopt it - it makes their products more appealing. And yes, the general consensus is that a switch is inevitable at this point, a switch that will likely eventually be industry-wide.

What's less likely is a USB3.1 Type C port on your next phone. Because the USB3.1 specification currently requires a discrete controller chip to utilize, smartphones and tablets will probably avoid the standard until it can be included as part of the SoC package, and instead stick with USB 2.0 (albeit in type C guise). This ensures forward-compatibility for chargers and cables (even if said cables may not be as fast), and a lower cost of entry for OEMs until USB3.1 is a part of most major mobile chipsets, which is also probably an inevitability.

Since the maximum data transfer rate of even USB2.0 still surpasses that of a phone's internal storage for random-write and even sequential-write performance pretty easily, USB3.1 probably isn't necessary on a phone yet. Very few people regularly move large quantities (eg, >10GB) of data back and forth from a phone to a PC, so there's probably not much of a demand for more speed yet, either. You'll still get more power than you need (either via USBPD2.0 or some Qualcomm Quick Charge-style tech) and up to 480Mbps of data on the 2.0 configuration, along with the universal type C connectors.

Then again, the highly alluring prospect of USB3.1's native video-out support for standards like HDMI (via MHL) and DisplayPort are big draws. USB3.1 will allow OEMs to license any one a handful of solutions for video-out on their devices without having to use cumbersome adapters or powered hubs. Eventually, other standards may come, like SlimPort, though those may require revisions to the host spec.

My strong inclination is that even if all type C phones start out with USB2.0 ports, we may see a split here within a year or two: cheaper phones and budget devices may end up with USB2.0 Type C while high-end and flagship phones may get USB3.1, at least eventually. But for now, that's just guessing. At the least, you won't have to worry about which kind of type C cable you need to charge your phone with - they'll all work.

Will I need to buy any cables when my smartphone/tablet make the transition to Type C?

This is probably best spelled out as a rule: USB Type C connectors only plug into type C ports, and type C ports only accept type C connectors. This means if your next smartphone is a USB Type C device, unless you buy additional cables, the one it ships with will be the only way you have to charge it. There's also the question of what kind of cable you'll get - it could be a type C to type C cable, or it could be a type A to type C (current smartphone chargers use the type A port) in an effort to keep costs down by using the same old power bricks. At this point, we don't know, and probably won't know until the first major type C phone ships.

The most commonly-needed adapter cable will probably be the USB2.0 Type A to Type C connector, which will allow you to connect your type C device to a regular full-sized (AKA type A) USB2.0 or 3.0 port. Such a cable would allow you the maximum transfer rates for USB2.0 (480Mbps) with a power transfer capacity of up to 60W. There will also be a USB3.1 Type A to Type C cable, so your laptop or desktop's older USB3.0 ports won't have their extra speed go to waste.

Essentially, the only real bad news here is for direct-connect microUSB accessories - USB sticks, external DACs, or docks with male microUSB connectors. If you want to keep using them on a type C device, you're going to need an adapter cable like this one. Given how annoying and often impractical such adapters are, this does mean the effective obsolescence of your microUSB accessories is imminent, and that's just kind of the trade-off we're making here for a much, much better universal connector.

So, yes, this is going to cause some breakage in a few niche parts of the accessory market, but the transition will have been worth it. MicroUSB was always a stopgap measure, and now's as good a time as any to make the jump.

How much are these cables going to cost?

Right now, type C connectors are not cheap. Monoprice sells a 3-foot (about one meter) USB3.1 Type C data cable for $25, whereas a USB2.0 Type C "charge" cable that's twice as long (6') but with much less data throughput will cost you a little more than half that. As production ramps up, though, prices will inevitably come down, even if they may never quite reach levels as cheap as current USB 2.0 cables. But, given they will without a doubt become far more ubiquitous than USB3.0 (aka 3.1 Type A) cables, USB3.1 and other type C products will still probably end up substantially cheaper than the old 3.0 gear.

How many types of USB3.1 and Type C cables and ports are there going to be?

Here's an outline of the USB Type C ports that may come to be.

  • USB3.1 (Gen 1 / Gen 2*) Type C port with USB Power Delivery 2.0 - allows up to 100W of power and up to 5 / 10Gbps* of data transfer.
  • USB3.1 (Gen 1 / Gen 2*) Type C port without USBPD2.0 - allows low power (anywhere from 4.5W to 7.5W) and up to 5 / 10Gbps* of data transfer.
  • USB2.0 Type C port with USB Power Delivery 2.0 - allows up to 100W of power and up to 480Mbps of data transfer.
  • USB2.0 Type C port without USBPD2.0 - allows low power (anywhere from 4.5W to 7.5W) and up to 480Mbps of data transfer.

Which is going to be the most common? At this point, we don't know. Like I said, it seems most likely smartphones and tablets will start out with USB2.0 configurations (like Nokia's N1 tablet, which is USB2.0 Type C). Whether they'll use the new USBPD2.0 power spec, I don't know - it's possible OEMs will choose to continue using their own fast-charging methods, though the jump to type C connectors would be a good time to get on board with the new standard.

As for cables, here are the ones you're most likely to encounter.

  • USB3.1 Type C to Type C cable - supports up to 60W of power and up to 10Gbps of data transfer.
  • USB3.1 Type C to Type A cable - supports up to 60W of power and up to 10Gbps of data transfer.
  • USB2.0 Type C to Type C cable - supports up to 60W of power and up to 480Mbps of data transfer.
  • USB2.0 Type C to Type A cable - supports up to 60W of power and up to 480Mbps of data transfer.

The good news here is that while there will be two different kinds of cables that look a lot alike (3.1 vs. 2.0 cables have no easily discernible visual differences), they will work for data and power transfer with any port that they can physically plug into. The bad news is that it's possible one day you'll have a USB video / high-speed data cable (3.1 Type C) and then a bunch of "charging" cables (2.0 Type C), the latter of which don't do USB3.1's native video and ultra high-speed data transfer. We can only hope some clear, standardized method of labeling these cables will emerge in the coming years.

Are there any competing cable standards?

Aside from Apple's iOS-only Lightning cable and Intel's Thunderbolt, the answer is basically no - and you can't exactly call a platform-limited standard a "competitor" to one that is definitively platform-agnostic, so that just leaves Thunderbolt. The problem is that Thunderbolt has always been and remains expensive. It offers twice the data bandwidth (20Gbps for TB2.0), but allegedly at four times the cost. Thunderbolt also doesn't have a particularly smartphone-friendly connector design, being quite tall. So, it's mostly limited to workstations and high-end laptops, plus Apple products.

USB3.1 Type C seems more about portability and compatibility, combining your data, video, digital audio, and low-power cables into a single standard. HDMI, DisplayPort, DVI, ethernet, and charging - USB3.1 C really does have the potential to replace a whole mess of annoying standards that we frankly should never have to deal with when using a computer unless we absolutely need them. These purpose-built cables have their uses, of course, but USB3.1 C could retire a vast sea of unwashed and pinched VGA, DVI, USB-B, and ethernet cables, along with the veritable slew of proprietary laptop chargers out there. This is something we desperately need.

The catch is that as with any technical standard seeking to replace other standards, the owners of those other standards aren't necessarily ready to let go of them. And, in the meantime, it's always possible something better will come along - you never know. But USB Type C is easily the most promising and capable cable / port standard we've ever seen, so widespread adoption seems all but assured at this point in the realm of smartphones, laptops, and tablets.

Are the connectors any more durable / less prone to bending?

Google claims its own connector design, as included with the new Chromebook Pixel, is very durable, using cold-rolling to form the metal plug jacket instead of stamping it. However, this sounds like something specific to their supplier. Like past USB cables, there will be variation in quality, durability, and abusability. USB Type C was not designed to be any more durable or resistant to "oh shit" moments than the type A connector, and given its physically smaller size, it may actually be worse in that regard, though we can't be certain yet.

Compared to microUSB, type C is slightly larger, so force would theoretically be distributed over a slightly wider area in the event of port-abuse, not that I'd take much solace in that.

What else?

This is where you come in. Have questions about USB Type C / 3.1 / 2.0? Ask them in the comments - I may add them to this post. Have corrections or insights to add? Those are welcome, too. We want this to be our callback post for all things USB-C and 3.1 when the time comes, so let's make it happen.