USB-C has quickly become ubiquitous, and not just on mobile devices: This incredibly versatile connectivity standard is now pervasive on modern PCs as well. When combined with Thunderbolt 3, it’s nearly perfect.
So much so, in fact, that Microsoft needs to adopt this standard—USB-C with Thunderbolt 3—for its coming generation of Surface devices. And drop the proprietary USB-based Surface Connector for good.
As a refresher, USB—literally, Universal Serial Bus—debuted in the late 1990s as a way to obsolete previous competing and incompatible standards for connecting peripherals to PCs. (Let’s briefly shed a tear for the serial, parallel, and PS2 ports that none of us really miss.) Over the years, USB has evolved to accommodate faster transmission speeds, of course, but also new capabilities. And with USB-C, we see the apex of that evolution in a plug type that is (finally) reversible and twice as fast as the previous standard, while offering a stunning array of capabilities. Indeed, the sheer number of things that USB-C replaces makes the initial USB of the late 1990s look like an under-achiever.
Granted, not all USB-C capabilities are available on all devices—or, I should say, on all USB-C ports, even—which makes for some confusion. Adding to this confusion is the frustration that accompanies any such transition: We’re going to be dealing with various dongles, adapters, and port multipliers for the next few years. The good news? It’s worth it.
It’s especially worth it when you combine USB-C with Thunderbolt 3, which Apple and many PC makers are doing. And to be clear, when I write that Microsoft needs to embrace USB-C and rid itself of the terrible and proprietary Surface Connector, what I really mean is that it should embrace USB-C plus Thunderbolt 3.
So what does that mean?
Put simply, USB-C by itself is basically the latest version of USB, a connectivity standard, with a particular plug type. Which in this case is much smaller than the full-sized (or “Type A”) plugs that most people associate with USB and, more important, is reversible. Meaning you don’t need to know which way is “up” when you plug a USB-C connector into a USB-C port.
By itself, USB-C provides a number of useful features. These are:
On smartphones, tablets, and now even PCs, you can power your device using a USB-C-based cable and charger. So new PCs like the 2016 HP Spectre x360 and Apple’s MacBook and MacBook Pro can be charged using the same type of cable. And you can use the USB-C ports on those devices to do much more as well.
Like previous versions of USB, USB-C can be used to transmit data. But because it’s based on the latest USB standard, USB 3.1, USB-C can also be much faster than previous USB-C ports, assuming of course you’re using a USB-C device (or a USB 3.1 device with a dongle) on the other end: USB-C can transmit data at speeds up to 10 Gbps, which is twice as fast as USB 3.0’s 5 Gbps speed. But it’s also backward compatible with previous generation USB devices; when such a peripheral is connected, they will work as before, at what speed they support.
Using various dongles, you can transmit video via HDMI, DisplayPort, and other video standards. (A future update will also add audio support over USB-C, similar to Apple’s implementation of audio over Lightning on its iPhone 7 and other iOS devices.)