Buying a shiny new laptop, whether it’s a Mac or Windows PC, often evokes both joy and dread.
The dread comes from the cables. The new laptop’s power charger is probably different from the last one’s. So the old power cable gets tossed into the pile of unused e-junk in your closet.
The new laptop probably also includes a new connection port that doesn’t work with many of the accessories you already own, like hard drives, mice and video monitors.
This situation is what the tech industry is hoping to fix with a new connection standard called USB Type-C. The new connection standard is already included in some new devices, including Apple’s latest MacBook, Google’s Chromebook Pixel and Nokia’s N1 tablet. Other manufacturers, like MSI, Asus, LaCie and SanDisk recently announced products that would support USB-C.
But what is USB-C? It has a wonky name, but its supporters say USB-C cords will simplify your life. They will be, they say, the go-to, inexpensive, all-in-one cables for the next decade.
“This is the first piece of technology with a legitimate chance of being owned by every human being alive,” said Shane Igo, a product manager for Monoprice, a company that sells USB-C cables starting at $10. “It should be the only cable you need for the next 10 to 20 years.”
That is quite a bold promise. Is this really the connector for the long haul? Time and time again, just when you have bought a nice collection of devices and stockpiled enough spare cables, a new standard comes along to render them junk. (Remember FireWire or VGA?) In addition, there is still a host of connectors on the market for somewhat specific purposes, like Thunderbolt (for data and video), and DisplayPort (for video).
The USB-C is the successor to the familiar USB connector, the rectangular-headed plug used for many years to link computers with devices like keyboards, monitors and hard drives. The new connection standard also links those devices, and with a smaller plug, but it also charges power.
Brad Saunders, chairman of USB-IF, the trade group that publishes guidelines for the USB standard, said that USB-C was designed with future devices in mind. The smaller port, he said, gives manufacturers more wiggle room to make thinner smartphones, laptops and tablets. The connector is meant to handle high speeds for data transfers and lots of power, he said.
Also, to make the connector as versatile as possible, USB-C can be configured to work with other types of connectors, according to Saunders. For example, a manufacturer that makes Thunderbolt accessories can offer a cable that plugs into a USB-C port on one end and a Thunderbolt device on the other. The same goes for DisplayPort.
“We’ve gone out of our way to facilitate every technology,” Saunders said. Assuming that manufacturers actually make USB-C cables that work with many older connectors, that would be a nice “future-proofed” solution. It would protect people from having to buy new hard drives, video monitors and keyboards whenever they buy new computers or mobile devices.
Saunders said consumers could also buy adapters that are compatible with other connection standards. Apple, for example, sells a $20 adapter for connecting older USB devices to the new USB-C port on the new MacBook. The company also sells $80 “hubs” to plug several types of connectors, for video, an older USB device and power, into the USB-C port.
In other words, USB-C really could be the connector for the long haul. Still, consumers are nowhere near close to a reality where all they carry is one cable that does everything. In the near future, most consumers who buy a new laptop or tablet with a USB-C port will probably carry an adapter or a hub alongside their USB-C cable to use their older accessories. Over the next several years, while USB-C becomes more widely adopted by manufacturers, people will probably switch out their older cables for ones that are compatible with USB-C.
Kyle Wiens, chief executive of iFixit, a company that sells people components to repair their products, has watched the consumer electronics industry jump from connector to connector for many years. Even he is a believer that USB-C is a win for consumers. Wiens explained that it was better for the industry to agree on one standard for a connector.
Apple’s MacBooks, for example, traditionally included a proprietary connector called MagSafe for charging power. The port includes a magnet so it will effortlessly disengage if yanked. Apple did not license its MagSafe technology for other companies to make MagSafe accessories, which kept prices relatively high (Apple sells MagSafe chargers for $80) and hindered accessory makers from making clever innovations for charging MacBooks, he said.
By contrast, USB-C is an open standard, meaning third-party companies can make different accessories compatible with the new MacBook as well as other devices, for lower costs.
Above all, Wiens said, the win for consumers is having fewer useless cords sitting around the house.
“The problem is that there are different power adapters for every laptop on the planet,” he said.
He added that it would be ideal if manufacturers reached a point where they sold computers without including new cables, because you probably will already have the same ones.