[This article was updated on January 8, 2016]
With the introduction of the new MacBook, Apple has incorporated an all new connector: USB Type-C, or USB-C in Apple-speak. Apple won’t be alone in offering new USB Type-C products, so we thought we’d compile a quick guide for photographers to introduce them to the new interface.
What’s the Big Deal?
It’s simple: you will finally have a single cable to connect all of your cameras, laptops, external drives, card readers, monitors, (most) smartphones and (most) tablets together. All those micro USB cables piling up in your drawer? Kiss them goodbye.
USB Type-C is the latest generation of the venerable USB connection that is the backbone of a digital workflow. This new version has the same connection on both ends of the cable, so you’ll never again jam the wrong end into your device. What’s more, much like Apple’s existing Lightning connector, there’s no “right side up” — the USB Type-C plugs into a port no matter what side is up. This is important not simply to minimize the fairly trivial problem of not plugging things in the right way, but the issue of having properly sized cables for a variety of devices. USB Type-C is small enough for mobile devices but powerful enough for laptops and larger gadgets (like cameras). It is, to borrow the phrase, “one plug to rule them all.”
Of course, it won’t “rule them all” for quite some time. Given the sizable install base of traditionally-sized USB ports, adapters, like Apple’s new multi-port adapter, will be necessary during the transition.
Still, since the Type-C connector is smaller, it means the devices that incorporate USB ports can slim down as well.
What Can USB Type-C Do?
It’s small, yes, but also speedy. The new connector promises transfer speeds of 10Gbps. That’s as fast the current USB 3.1 standard (which is in turn faster than USB 3.0), but slower than Thunderbolt 2, which clocks in at 20Gbps. This speed differential means that for some applications–such as video editing off of an external hard drive–the new USB Type-C connection won’t replace Thunderbolt 2 anytime soon.
Still, it packs enough bandwidth to drive a 4K display. In fact, the USB Type-C standard can do the work of an HDMI, VGA and Mini Displayport cable, which is why Apple consolidated all of those functions into just a single port on its new MacBook.
UPDATE (1/8/2016): There are two “flavors” of USB Type-C: Gen. 1 and Gen. 2. The former is slower, delivering 5Gbps (the original USB 3.1 speed) transfer speeds. USB-C Gen 1 connections will typically be used on hard disc drive storage devices, a Lacie spokesperson tells us, since those spinning plates can’t yet keep up with the faster speeds offered by Gen 2. That spec, Gen 2, will be available on SSD drives, which can keep up with the 10Gbps transfer rates. Moral of the story, to enjoy the fastest speeds possible through USB Type-C, you’ll need to make sure you’re using a Gen 2 connection and that is, at least for now, confined to SSD-based storage devices.
The new connector can also deliver bi-directional power, instead of just a one-way charge. So if your laptop’s dying, you could use your tablet to recharge it. It’s also capable of delivering more power than USB 3.0: a full 20V vs. USB 3.0’s 5V. Anything that requires USB recharging should recoup quicker when using the new connector.
Finally, the USB Type-C port is designed to be future proof. According to the USB Implementors Forum, the plug is “designed to support future USB performance needs.” Presumably those “needs” entail catching up to, if not surpassing, Thunderbolt 2.
When Will Other Devices I Use Support the New Standard?
The USB Type-C specification was approved late last year, so companies are undoubtedly implementing the connection in their roadmaps. LaCie is one of the first hard drive makers to introduce a Type-C product, but as of yet, no camera company has tipped their hand. If we had to guess, hard drive makers will jump on the Type-C bandwagon rather quickly, followed by PC and laptop vendors, with camera companies trailing the field.