How does USB Type-C work?

We’ve already shown you how micro-USB works, but what about the next big USB technology: USB Type-C? It’s similar in a lot of ways since it’s the same general principle of being a Universal Serial Bus (USB); however, it’s better than micro-USB in almost every way.

These new USB ports aren’t just coming to phones, they’re coming to a ton of other devices as well — computers, laptops and plenty of other accessories (headphones, docking stations and more). That said, with how new the technology is, many of us don’t understand how it all works exactly. But if you follow along below, we’ll catch you up to speed!

What is USB Type-C?

Many refer to the connector as USB Type-C, but it’s more commonly referred to as USB-C. It’s basically a 24-pin reversible connector allowing for the transportation of data and energy. That’s the textbook definition anyway. The first version or specification of the connector (version 1.0) was originally published in 2014.

USB-C essentially takes the foundation that micro-USB was built on and improves upon it. For example, USB-C connectors are fully reversible. Previously with micro-USB connectors, you had to plug them in in a very specific orientation — with USB-C, it doesn’t matter. This makes thing a lot more seamless for the end user.

USB-C supports both USB 3.1 and 3.0 standards (more on that later). It also has its own level of fast charging thanks to its higher throughput capability. Not only that, but USB-C can deliver up to 100 watts of power, plenty to charge a laptop and other devices. And, thanks to the implementation of USB-C, you can even use your phone’s battery reserves to charge other devices.

How does it work?

For the most part, a USB-C cable works like any other USB cable. There are two sets of wires — one set is responsible for supplying power to a peripheral while the other set can transfer data between the host device and the device you’re transferring data to. One of the primary differences, as far as hardware goes, is the amount of pins inside the connectors. For example, micro-USB 2.0 has a meager 5-pins. On the other hand, USB-C has 24-pins, which — without getting into too much detail — basically offer you those faster transfer speeds, faster charging speeds and so on.

It’s a really neat technology when you look at how far we’ve come as far as things getting smaller and then more powerful goes. Can you make the switch to USB-C cables exclusively, though? Not every device supports it yet, but if you have a flagship phone with USB-C and a laptop with USB-C you can start to get away with it; however, you’ll generally need some additional cables for when you need to access different style USB ports. You’ll probably need to buy at least three types of cables: USB-C to USB-C, USB-C to USB-B and USB-C to USB-A. And yes, you’ll definitely need to buy these separately, as they’re not always included in your phone. You might get a single USB-C to USB-C cable or a USB-C to USB-A cable, but you’ll still need to buy at least two others.

A word on USB 3.1

Another quick thing to mention is USB-C’s support of USB 3.1. USB 3.1 is the successor to USB 3.0. The latter has a bandwidth capability of 5GBp/s while USB 3.1 upgrades that 10GBp/s. That basically doubles the bandwidth and is super useful for transferring large files; however, not every device works with USB 3.1.

It’s first important to recognize that USB-C and USB 3.1 are different from each other. USB-C is essentially the type of connector while USB 3.1 is the technology that works behind-the-scenes.

Smartphones with USB-C charging may support the connector part, but they might not support something like USB 3.1 and all the extra features that brings. For example, both Android 6.0 Marshmallow and Android 7.0 Nougat support USB-C 3.1, but manufacturers or OEMs still have to opt-in for the hardware to take advantage of the new technology. In a way, it’s like Qualcomm’s Quick Charging technology with its processors — the fast charging capabilities are always there in the hardware, but some OEMs may have decided to not enable it.

That, right now, is the same for USB-C 3.1. The good news is that USB-C is backwards compatible, so even if USB 3.1 isn’t supported, you’ll be able to use an older USB version for your data transfers. The good news is that USB-C is the newest technology on the block, so when USB 3.1 starts getting supported more widely, you’ll already be ready to take advantage of it with your new cables. That’s another important thing to mention — you really don’t have to buy new USB-C cables to take advantage of something like USB 3.1, as it largely comes down to software/what’s built into the operating system.

We’ll see more devices fully support the technology, but for now, Google’s Pixel devices are a good example. The Pixel and Pixel XL use Android 7.0 Nougat to showcase everything that USB-C 3.1 can do. So, you’ll get all the extra perks with it, including using the Pixel’s battery reserves to charge up another device.

Closing

And that’s all there is to it! As you can see, USB-C shares a lot of similarities to micro-USB. After all, no matter what way you look at it, they’re both USBs; however, USB-C simply builds on micro-USB and improves it in a lot of ways, such as providing a better user experience, faster charging and being more versatile. USB-C, thus far, is a pretty new technology that’s being slowly adopted by manufacturers all over. There’s still plenty of devices sporting micro-USB, but soon enough, USB-C will be the go-to USB technology on at least the majority of devices, at least, until something new comes along to replace it.


About the Author: Brad Ward

Brad is a tech enthusiast, writing and tinkering with all things technology since 2011. He currently bounces between the LG G3 and his beloved Moto X! His interests include reading, entrepreneurship, the gym, and of course, queso.


  • socalman777

    i was looking through Amazon, and there are still NO HEADPHONES with a native usb-c connection! Wondering why? Only adapters and dongles.

    • Venkatesh K.

      Because USB-C literally does not carry the analog audio data to drive the headphone. You need USB data to analog translators (DAC) so only the adapters are required in between to connect the head phone.

  • Joel

    How does adding a Type C adapter to the end of a Micro-USB cable affect things?

    • Andrew

      Doesn’t make the cable work faster or better. Just makes it fit. Definitely a better idea to use a usb-c cable wherever you can.