Disclaimer: As of the publication of this article, the information within is likely either partially or completely dated. Such is the nature of consumer electronics.
As a computer/technology enthusiast with a massively swinging love/hate relationship with electronics, I often find myself looking forward to what’s just around the corner. Certainly, as technology has (quite arguably) improved our lives, it must continue to do so with new developments and innovations, right? Well, sort of. I’m looking forward right now to USB-C, and by USB-C, I pretty much mean Thunderbolt 3, but don’t let me confuse you (which is probably what I’m about to do), because those terms are not interchangeable.
Recently, I was setting up one of my many (unnecessarily numerous) computers in my office, struggling with reaching under desks and behind PC towers and dropping lines behind immovable furniture and I was just sort of wistfully daydreaming of all of the existing technologies I wish had come to proper fruition. After that massive unnecessary hassle was wrapped up and I consoled myself with a toasted cheese sandwich, I thought along the lines of “How would I like this to be? What new thing is on its way that’s going to make this all better?” and most of it can be boiled down to USB-C and Thunderbolt 3. The good news is, it’s here! The bad news is, it’s nuts.
As it is now, we can all mostly wrap our minds around the status quo. Our computers and power bricks have USB ports and we can plug pretty much everything into those. We have to deal with different ports for different devices (phones, televisions, headphones, etc.), but again, there is usually at least some level of standardization. (I’m looking at you, Apple). We have these ports surrounding us all the time in our everyday lives and they’re fine. They’re fine!
But “What if… What if,” says the industry at large, “what if we could make ONE port that would do EVERYTHING?”
Okay. I’m listening.
“Yes,” says the industry, “USB-C will be the port to end all ports! We will have a transition period which we will handle through adapters…”
“…and then we’ll be home free in a future where anything plugs into anything and it will work!”
“We’re ready! Give it to us!
Not so fast. It’s understandable. Not everything can be USB-C-ready immediately. Ideally, we’d see new devices coming out like PCs and laptops with old ports and USB-C together to tide us over until most things we plug in also switch to USB-C. At least the rest of the manufacturers are taking a bit more of a paced approach with the recommended blending of old ports and new USB-C ports. Windows users can look forward to their next computer likely having USB, HDMI, and USB-C ports and they’ll be fine as long as the computer itself works. USB-C ports are showing up. New Samsung phones have them. New Google phones have them. New PCs have them. New Apple laptops have them. And they can do so much!
What Can USB-C Do For You?
USB-C isn’t just for charging your phone. You’ll be able to charge your whole laptop over USB-C too! Apple’s already doing that, so is Samsung. You can also move data over USB-C, of course, and faster than ever. But that’s not all! Eventually, you’ll be able to plug in monitors and TVs, even in 4K, with USB-C, and you can right now with the appropriate dongles (insert eyeroll emoji). What’s more, you can expect to get higher quality audio than ever before in your speakers and your headphones with USB-C, also, for now, with dongles. More dongles. And through the magic of dongles, USB-C will be compatible with anything USB-A as well. PLUS, I almost forgot to mention, it’s reversible! Upside down, right side up, doesn’t matter. The damn cable will just plug in, instead of having to flip it three times because it didn’t work that way, but it doesn’t work this way either, but it suddenly works the first way even though it didn’t the first time.
When you find yourself a USB-C port, you can rest almost 100% assured it will handle data at USB 3.0 speeds of 5 Gb/s (Gigabits per second) at least and that’s plenty fast for all common uses today like external hard drives. That USB-C port will also put out enough to charge your phone in a few hours, maybe faster. If you plug in your upcoming USB-C headphones (or your USB-C to headphone dongle), odds are, you’ll get sound. This is fine. We can deal with this. So that about wraps it up. Let’s get going toward this utopian future of a single cable and connector for everything! Not so fast there, bucko. Not all USB-C ports are created equal.
The Darkest Timeline
Sometimes, that port will look physically the same, but it will carry data at a ridiculously slower speed of USB 2.0. I have never seen this in the wild, but the same people who tell you there are monsters under your bed promise that this backward technology exists and I hate those people for the message they carry.
Sometimes, that port will look physically the same, but it will carry data at twice the speed (USB 3.1 – 10 Gb/s). It will most likely handle all of the other things the same. And in the not too distant future, that physically identical port could be carrying data four times faster than USB 3.0, when they get around to implementing USB 3.2 which works at 20 Gb/s AND does phone charging AND does audio. So what’s the big deal?
Some of those USB-C ports, like some of the ones found on some laptops, like Apple’s, will let you charge the laptop through that port IF the other end of the cable is plugged into a suitable source, like something heftier than your regular phone charging brick. But some will not. And if you’re very, very lucky, the port will be labeled in a way that will indicate whether this is possible or not. But it probably won’t be.
Some of those USB-C ports, again, like some of the ones found on some laptops like Apple’s, will support display outputs (sigh, yes, with dongles). But some won’t. And again, the manufacturers are incredibly bad at labeling things and it is more likely than not that they won’t. Like, the one on my very own computer tower here. No label. Doesn’t support laptop charging OR displays, only data.
So if you don’t care about having the fastest speeds, or plugging in external displays, or charging your laptop (which is the trickiest to not care about), you’re golden. Just find any old USB-C port and plug in. But my point, the whole point of this tedious article, is that we have been promised the world, and we’ve been let down by too many possibilities deemed optional by manufacturers and most egregiously, a decided lack of proper labeling and documentation. How are we to know that our do-anything ports can do anything or not? As if from the heavens themselves, our cries are answered. Look for a tiny lightning bolt.
The Blade of Computer Ports
Remember that Thunderbolt 3 thing I mentioned at the top? Thunderbolt 3 is another layer of technology that exists on top of USB-C and adds even more functionality. It gives you up to four times the speed of USB-C, depending on which version of USB it’s based on, at 40 Gb/s. It also allows direct PCI Express bus transfers for absurdly fast solid state storage and crazy things like high end external graphics cards. It’s compatible with any rare thing out there that is Thunderbolt 2 or 1 based as well. But maybe most importantly of all? It will support all of the features USB-C could possibly do, from fast data transfer to audio to displays to charging whatever. It does it all and then some. Nice.
Obviously this added bonus of doing everything requires more internal technology and therefore commands a higher price therefore being less common than just finding some kind of USB-C port. But if you DO get yourself a Thunderbolt 3 port, you can rest assured you’re not missing out on anything. (Aside from that whole let’s sweep this under the rug thing where the ports on the right side of the 2017 Apple MacBook Pros only work at half speed for uncertain reasons but hey who can afford those things anyway?)
As a severe sufferer of FOMO, Thunderbolt 3 is the port for me. All of the features, none of the drawbacks. It’s basically the Blade of computer ports. But until that great and glorious day when, after winning a lottery and paying off my bills, I can buy all the new computer kit I can dream of, I will continue to plug away (no pun intended) at my aging workstation with its tangled rat’s nest of myriad cables dreaming of better futures of daisy chained displays and single cable/port solutions running everything at ludicrous speeds. My only hope is that in this rambling rant produced of a sleep-deprived mind, a warning about the caveats of new technologies in transitional periods might have gotten across and given you a reasonably entertaining heads-up at what might turn up missing in your next PC.
Will you be desperately badly off if your ports are only USB 3.1 and not USB 3.2? No, probably not. Does it matter if the USB-C on my desktop computer can’t charge my new laptop directly? No, probably not. But the whole point is that we’ve been shown a giant feature set, and manufacturers are cherry-picking whatever capabilities they feel like selecting and then just tossing them in and touting the virtues of just “having USB-C.” If there is a particular feature you are looking forward to, you’ll have to dig around in specifications or reviews to find out if that is, in fact, included.