September 6, 2016

Do you need USB 3.1? Depends on what you do.

By Team Ventev Topic: Tech Specs

Imagine this: you are working on a team of videographers shooting a very large wedding. After filling your SD card with behind-the-scenes shots of the bridesmaids and groomsmen, you stop to load the photos onto a laptop. You slot your card into an SD card reader and before you know it – just 38 seconds later – you’ve transferred 8 GB of video and are back to work.

In the past, this could have taken 10 times as long. These speeds are possible because you had the best equipment. Fast hard drives and fast SD card readers, of course. But there’s one other piece of the puzzle: A cable capable of handling it all.

For photographers, videographers, and people with huge data needs, a new kind of USB cable is going to be a godsend. It’s going to be a true “one cable to rule them all” connector that is small enough to connect to a mobile device, but powerful enough to replace your HDMI cable. It promises the ability to handle huge file transfers with a common connection that will make it easy to find spare cords in tough situations.

For now, the cable’s full capability remains in our imagination, but they are coming fast, and some industries, like video editing, are going to need them sooner rather than later or might want to think about purchasing compatible products during equipment upgrades.

We’re talking about USB-C connections on the 3.1 standard. That’s a lot to tease out, so let’s do a little background on what you need to know and how this might – or might not – change the way you charge and sync.

A recap, for those in the back

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about USB Type C, a port that is likely to become the industry standard.

But there’s a lot of confusion over USB-C because of other upgrades in cable standards that are happening alongside its introduction. Simply put, the term USB-C refers to the shape of the connectors on the cable – i.e., the ends.

The advantage of USB-C is that it’s small enough to be used on mobile devices. It’s also reversible, meaning users can flip it upside down or right side up and it will insert into the port just the same.

When people talk about Type C, they often toss around a related, but distinct term, USB 3.1, a standard that rolled out at the same time. Whereas USB-C refers to the shape of the connector, USB 3.1 is a standard that deals with data transfer speeds. While USB-C connections are capable of handling very fast data, not all of them will do so. That’s because some USB-C cables support the 2.0 standard, which is older and slightly slower, and some will be on 3.1. (There was, incidentally, a USB 3.0 standard. It was superseded by USB 3.1, though the speeds are the same.)

The 3.1 system and USB-C support very rapid data transfer and a charging speed that gives it the juice to power larger items, such as laptops. In fact, developers anticipate a day when using your phone or your tablet to charge your laptop will be a common occurrence.

USB-C 2.0 vs. USB-C 3.1: Which should you buy?

It might seem like a slam dunk to just buy USB 3.1 cables. We all like to have the shiny new thing, and when investing in cables, is there a point to buying 2.0 cables if they’ll be obsolete in the not-too-distant future?

As USB-C is adopted by more and more device makers — the newest Macbook and the Google Pixel both have ports — it’s clear that consumers won’t be able to re-use some of their old cables. There’s also going to be a time when we need to buy temporary cables, such those that connect the USB-C standard to the original USB port, as our equipment straddles the technology.

 

Yes, there is. Cables on the 3.1 standard are more expensive than 2.0 cables. They’re also thicker and slightly less flexible because they have more wires inside, so they might not fit in the smallest briefcase pockets.

Ultimately, the cable you buy depends on how you want to use it.

There are phones on the market now that have USB-C ports. But just three phones, the Lumia 950, Lumia 950 XL, and HTC 10 support USB 3.1. Unless you own one of these phones, if you were to buy a USB 3.1 cable to charge your phone, you wouldn’t get the full benefit. You’d only get the USB 2.0 speeds. But a USB 2.0 cable is perfectly fine for charging a mobile device, and it will cost less money.

Cables on the USB 3.1 standard are good for peripherals, such as laptops and monitors and heavy duty data lifts. Video editors in particular will benefit from the data speeds. The ports are the right size for small devices like DSLR cameras and promise a universal connection, something that could interest photographers who are prone to losing cables.

The future

USB 3.1 has seen some speed bumps on the road to adoption. When the Galaxy S7, was released without a USB-C port, it was seen as a blow to the standard.

While there are few USB 3.1 compatible phones available now, that could change quickly. Consumers are demanding better and better photo and video capabilities on mobile devices. Devices that can shoot in ultra-high definition 4K are just around the corner. Mobile devices, likewise, are likely to see a rapid expansion of storage space. The days are coming when we are very likely to be able to stream high-def movies from phone to TV.

The same goes for a host of peripherals – like card readers. While only a handful of peripherals supporting the 3.1 standard, there are already rumors of 5k video being included in some future Mac releases. That means there is going to be a lot of pressure on manufacturers to offer improved products capable of handling this data.

It’s clear then, that USB 3.1 cables are just around the corner. For now, at least, the best use of USB-C connectors that are 3.1 compliant is in the connection of peripherals. For phones, it’s just too early to worry about, unless you own a phone that has it.

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