Ah the lovely world of technological acronyms. There’ll be a few in this (hopefully quite short) article. Don’t worry if words such as MHL, USB, HDMI and the rest get your eyes glazing over quickly; we’ll do our best to keep this as simple as possible.
For the last few years, outside of Apple products, we’ve been enjoying a time when all mobile devices use the same connection for power and data. Even tablets, traditionally using their own specific connectors, have recently got to the same point.
The port and cable we’ve all got used to is the small and easily recognisable USB Micro B connector, which most of us refer to as a Micro USB.
Well it’s all change now, so time to throw away every cable and charger you own.
Jokes! Please don’t do that, it would be wasteful and unnecessary, however it is time to take note of the new kid on the block if you haven’t already: USB Type-C.
USB Type C
“Type-C” itself refers to the size and shape of the connector/port on the cable or device. There is one size (similar but different to micro USB) and it has been designed to replace all current USB connections on products going forward, whether or not they have been ‘full’ or ‘micro’ in the past.
This means phones, tablets, laptops, chargers, keyboards, mice, printers etc. The idea is for the ‘Universal’ in Universal Serial Bus (USB) to really mean it this time round. It will of course also be completely backwards compatible, so existing products will work with others that have Type-C as long as you have the right cables or adaptors.
One of the key features is that the connection is reversible, with the pins lining up the same way each way. This doesn’t just add convenience to the user, it’s also better for maintenance as you can no longer try to fit the cable in the wrong way, plus the rounded edges are less likely to damage the inside of the ports.
A few niche products have already been released with Type-C connections, although with the launch of Google’s Nexus 5X, we have the first mainstream smartphone to adopt the technology.
Having a Type-C connector doesn’t necessarily mean that the cable/device will allow for USB 3.0/3.1 features or power delivery. The specification for the connector shape is separate to the specifications for these features.
In practice though, we should see that Type-C cables and products do have these capabilities, as it would not make too much sense to manufacture them in the modern market without supporting these features. Be aware if you find very cheap USB Type-C shaped cables for sale though, as they may be lacking features you might expect.
Using a USB Type C Phone today
The Nexus 5X is provided in the box with a Type-C to Type-C cable, as well as a mains charger that also has a Type-C port. This will also be the case for the Nexus 6P and upcoming Microsoft Lumia 950 and 950 XL Windows phones.
This means that if you don’t have any other Type-C products, you will have to use the included charger. You will also not be able to connect the phone to a PC at first, unless you own a new Macbook or one of the few other Type-C ready computers such as the Chromebook Pixel.
What you’ll need to make life a little more normal is to get hold of a USB Type-A to Type-C cable shown in the image to the right / above.
Type-A is what we think of as a normal full-size USB connector. This will allow you to connect to a PC as well as use any mains chargers you may have around that have a USB-A port for a ‘normal’ cable.
A new standard
As with all new connections, this could prove a little bit of a hindrance at first, however as months pass and adoption rates inevitably rise, Type-C will start to become the norm.
Premium mobile devices from respected manufacturers will all start to feature Type-C ports soon. Whilst not all new laptops and computers will use the connections exclusively, you can expect to start to see more of them in upcoming products, as well as some current range powerhouses such as Google’s Chromebook Pixel and more recent Apple Macbooks.
The overall idea is for USB Type-C to become so normalised in all new equipment, that in the next few years all we’ll need are Type-C to Type-C cables, with the occasional adaptor thrown in for legacy equipment.