USB Type C
The latest iteration of the USB connector is called Type C, and while it was officially introduced in 2014, it’s really just starting to appear on the devices we can buy and use. Apple’s 2015 MacBook was among the first to support the new connector, but it’s now showing up on all kinds of Windows PCs, smartphones, monitors, docking stations, storage peripherals and more. Like Apple’s Lightning connector, the USB Type C connector is reversible, meaning you can plug it in in any orientation and it will work (and won’t get jammed in the wrong way)
USB Type C is also associated with, though officially different from, USB version 3.1, which is currently the highest-speed iteration of the standard. It supports transfer rates of 10 gigabits per second, a nearly 1,000x improvement over the 1996-era USB 1.0 spec, which topped out at 12 megabits per second.
As we all know, however, there’s often a big difference between theory and practice. The crux of the problem is that not all USB Type C connectors support all of these different capabilities and, with one important exception, it’s almost impossible for an average person to figure out what a given USB Type C equipped device supports without doing a good deal of research.
The key exception is for Thunderbolt 3.0, a technology originally developed by Intel. It’s a different interface standard than USB 3.1, but uses the same USB Type C connectors. Thunderbolt 3.0 connectors (which, by the way, are different from previous versions of Thunderbolt — versions 1 and 2 used the same connectors as the mini-DisplayPort video standard) are marked by a lightning bolt next to the connector, making them easy for almost anyone to identify. To be clear, however, they aren’t the same as the somewhat similarly shaped Lightning connectors used by Apple (which, ironically, don’t have a lightning bolt next to them). Confused? You’re not alone.
Arguably, Thunderbolt 3.0 is essentially a superset of USB 3.1, as it can carry full USB 3.1 signals at 10GB/sec, as well as PCIe 3.0, HDMI 2.0 or DisplayPort 1.2 video signals, 100W of power and Thunderbolt data connections at up to 40Gb/sec, all over a single USB Type-C connection. The only downside to Thunderbolt 3 is that it requires a dedicated Thunderbolt controller chip in any device that supports it, which adds cost. Also, full-bandwidth Thunderbolt 3 cables can be expensive, because they require active electronics inside them.
The real problem is that there are no simple means of demarcation or labeling for different varieties of USB Type-C. One of the goals of the standard was to produce a much smaller connector that would fit on smaller devices — leaving little room for any type of icon.
The other issue is, with the launch of USB Type C, we’re seeing one of the first iterations of what I would call “virtualization” of the port. Until recently, each port had its own connector and carried its own type of signal. USB carried data to peripherals, Ethernet handled networking, video connectors such as HDMI and DisplayPort carried video, etc. Now the rise of multipurpose ports such as USB Type C have broken that 1:1 correlation between ports and functions. While this consolidation is clearly an important technical step forward, it also points out the opportunity for confusion if user education and basic labelling techniques are overlooked.