Welcome to the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 Era

Posted on November 3, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Hardware, iOS, Microsoft Surface, Mobile, Windows 10, Windows Phones with 69 Comments

Welcome to the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 Era

USB-C has quickly become ubiquitous, and not just on mobile devices: This incredibly versatile connectivity standard is now pervasive on modern PCs as well. When combined with Thunderbolt 3, it’s nearly perfect.

So much so, in fact, that Microsoft needs to adopt this standard—USB-C with Thunderbolt 3—for its coming generation of Surface devices. And drop the proprietary USB-based Surface Connector for good.

As a refresher, USB—literally, Universal Serial Bus—debuted in the late 1990s as a way to obsolete previous competing and incompatible standards for connecting peripherals to PCs. (Let’s briefly shed a tear for the serial, parallel, and PS2 ports that none of us really miss.) Over the years, USB has evolved to accommodate faster transmission speeds, of course, but also new capabilities. And with USB-C, we see the apex of that evolution in a plug type that is (finally) reversible and twice as fast as the previous standard, while offering a stunning array of capabilities. Indeed, the sheer number of things that USB-C replaces makes the initial USB of the late 1990s look like an under-achiever.

Granted, not all USB-C capabilities are available on all devices—or, I should say, on all USB-C ports, even—which makes for some confusion. Adding to this confusion is the frustration that accompanies any such transition: We’re going to be dealing with various dongles, adapters, and port multipliers for the next few years. The good news? It’s worth it.

It’s especially worth it when you combine USB-C with Thunderbolt 3, which Apple and many PC makers are doing. And to be clear, when I write that Microsoft needs to embrace USB-C and rid itself of the terrible and proprietary Surface Connector, what I really mean is that it should embrace USB-C plus Thunderbolt 3.

HP's new Spectre x360 utilizes Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C.

HP’s new Spectre x360 utilizes Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C.

So what does that mean?

Put simply, USB-C by itself is basically the latest version of USB, a connectivity standard, with a particular plug type. Which in this case is much smaller than the full-sized (or “Type A”) plugs that most people associate with USB and, more important, is reversible. Meaning you don’t need to know which way is “up” when you plug a USB-C connector into a USB-C port.

By itself, USB-C provides a number of useful features. These are:

Power. On smartphones, tablets, and now even PCs, you can power your device using a USB-C-based cable and charger. So new PCs like the 2016 HP Spectre x360 and Apple’s MacBook and MacBook Pro can be charged using the same type of cable. And you can use the USB-C ports on those devices to do much more as well.

Data. Like previous versions of USB, USB-C can be used to transmit data. But because it’s based on the latest USB standard, USB 3.1, USB-C can also be much faster than previous USB-C ports, assuming of course you’re using a USB-C device (or a USB 3.1 device with a dongle) on the other end: USB-C can transmit data at speeds up to 10 Gbps, which is twice as fast as USB 3.0’s 5 Gbps speed. But it’s also backward compatible with previous generation USB devices; when such a peripheral is connected, they will work as before, at what speed they support.

Video. Using various dongles, you can transmit video via HDMI, DisplayPort, and other video standards. (A future update will also add audio support over USB-C, similar to Apple’s implementation of audio over Lightning on its iPhone 7 and other iOS devices.)

Older Apple devices, like this MacBook Air, required three different ports for SD, USB, and Thunderbolt 2.

Older Apple devices, like this MacBook Air, required three different ports for SD, USB, and Thunderbolt 2, plus a separate proprietary power plug (not shown).

This all sounds impressive as-is. But by “adding” Thunderbolt 3 support, PC makers can add additional functionality. And this is what really puts USB-C over the top. (On PCs; you won’t see Thunderbolt 3 support on phones and other smaller devices.)

For example, Thunderbolt 3 supports 40 Gbps data transmission, a speed that is four times that of native USB 3.1. And you don’t lose that 10 Gbps transmission speed for USB 3.1 peripherals, of course. Thunderbolt 3 also offers reduced power consumption when compared to previous Thunderbolt standards. And it can drive power for PC-class devices, whereas USB-C by itself is only powerful enough for phones and tablets.

The real, um, power here, though, is that you can do all this from a single plug. That is, using the right adapter or a USB-C/Thunderbolt dock, you can drive one or more 4K displays, a keyboard and mouse, various USB hard drives, and more … all from a single port. And if you have a PC with multiple USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, you can pick and choose. You can plug the power cable into any of those ports, and not be stuck using a specific port. You can also use a power cable—which is really just a USB-C cable with a power adapter attached—that you acquired elsewhere. That’s the point of this being a standard.

Given this, you can see why Microsoft should support USB-C/Thunderbolt 3: Its current Surface Connector solution is just USB 3.0 with a proprietary connector, and USB by itself suffers from bandwidth and power issues. By using USB-C/Thunderbolt, Microsoft could create a docking solution that supplies everything you’d need for Surface—including power—from a single plug, and do so in a way that is both powerful and efficient.

Current Surface devices, like Surface Book, offer video-out over miniDisplayPort (which is the same as Thunderbolt 2) and power/expansion over Surface Connector, which is proprietary.

Current Surface devices, like Surface Book, offer video-out over miniDisplayPort (which is the same as Thunderbolt 2) and power/expansion over Surface Connector, which is proprietary.

Of course, much has been made about the temporary compatibility problem we will all face in moving to USB-C. That is, since the plug is still fairly new, and many people already own peripherals based on earlier USB and video standards, we’ll need to buy and, for portable computers, travel with dongles and other adapters.

This isn’t the disaster many make it out to be, and this situation is no different than the move to PS2 in the late 1990s, or to the original USB in the late 1990s. It’s called progress. And if the result is dramatically better—which it is—then the temporary inconveniences are worth dealing with. Which they are.

Once this transition is complete, we’ll have a single plug that works with everything. We will have USB-C connectors everywhere, and near-universal compatibility. (Apple will almost certainly stick with Lightning for its iOS devices, if only because that plug type is even smaller than USB-C, allowing or ever-thinner phones and tablets.)

Welcome to the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 era, folks. This is a great time to be a PC fan.

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