August 1, 2016

Detangling USB-C, Part 4: 3.1 Data Transfer

By Team Ventev Topic: Tech Specs

USB-C has been called the cable that’s better, faster, stronger than any before it. But there’s a little caveat to that faster part: The Type C connector doesn’t increase speed. Two new specs do.

The “faster charging” spec is called Power Delivery and (depending on how it’s used) can accelerate charging with 10x more power than before. The “faster data transfer” is part of the USB 3.1 spec, which boasts 10x more speed than what you currently get from a Micro USB or Apple Lightning cable.

USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) says that speed is gained through more efficient data transfer, made possible by better encoding. All you need to know is that it will save you time. How much, you ask?

There are two data transfers speeds included in USB 3.1:

  • 1 Gen 1 is 5 Gbps and is actually the same speed as the USB 3.0 spec (AKA the spec no one really noticed). Gen 1 will move 25,000 MP3s or 30,000 photos in two minutes.
  • 1 Gen 2 is 10 Gbps and is 2x faster than the USB 3.1 Gen 1. Gen 2 has made these speed leaps by making improvements in data encoding. Suffice it to say, it’s crazy fast and is able to send huge files, like 4K video.

A USB 3.1 Gen 2 cable is backwards compatible and easy to connect to legacy devices already on the market and in your house. But the speed of data transfer will depend partly on the connector – which could be USB-A or USB-C – and partly on the capabilities of the device it’s connected to.

Like with most new specs, more capability equals more complexity. So USB 3.1 cables contain more wires, making them stiffer and more challenging to build. That’s likely why most of the USB-C cables that’ve come out so far transfer data at USB 2.0 speeds.

Cost could be part of the hesitation, too, because USB 3.1 cables will be more expensive. Faster speed requires more wires and more data channels – all of which have to be extra insulated to protect against interference. The added materials will drive the cost up.

There are a few products on the market that have a 3.1 Gen 1 Type C port – the Lumia 950/950XL, the new Macbook, and the Google Chromebook Pixel and Pixel C. Why the 5 Gbs option? Because the 10 Gbs option is more than mobile users really need, given the popularity of cloud storage. Plus, with most users transferring files over Wi-Fi, there’s really no problem with the way we do things now.

It’s likely going to be computers that lead the charge with 3.1 Gen 2, and that will take time. At CES, there were a few gaming computers that had it, but there wasn’t any info on commercial availability dates for those products.

While manufacturers will take their time to incorporate USB 3.1, the USB-IF has high hopes for Type C and its upgraded specs. But there are a handful of competing standards on the scene. How soon consumers begin accepting the new technology remains to be seen.

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