Reversible USB Type-C finally on its way, alongside USB 3.1’s 10Gbit performance
CES is as much a concept show as a practical demonstration of shipping hardware, and much of the focus tends to be on products that may not see the light of day for years, if ever. One of the more practical products shown off this year that we can be confident will be coming to market is the USB Type-C connector and the accompanying USB 3.1 standard.
The near-universal frustration over attempts to connect USB devices to computers has been a staple of nerd humor and lampooned in various ways until Intel finally found a way to take the joke quantum.
USB Type-C promises to solve this problem with a universal connector that’s also capable of twice the theoretical throughput of USB 3.0 and can provide far more power. Type-C connectors will not be the only type of connector that’s produced, but apparently hybrid cabling won’t be allowed. There will be USB 3.1 cables that are backwards compatible with existing USB 3.0 ports, but no Type-C adapters with conventional USB at one end and the new connector at the other.
Signal overhead is also expected to drop significantly, thanks to a switch to a 128-bit and 132-bit encoding scheme, similar to that used in PCI-Express 3.0.
Type-C, USB 3.1 not always hooked together
The Type-C plug can be used with previous standards of USB, which means manufacturers don’t automatically have to adopt expensive 3.0 hardware if they want to include it in mobile devices.
A USB Type-C port next to USB 3.0.
This is going to inevitably cause confusion. One reason the shift from USB 2.0 to 3.0 was relatively painless is because coloring both the cables and plugs bright blue made it impossible to mistake one type of port for the other.
The upside to decoupling USB 3.1 from USB Type-C, however, is that companies can deploy the technology on mobile phones and tablets without needing to opt for interfaces that inevitably consume more power. Then again, some might argue that this would be a moot point — the USB controller can be powered down when it isn’t active, and when it is active, the device should be drawing power off the PC or charging port anyway. Heat dissipation could theoretically remain a concern — higher bandwidth inevitably means higher heat, and in devices built to 3-4W specifications, every tenth of a watt matters.
If I had to bet, I’d bet that the 100W power envelope on USB 3.1 will actually be of more practical value than the 10Gbps bandwidth capability. While it’s true that USB 3.1 will give external SSD enclosures more room to stretch their legs, the existing standard still allows conventional mechanical drives to run at full speed while SSDs can hit about 80% of peak performance for desktop workloads. It might not be quite as good, but it’s a far cry from the days when using USB 2.0 for an external hard drive was achingly slow compared to SATA.
The ability to provide 100W of power, as opposed to 10W, however, means that nearly every manufacturers could ditch clunky power bricks. There would still be concern about ensuring that connect points were sufficiently reinforced, but provided such concerns can be accounted for, the vast majority of laptops could switch over to the new standard. Hard drives and other external peripherals could all be powered by single wires, as could USB hubs for multiple devices.
The higher bandwidth is nice, and a major selling point, but the flippable connector and the power provisioning will likely make more difference in the day-to-day reality of life. As for competition with Intel’s Thunderbolt, USB 3.1 will continue to lag Intel’s high-speed standard, but as bandwidth rises this gap becomes increasingly academic. At this point, it’s the features USB doesn’t allow, like RAID and TRIM, that matter more than the raw bandwidth does in most cases.
There’s no word yet on when we’ll see motherboards and add-in cards shipping with USB 3.1 support, but current rumors point to late 2015 or early 2016. Type-C connectors could ship more quickly, since the cable standard is compatible with pre-existing USB chipsets.
Now read: USB Type-C cable will also support DisplayPort. Finally, one cable for every hole
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