Microsoft's Rivals Push Forward with USB-C
It’s been an interesting week, with both Apple and Google launching expensive, high-end PCs built around the new USB Type C (USB-C) standard, which delivers power, data and display over a single connector. The only question now is how long it will take Microsoft and the Windows PC ecosystem to jump on the bandwagon.
On Monday, Apple announced the new MacBook, a two-pound ultraportable laptop with a radically simple design that eschews the normal array of ports—power, full-sized USB, HDMI-out/miniDisplayPort out, and so on—for a single USB-C port that can do all of that, albeit it not at once unless you buy an expensive dongle. While the cynical have described the new MacBook—which starts at a lofty $1299—as the world’s most expensive netbook, Apple’s ever-eager fans will no doubt buy it in droves.
On Wednesday, Google announced its new Pixel, a $1000-$1300 Chromebook that serves more as an aspirational device than answers any real market needs. The second-gen Pixel backs mainstream Intel Core i5 and i7 processors—no one seems sure why—and gets much better battery life. But like the MacBook, the Pixel packs USB-C.
But here, Google one-upped Apple by putting two USB-C ports on the new Pixel, with one port on either side of the device. And the firm wisely included two full-sized USB 3 ports since, you know, everyone on earth has peripherals that work with that standard. (Oh, Apple.) It also features an SD card slot. Same reason.
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So what’s the big deal with USB-C? A number of things, as it turns out.
First, USB-C features a small, symmetrical design, which means there’s no right-side up or upside down; it’s interchangeable. Compare this to the similarly-sized micro-USB, common with smart phones and other devices, which has a wider side and can only be plugged in one way.
USB-C can also deliver a full 100 watts of power, vs. 10 watts for micro-USB. This means that it can charge laptops and tablets in addition to smart phones, ushering in what I hope will be an age of universal charging, where all devices use the same ports and connectors instead of proprietary power. Both the MacBook and the Pixel power over USB-C, and while we have seen some Windows tablets with micro-USB-based power, USB-C should finally rid the world of proprietary power adapters for good.
USB-C also delivers what Google calls “super high-speed data,” and for once that’s not hyperbole: USB-C can speed data along at 10 Gbps, twice as fast as the theoretical limit for USB 3. But USB-C is also smart enough to throttle data—and power, for that matter—to accommodate the type of peripheral that is attached. So if you are using a USB 3.0 memory stick with USB-C (via an adapter), it will just work.
USB-C can drive a 4K display using a DisplayPort or HDMI dongle of some kind, though one should expect to see USB-C ports appear on future displays as well.
What’s perhaps most amazing is that USB-C can do all of this at once, assuming you have some form of multi-port dongle or can daisy-chain devices (yes, it supports daisy-chaining too). But this is why having only one port is hugely limiting and will generally require the use of expensive and easy-to-forget adapters. Apple would have been better off at least adding a second USB-C port to the new MacBook.
As for the PC world, I think it’s fair to say that USB-C is coming and that most PC designs will feature a mix of USB-C and traditional ports, like the Chromebook Pixel, if only because it’s so pragmatic to do so. And looking down the road, it’s fair to assume that we’ll see a wide range of USB-C devices like Bluetooth headsets, mobile devices including phones, and of course many PCs and Chromebooks.
More to the point, USB-C isn’t a fad: it really is the future. And while the PC world isn’t exactly on the leading edge here, that will change throughout 2015, and especially with the coming generation of Windows 10-class hardware.