USB is one of the most beloved computer interfaces of all time. Developed in the mid-1990s, it undertook a slow but steady march to the top. Offering an interface with good speeds and a compact connector, it became the standard for hooking up interface devices, storage, and even became the de-facto way to talk old-school serial, too.
In late 2014, the USB Implementers Forum finalised the standard for the USB-C plug. Its first major application was on smartphones like the Nexus 5X, and it has come to dominate the smartphone market, at least if you leave aside the iPhone. However, it’s yet to truly send USB-A packing, especially on the desktop. What gives?
Fundamentally, it all comes down to peripherals. Even in 2020, the average computer comes with a bunch of classic USB-A ports, sometimes 10 or more on a well-provisioned desktop. Meanwhile, it’s still possible to buy laptops that come without a single USB-C port. If the average user were to pick up a new keyboard off-the-shelf, and got it home to find a USB-C connector, they’d be completely out of luck – and likely quite furious. Manufacturers simply haven’t adapted their product lines to the future of USB-C yet. Thus, for the meantime, commodity peripherals – keyboards, mice, and the like – will all continue to ship with classic USB-A connectors.
There’s also the problem of compatibility. For example, the Intel® NUC NUC8i7HVK is a compact computing system that packs a full 11 USB ports. There are five USB 3 ports (type A), two USB 3.1g2 ports (type A), two USB 3.1G2 ports (type C), and two more USB 3.1g2 ports that also support Thunderbolt 3 (type C).
This leads to a situation where a user can plug in devices to ports that fit, but don’t support the hardware attached. For example, a Thunderbolt to HDMI connector will fit in either type C port, but only work in the two that support Thunderbolt. It’s an absolute headache for even experienced users, most of whom don’t have the time to memorize a multitude of arcane specifications and what ports support which interfaces. Colour coding and labels help, but fundamentally, it’s a backwards step from the old world where you plugged in to a USB port, and things just worked.
Even in the smartphone world, where USB-C made its beachhead, things remain uncertain. The new standard allows for higher current and higher voltages, allowing charging to happen faster than ever. However, not all USB-C cables are up to the job, with many omitting several lines or components necessary to enable this operation. Having a single connector used for both data and charging is handy, but it has fragmented the market into “data-only” and “data and charging” USB-C cables. What’s more, laptops can use the Power Delivery standard too, again creating an even higher grade of USB-C cable that can handle up to 100 W.
To the uninitiated, these all look the same. It takes a solid understanding of hardware and electronics to be able to tease out the different capabilities of each. The standards are so confusing, even the Raspberry Pi foundation got things wrong at their first attempt.
Regardless, the hardware community continues to adapt. Hackers fly to a good supply of power like moths to a flame, and we’ve seen many mods taking advantage of the USB-PD standard. USB soldering irons are now common, and others have put it to the job of recharging batteries. We’re also beginning to see staples take up the cause, with Arduino boards starting to sprout with the new connector in place. It’s clear that the community is ready for the new standard, even if the industry is yet to catch up.
Realistically, peripheral manufacturers aren’t going to start making keyboards and mice with USB C connectors just yet. With laptops having one or two ports at best, often with one usually needed for charging, it’s simply unworkable. The desktop scene is worse, with even high-end motherboards often featuring just one USB-C connector. With a normal setup usually involving a keyboard, mouse, webcam, and often a headset, too, one cable is simply nowhere near enough.
Hubs, dongles and adapters are worst-case workarounds, not a way of life. Instead, to move forward is going to require commitment on the part of hardware companies. Laptops and desktops need to start shipping with three or more USB-C ports, and slowly reduce the number of USB-A ports, if we are to see a transition to a singular connector ecosystem. Once there’s an installed base, it won’t take long for factories to switch over to shipping hardware with a USB-C connector on the end instead. Legacy computers will then be able to get by with adapters from USB-A to newer USB-C hardware, where it’s much more acceptable to make such compromises. Devices like existing printers won’t even need an upgrade – a simple USB-C to USB-B cable will allow them to work seamlessly with newer computers.
Additionally, the USB-IF, in conjunction with Intel, should do whatever is possible to bring about a stable capability set for the port. With USB 4 on the horizon, the timing couldn’t be better. Obviously, with a single cable handling high-power charging, high-bandwith video, and general interface duties, there will always be confusion. The less technologically inclined will look to the skies and wail when their pocket-sized USB power bank won’t run their Macbook Pro – and rightfully so, I might add. The die has been cast, however, and there is room to at least ease the process going forward. Make as many USB-C ports as available as possible, and make as many of them act the same as each other so that users know what to expect. Then, and only then, will we know peace – and the rest of the world will join the party!