What’s Driving USB-C’s Popularity

The USB-C cable is the next generation of USB (universal serial bus) cables. Even those who can’t recognize it by name can likely recognize these cables by sight, being used in just about every personal and business computer application you can think of both for connecting peripherals to computers, transferring data, and charging various devices. More and more embedded engineers are making the move to try and incorporate connectivity/compatibility in their designs. But why go to such efforts when so many older USB items are still in use? Let’s take a closer look.


The Basics


To understand why so many are excited about USB-C, we need to take a moment and rewind back to 1996, and the release of the first generation of USB, USB 1.0. In those days, there were serious issues when it came to communication protocols for peripheral devices, and hardware compatibility was a commonality. Imagine needing one type of port on your computer to connect the monitor, one to connect the printer, and another type for your keyboard. USB 1.0 changed everything by letting all these devices connect via one connector type. Manufacturers, needless to say, were very happy with the change.


Fast forward to the modern day, and you have USB type-C. This first came to pass in 2014, but with more and more consumer products using it, it’s begun to extend outside the tech world in terms of prominence. At the core of the USB-C design is a reversible connector with 24 pins as well as a set of full-duplex communication capabilities.


With the history lesson over, we can begin to discuss why exactly USB-3 is so popular, so quick, from both a user and manufacturer perspective. For one thing, the timing was great. Around the release of USB 2.0, smartphone developers were in a race to try and make their devices as small as possible. This caused trouble for manufacturers, though. Many wanted to stick to the basic USB Type A 4.5 mm port, however, some of the smaller devices being put together were too small for the actual port. This led to variations like the Mini B and Micro B port.


However, the USB-C addition allows a new standard at a smaller size, making it easier for manufacturers to have the best base compatibility without having to compromise on size. Along with this increased compatibility comes replacement of other existing connection methods. Many manufacturers have gotten around compatibility problems by developing connectors suited to their specific needs. For example, Intel created the Thunderbolt, and Apple created the Lightning cable. USB-C offers a whole new level of versatility. In addition, despite only being slightly larger than the USB micro-b connector, it supports several alternate usage modes, including backward compatibility. When used with USB 2.0, you can see data transfer speeds of up to 480 Mbits.


One feature that’s quite useful, but doesn’t get the attention of some of the others, is the fact that USB-C cables have an inherently reversible design. Picture trying to fumble with the cable on your computer or adapter to either get that charge before your phone dies or quickly access a portable hard drive, only to be delayed because the cable was upside down? This reversible design makes that annoyance a thing of the past. You can plug a cable facing either way and have no loss of functionality. As a result, USB c to USB connections, legacy systems, and setups are that much easier to put together.


What Should Engineers Know?


Many major electronics manufacturers started to adopt this standard for release soon after USB-C came to prominence. These include Google, Nokia, and Apple. Apple is probably the largest backer in this regard, with several of its most popular consumer products featuring USB-C ports.


A lot of these factors, like how to take care of your USB C adapter or other peripherals, are mainly for recreational users who may want to take care of some rudimentary issues. However, for some people, like engineers, the advent of USB-C has a more far-reaching impact than they may expect.


This mainly applies to embedded systems, and the engineers tasked with using them to design future products. For examples=, your connector for USB-C measures exactly 8.25 mm wide and 2.4 mm high. As a result, it makes it possible for product designers to make products even smaller than they have in the past, without the fear of being too small for USB integration. Another thing that bears mentioning is that current USB-C cables will also support all USB versions, from 2.0 to 3.2. Note that devices with older designs won’t work with these new connectors, but the core connectivity/communication is still backward compatible. This means, in theory, you could use a USB-C cable with an older peripheral device if you’re willing to use a physical adapter.


What does this mean for engineers? For embedded designs, it’s essential that the engineers be able to test not only how USB-C and older cables work with their designs, but whether or not a USB adapter is also compatible.


Ultimately, when it comes to USB-C, there’s a lot to be excited about. Many tech professionals have been hoping for a greater deal of standardization and hardware compatibility across all devices, and this innovation may be able to lead the charge. Particular features that people should keep in mind are the high-speed transfer of data, power supply at high wattage, as well as a reversible design that’s quite user-friendly.


For embedded engineers, making the switch to this new standard sooner rather than later makes it easier to enjoy charging capabilities and data transfer speeds well above what we have seen in the past. Overall, the popularity is clear, the question is, how long will it take before we have a true new industry standard?


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