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What is USB Type C?

If you've seen the new MacBook, one of the features you've no doubt wondered about is that single USB (Universal Serial Bus) port on the side. What is it? Why doesn't it look like a typical USB format? Should we be paying attention to this new thing called USB Type C? And, maybe most importantly, what does it mean for the future of technology and devices?

An average of 3 billion USB ports are shipped each year, making it the most successful type of peripheral connection. But there are a crop of new ports out there, including HDMI 2.0, DisplayPort, Thunderbolt and Lightning, all designed by different manufacturers with different purposes in mind.

Thunderbolt, designed by Intel specifically to attach peripherals to a computer, currently surpasses USB in speed and ease of use. Lighting is designed by Apple to charge and connect low-power accessories, like iPhones and iPads.

Then, along comes USB Type C, the newest in the USB family. It looks, feels and acts like just another new port but its manufacturers have high hopes that it will fill in the areas where previous USB models currently fall behind. The U still stands for Universal, meaning it's non-proprietary and that holds huge appeal. USB C means that it's USB 3.1, currently the most improved iteration of this type of port.

You are probably familiar with USB 2.0 and USB 3.0. Just one look around your home or office and you can probably point out a few examples of each. While both types come in the full size, micro and mini USB, USB C is just the one tiny port, so it can plug into a laptop just as easily as it can plug into a smartphone, tablet or digital camera—anything. It gives universal a whole new meaning.

How is USB Type C better than previous USB ports?

Coming in at 8.4mm by 2.6mm, the Type C port and connector is about the same size as the micro USBs mentioned above. This means it's small enough to fit in even the thinnest accessory or peripheral device.

Plus, you know how you never seem to plug your USB cables in the right way the first time? That wont happen with the Type C because both ends of the cable will be the same. Say hello to reversible plug orientation that gets plugged in the right way every single time.

Totally trumping it's predecessors, the Type C USB will support USB 3.1 with a high power output of up to 20V(100W) and 5A. Put into context, a 15-inch laptop requires about 60W of power, so now we'll be seeing a lot more notebooks that can be charged using only their USB port, just like the newest MacBook Air.

Plus it can transfer up to 10Gbps—a super high data rate—which is double the bandwidth of previous USB types and just as fast as the first generation Thunderbolt connector.

Good news for users of external hard drive too: USB Type C will enable storage manufacturers to make bus-powered external hard drives of a larger capacity. That means that as long as the hard drive is connected to your computer or notebook via the USB C port, it doesn't need to be plugged into another power source. The USB C can provide enough power to keep a few hard drives full of juice.

On top of that, Type C USB also allows for bi-directional power, you can do away with most other power adapters and USB cables and trade them in for a single, universal solution.

A word on USB Type C's backward-compatibility

Type C USB and USB 3.1 are backward-compatible with USB 3 and USB 2 but for compatibility to work you'll need compatible Type A to Type C cables. Some computers—like Google's Chromebook Pixel—will still have both USB Type-C ports and larger USB Type-A ports for the immediate future so we can all slowly transition from our old devices to new ones with only USB Type-C ports. Until then adapters and hubs will bridge the technology gap.

There are already adapters available to make Type C hosts and devices work with existing USB devices. Right now they are relatively cheap but you can expect prices to go up as more people rely on cross-compatibility for their devices. This is the first, and probably only time, adapters will be required with USB but once USB C is as popular as Type A the future-proof design will mean that it will used for future USB versions.

Will the USB Type C be as popular as previous USB types?

In a word: yes. Although currently in its infancy, the new USB C will be everywhere soon. The newest MacBook is the first laptop to use it but many more are coming soon. Apple made quite a statement about it's confidence in the port by making it the only one available on the MacBook. Future laptops, even more powerful ones meant to connect to multiple peripherals will indeed have even more ports but they will likely all be of the USB Type C genus. You can also expect to see device manufacturers add these ports in all new smartphones, tablets and any other device where you see a USB port now. In a video released by Google to introduce the integration of USB C into their new Chromebook Pixel, Adam Rodriguez, Product Manager, says "We, at Google, are very committed to the USB Type C spec. Expect to see this in a lot of Chromebooks and Android phones in the near future." You really can't get more definite than that.

Now, just think of how relying on one type of cable will completely change how you travel with multiple devices, or give presentations where you need several media sources. Sleek, streamlined and elegant solutions is always the direction technology wants to move. With the USB Type C we get just that, delivered across all of the tech gadgets we use now and will be using in the future.