USB Type-C is at the center of more and more devices, whether smartphones, laptops, headphones or monitors. Its greatest strength is its versatility, since it is capable of transmitting data, video streams or energy through the same cable. However, this versatility comes at the expense of simplicity, since it’s hard to tell at a glance what a USB Type-C port is capable of. We are therefore going to explore the different possibilities of this one and its limits to allow you to see more clearly.
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USB Type-C, generally simply called USB-C, is the universal connector pushed by USB-IF, which is known for USB transfer standards. The USB-C plug is symmetrical, a cable can be inserted either way, eliminating the frustrations of previous USB ports and putting it on par with Apple’s reversible Lightning plug. Additionally, USB-C is also closely tied to several powerful new technologies, including USB4, Thunderbolt 4, and USB Power Delivery.
USB Type-C is not a new USB protocol standard. It is simply a new connector that can accommodate the USB protocol, but also other protocols, such as HDMI. It is so very important to distinguish between the connector, USB Type-C, and the data passing through the cable.
We can thus imagine the USB Type-C connector as a pipe, independent of the flow that passes inside. And in this connector, it is possible to pass different protocols, for different uses such as:
- Audio & Video
The most complicated thing is that the possibilities of the USB-C port can change from one device to another. For example in some devices, USB Type-C ports may support certain versions of the USB protocol, but not video or power protocols. To take a specific case, a port can be USB Power Delivery certified, but only be limited to USB 2.0 in terms of data. Similarly, a connector can support USB 3.1 Gen 2 without being able to pass an HDMI stream, or without supporting USB Power Delivery.
This great versatility has notably enabled the emergence of USB-C hubs, which make it possible to transform a laptop PC into a sedentary workstation with a single cable.
And unfortunately there is no guarantee regarding the functionality of the USB Type-C port on your smartphone. Manufacturers will therefore have to play the game to find out what is possible and what is not, by clearly displaying the characteristics on the product sheet or the box from the onboard USB Type-C port.
In 2021, USB-IF standardized USB-C 2.1. This is actually a new specification for USB-C to give it new possibilities. USB-C 2.1 adds in particular the possibility of charging devices up to 240W, against 100W previously, the management of USB4 and DisplayPort 2.0. Again, these are not guarantees, but new optional possibilities if you have a compatible device and cable.
Created by USB-IF, USB-C can obviously integrate a USB transfer protocol. However, there is no connection between the speed or generation of the USB protocol and the use of a USB-C port. You can just as easily have USB 2.0 as USB4.
With USB4, things change all the same since the only authorized connector is USB-C. So there will be no USB4 port or device in Type-A or Type-B format. This standard notably offers a speed of up to 40 Gbit/s and gives pride of place to interoperability with other protocols such as HDMI or DisplayPort.
In data transfers, manufacturers can also offer Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 4. This is an Intel technology with more important specifications than USB. Thunderbolt 4 is intended to be the most complete version of USB-C possible. A kind of guarantee for the consumer to have everything necessary. This requires additional costs from manufacturers, and Thunderbolt is generally reserved for high-end products.
Like USB4, Thunderbolt 3 and 4 only exist through the USB-C connector.
Audio and video
Within the USB Type-C specification is a handy feature you might hear about if you’re interested in this topic: Alternate Mode. It is this part of the specification that allows a variety of video and audio protocols to pass through USB Type-C. Thus this alternative mode, in reference to the main mode (which was to pass data, as always on USB) makes it possible to pass several protocols, as illustrated below.
USB Type-C has been able since the end of 2014 to transport a DisplayPort 1.3 signal thanks to theAlternate Mode, as shown below. With DisplayPort 1.3, it is thus possible to connect two 4K screens at 60 frames per second or a 5K screen.
The VESA, organization responsible for the DisplayPort standard, has announced the arrival of support for DisplayPort 1.4 on USB Type-C. This makes it possible to provide support for an 8K stream (7680 × 4320 pixels, i.e. more than 33 million pixels compared to 8 million pixels for 4K UHD) at 60 frames per second, or support for 4K at 120 frames per second.
Since USB-C 2.1, DisplayPort 2.0 is available in Alternate Mode. Enough to manage three 8K screens (7680 x 4320 pixels) at 120 Hz with 10-bit encoding (HDR) or a 16K screen at 60 Hz with 10-bit encoding.
Still in the video department, the USB Type-C connector can also carry an HDMI signal. This is also an alt-mode for USB-C which allows the transmission of HDMI 1.4 b, limited to Full HD at 120 Hz or 4K at 30 Hz.
Please note, it is common for cables or adapters to actually use the DisplayPort Alt-Mode of USB-C to provide an HDMI port (thanks to active signal processing).
Finally, the all-purpose connector that is USB Type-C is not limited to video. It can also pass an audio signal with the USB Audio standard, which is more complete than the previous one. It is particularly practical on smartphones to recover a wired audio signal.
The last important point about the USB Type-C connector concerns its peripheral power management.
If the USB standard was originally content to provide 2.5 W (5V at 500 mA), it has evolved with the arrival of Power Delivery designed to charge mobile devices. With USB-C 2.1, the connector can offer up to 240W in Power Delivery. It requires special cables and devices to achieve this level of electrical power.
The advantage is to be able to charge all types of devices with this universal connector: smartphones, audio headsets, but also PCs and mixed reality headsets. In principle, there is no risk in connecting a low-power device to a powerful charger. The protocol requires the device and the charger to negotiate the charging power to use. As a result, a Bluetooth headset charging at 10W will never ask for more, even on a 100W charger.
|10W||5V||2A||Smartphone, connected objects|
|low power computer|
|Profile 4: 60W||5V
|Profile 5: 100W||5V
|Docks, hubs, screen, PC gamer|
If you have any doubts about your purchase, we recommend that you take a look at our guide to chargers, or that to portable batteries.
How do I identify a USB-C cable or port?
It is sometimes complicated to identify the capacities of a USB-C port on a laptop or that of a USB-C cable. The USB-IF has implemented signage to better understand the capabilities of a port.
Intel also offers an icon to recognize a Thunderbolt port with a lightning symbol, be careful not to confuse it with a port dedicated to electric charging.
Towards a simpler future
As time goes by, USB-C is gaining adoption beyond even consumer electronics. Above all, after a few difficulties, manufacturers are integrating the USB-C specifications better and better to offer the best features.
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For the last recalcitrants, the adoption of USB-C will be forced. The EU has indeed decided to impose the connector as a universal charging port on the market from 2024. Apple will in particular have to adapt its iPhone.