USB-C and USB 3.1 – Latest iteration of the USB standard
Chances are that you’re familiar with USB — that’s Universal Serial Bus to its more polite friends — the data and power interconnect standard that replaced a whole host of different connectors back in the late 1990s. Every laptop has one. USB-C is the latest iteration of the USB standard, technically sitting as the connector of choice for USB 3.1 connections. As such, you may see such terms used interchangeably, but they’re not quite the same thing.
USB-A and USB-B
USB type A connectors are probably what you think of when anyone says “USB”; a rectangular socket or plug of the type most commonly found on laptops and desktops. USB Type B in its full size plug iteration is the type that you’d most commonly find plugged into printers. It’s a more square-shaped plug, but the USB-B connector also encompasses the two smaller sized and more commonly used USB connections: the older mini-B plug, and the micro-B that every single smartphone (save for Apple’s iPhone) uses for charging and data connections these days.
USB has always been designed with backwards compatibility in mind, which is why you can still plug a USB 1.0 device into a USB 3.0 hub today and have it work. That won’t change with USB-C/3.1, although you will need adaptors for any older devices due to USB-C’s different shape.
USB-C is the new hot, industry standard connector developed by the USB Implementers Forum, the group of companies that has developed, certified, and shepherded the USB standard. It counts over 700 companies in its membership, including Apple, Dell, HP, Intel, Microsoft, and Samsung. This is important, because it’s more likely to be accepted by the majority of PC manufacturers. Contrast this with the Apple-promoted (and developed) Lightning and MagSafe connectors, which have limited acceptance beyond Apple products.
USB-C connector looks like a micro USB connector at first glance, but it’s slightly thicker to accommodate its best feature: like Lightning and MagSafe, the USB-C connector has no up or down orientation: as long as the connector is lined up right, you won’t have to flip the connector to plug it in! The cables also have the same connector on both ends, so you won’t ever have to figure out which end to plug in, unlike the older USB cables we’ve been using for the past 20 years.
Yup, USB-C implements USB 3.1, which is theoretically twice as fast as USB 3.0. It’s fully compatible electrically with USB 3.0, though obviously it won’t plug in physically without an adapter. By the way, it’s about as fast as the original specs for Thunderbolt (10Gbps).
USB-C/USB 3.1 is capable of acting as a video output source, again due to its higher potential data throughput. For now, that’s likely to come via adaptors out to HDMI/Displayport/VGA connectors, but in theory the standard should allow for output monitors with a single plug. Again, it’s early days for the standard, so those kinds of peripherals will be some way off.
USB 3.1 also allows for a much higher power throughput, up to 100w, which is why Apple’s using it as the charging connector for the new MacBook as well. Again, it’s all backwards compatible all the way back to USB 1.0, so older USB accessories will still work.
USB 3.1 isn’t absolutely exclusively paired with USB-C, and as such it’s entirely feasible for a hardware developer to produce USB 3.1 hardware with the older USB-A type connectors. Asus, for example, has motherboards just announced that do precisely that, although it’s most likely that the convenience factor of USB-C will see it dominate over time.