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New MacBook: What is USB Type-C?

by Todd Haselton | March 10, 2015March 10, 2015 11:00 am EST

Apple unveiled its new MacBook on Monday and, in many ways, it’s the future of notebooks. It features a first-class display, a super thin fan-less design with Intel’s Core M processor and, unlike any other notebook currently shipping on the market, a single Type-C USB port.

Wondering what the heck that thing is?

In short, it’s the future. It’s the future of not only what we’ll start to see on notebooks, but in plenty of new gadgets moving forward, including tablets and smartphones. It’s a part of USB 3.1, which offers a lot of benefits over USB 3.0, so let’s take a look at why you might want it and, for some people, why it might be a tad early for Apple to add that as the only option on its notebook.

Lots of Power

One of the really cool benefits of the USB 3.1 Type-C adapter and Apple’s implementation of it is that it offers enough juice to power your notebook. This was also the case with USB 3.0 on products such as the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro, which also charges using a USB port, but it’s different in that it provides much more power than USB 3.0.

The USB-IF, the group in charge of the standard, said in August that USB Type-C is “robust enough for laptops and tablets,” but “slim enough for mobile phones.” It offers power up to 100 watts at 20 volts, which is enough juice for a notebook, but also has benefits on the data side, too.

Faster Data Transfers

USB 3.0 offered a nice data transfer bump over USB 2.0, and USB 3.1 with Type-C connectors does the same. You should expect data transfer speeds between USB Type-C devices up to 10Gbps, up from the 5Gbps transfer speed offered by USB 3.0.

It’s also backwards compatible, which is why Apple is selling dongles that allow you to connect USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 devices to your notebook. And, as Apple told us, the data transfer rate is high enough that you can attach HDMI, VGA and DisplayPort adapters to connect that single USB Type-C port to a monitor of your choice.

Given the 10Gbps data rate, there’s enough throughput that we suspect there are going to be plenty of desktop docks that split that port into several different I/O standards.

Reversible and Versatile

USB Type-C offers a major benefit over the connectors before it, and that’s support for reversible use. You can plug the adapter in any which way you like, similar to how you might plug in a Lightning adapter. That makes it easier for users, especially if you’re going in blind, trying to plug in a cable in the dark to the back of a PC. We’ve all been there.

Hopefully that also means less damage to USB ports, particularly among users who try to jam in a USB key or cable the wrong way. It also means that you’ll be able to use a single cord for all of your devices, whether it’s to charge your smartphone, your tablet or your laptop, provided that there’s enough power coming in from your power brick.

The MacBook is just the start

The MacBook might be one of the first consumer devices to offer a USB 3.1 Type-C connector, but it’s just the beginning. The USB 3.0 Promoter Group, in charge of pushing the standard to other OEMs, includes HP, Intel, Microsoft, Renesas, STMicroelectronics and Texas Instruments.

“Numerous products will benefit from the increased performance and flexibility that USB Type-C connector provides,” Texas Instruments consumer and computing interface product line manager Roland Sperlich said when the specification was revealed in August. “The wave of USB Type-C products to come will not only offer expanded capabilities, but also simplify user experience.”

The USB-IF has more than 757 partners, according to the company’s website that lists them all, including other firms such as Acer, Dell, Samsung, Google, ASUS, Motorola and many more, so expect this new standard to deploy into new laptops, phones and tablets in the coming years.

Too early?

One might argue Apple is a bit early to the game. When USB 3.0 was announced, plenty of OEMs still included older USB 2.0 ports on their notebooks, too. Apple, meanwhile, is using that single USB Type-C connector for power and data transfer. There aren’t any other USB, display or power ports on the notebook at all.

The company thinks we’ll be able to do most of our data transfers over wireless networks, but one could argue that there’s still a need for additional ports for displays, USB ports and more. That would alleviate the need for expensive dongles, which Apple is selling for $79, but it’s true that’s where we’re heading in the not so distant future. It’s very similar to how Apple ditched DVD drives before other OEMs, and how we all thought it was crazy for doing so. Yet, here we are a few years later without any need for that sort of media.

Could Apple have added other options, too? Sure, but then the MacBook wouldn’t be as thin as it is and Apple wouldn’t be driving its point home: USB Type-C is the future.


Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...