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Microsoft's Rivals Push Forward with USB-C

Paul Thurrott


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.

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.

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