Detangling USB-C Part 2: Understanding the difference between USB-C and USB 3.1Topic: Tech Specs
Forget drones: Yahoo! Tech recently named USB-C the technology of 2015. OK, so maybe it’s not the most outwardly impressive gadget of 2015 – “Yes, that’s right,” jokes David Pogue, “the Yahoo Technology of the Year is a jack.” But what it lacks in flash, it makes up for in functionality.
We agree. USB-C is one of the biggest things ever to happen to mobile charging. And the transition from micro-USB to C is already happening on the mobile device side.
Why’s this such a big deal? As the Yahoo! article states, “USB-C has the potential to charge your gadget faster and transfer data faster than what’s come before.”
That’s true, but we have to be careful not to confuse the USB-C connector itself from the other new USB specifications; one spec doesn’t guarantee the others. So to understand how this all works, let’s break apart the pieces of USB-C.
The Type C connector can be used for USB 3.1 or USB 2.0 data transfer speeds
The Type C connector is merely a plug. That means there will be Type C products – especially cables — made for both USB 2.0 and USB 3.1 data transfer speeds.
To clarify the difference:
- USB 3.1 products are optimized for computers and peripherals. That means download speeds for mass data transfer.
- USB 2.0 is cost and performance optimized for mobile devices. Mass data isn’t relevant here – your phone doesn’t have enough storage capacity to demand the higher transfer speeds.
- You can use a USB-C / USB 3.1 cable to charge your mobile phone, but the 3.1 cable will cost more than a 2.0 cable and won’t necessarily give you faster charge on your mobile device. (The 3.1 cable is thicker, and more materials equal higher cost.) If your phone is the only thing you plan to charge with the cord, you’re better off with a USB-C / USB 2.0 cord. You’ll still get a fast charge, and you’ll skip spending the extra money on 3.1 data transfer and HD video capabilities that you won’t use.
There are a handful of devices that already have USB-C ports, like the Nexus 6P, which uses the USB 2.0 spec. The Lumia 950 actually has USB-C and the 3.1 spec. But even if more manufacturers start using the USB-C 3.1 spec for mobile, for the purpose of charging, you’ll be better off buying a cable and charger designed for the 2.0 spec.
Speaking of chargers …
Power Delivery is a separate spec – not part of USB 3.1 or the Type C connector.
Power Delivery is its own spec, so it doesn’t have to be paired with USB 3.1 data transfer or Type C, although it will be rare to see a non-Type C device with Power Delivery.
The previous charging standard was 5 volts / 1.5 amps (although some devices can go higher than that). The new spec means a USB-C cable with Power Delivery can charge at 5, 9, 15, or 20 volts / 5 amps. That means faster, more efficient charging.
To explain what’s needed for Power Delivery:
- A USB-C cable must be designed to the Power Delivery spec to deliver increased voltage and current.
- A USB-C cable designed to the USB 2.0 spec can work with Power Delivery. A C-C cable should generally work with Power Delivery and go up to at least 20V/3A, with ability to go as high as 5A. An A-C cable, on the other hand, will generally not work with Power Delivery.
- You can use a legacy charger with a new USB-A to USB-C cable, but you may or may not get the fastest charge possible. An A-C cable will charge devices as they do today using Apple’s 5V/2.4A standard, Qualcomm QuickCharge, or 5V/1.5A standard depending on device. For example, an A-C cable will max charge the new Macbook at 5V/2.4A, even though it can accept much higher. A device with Qualcomm QuickCharge, on the other hand, can still max charge the device at its fastest possible rate using an A-C cable.
Power Delivery will create as much confusion as it does convenience. That’s mostly because we’re still waiting to see how device manufacturers decide to implement it – answers we likely won’t get until late 2016 or early 2017. Right now there are no devices in the market that have implemented the Power Delivery specification.
Know before you go shopping for USB-C products
In a nutshell, you have to pay more attention to the USB specs of a cable than you do to its Type C connector. You have to know the charging and data transfer capabilities your device can pull via charger and cable.
Most of us aren’t going to toss a bunch of perfectly good USB-A chargers just to get USB-C specs. And you don’t have to. Ventev has products in the works that will help you transition from A to C at your own pace.
We recently rolled out our chargesync A→C 2.0 cable, designed to connect your existing wall and car chargers with new USB-C devices, and also our chargesync C↔C 2.0 cable. We’re also developing multi-port transitional chargers to simultaneously power both USB-C and older devices. And we’re working on USB-C-only accessories to meet the USB 3.1 spec, too.
There are a lot of moving parts to USB-C and its related specifications. It’s exciting to see that we’re moving in the direction where one cable and port have the power to connect all of our devices – even from brands who haven’t played nicely together in the past. But right now, there’s no reason to spend extra money solely for the sake of early adoption. Buying accessories that bridge the gap between USB-A and USB-C will extend use of the devices you love until you’re ready to upgrade to the next big thing.