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What is USB-C? One cable for data, video and power

, Former associate editor · ·
Explainer Provides context or background, definition and detail on a specific topic.

(Pocket-lint) - USB-C, or USB Type-C, to give it its proper title, is a common connector standard that's been appearing on electronic devices over the past few years. It has a reversible connector, so it can be plugged in either way up, it's compact and enables faster charging and quicker data transfer rates than previous standards - including Apple's Lightning connector found on the iPhone.

USB-C can also support lots of different types of data - including video - and power over a single connector, so it's a really convenient connector design and easy to see why it's taking over all devices. In June 2022 the EU ruled that all electric devices should move to the standard, a move designed to reduce electrical waste by ensuring that cables and chargers are compatible across devices and encourage people to stick to using existing chargers rather than needing a different charger for every device.

Here's everything you need to know about it.

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While any USB-C connector will fit into and USB-C socket, there's more going on here. That's because the (physical) USB-C connector can support a full range of different connection standards. For example, on a Kindle you don't need fast data transfer that you might want on a laptop, so there are lots of different things that happen in the background that are worth being aware of. 

Put simply, the numbers dictate the speed of connection while the letter refers to the connector. So we have USB 3.1, USB 3.2 and now USB 4 and all use the USB-C connector. There's another connections standard called Thunderbolt which has been around for a number of years, again in a number of different guises - and now uses the same USB-C connector. 

The potential for confusion comes from the fact that you might have a Thunderbolt enabled port on your laptop and you might also have a standard USB-C connection - both looking the same. The key difference here is that the Thunderbolt will give you the fastest connection speed - ideal for transferring lots of data like 8K video - while the regular USB-C connection might only be good for charging. 

Why aren't all ports Thunderbolt enabled? Simply put, because of the cost - but you'll usually find Thunderbolt ports and cables are labelled with a logo that looks like a lightning bolt.

Pretty much all new phones have USB-C for charging with Android phones pretty much all using USB-C. There are some very cheap devices still using Micro-USB, but they are becoming increasingly rare.

The iPhone still uses Apple's own proprietary Lightning standard. Apple has changed things up more recently with the iPad Pro and iPad Air now supporting USB-C (to enable faster data connections and compatibility with a wider range of accessories) and it's really only a matter of time before Apple moves the iPhone to USB-C too. 

That's partly going to be ushered along by the EU ruling, which will likely see Apple move all devices to USB-C to make manufacturing easier, rather than keeping some on Lightning. Apple could drop the cable completely and opt for wireless charging only, but it seems unlikely.

Phone connections are mostly about charging as data connections are pretty rare, but you can connect things like USB-C drives or even a keyboard to Android devices using the connector.

Some proprietary charging technologies such as Qualcomm Quick Charge and Samsung Adaptive Fast Charging are built on top of the USB-C/3.1 standards to provide even faster recharging, but the advantage that USB-C offers is that the connector is the same - so you can essentially plug any charger into any device. If it can't use the full power of that charging, it will just use a charging rate that it supported. 

When it comes to charging speeds it's important to remember that both the phone and the charger need to support that speed - if the phone won't support that 80W charger, you can't take advantage of the additional power on offer.

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Apple's Lightning standard is similar to USB-C in many ways in that it can also support fast charging and the connector is reversible, but it doesn't support anything like the same data rates: Lightning supports 480Mbps, while USB-C could be up to 40Gpbs depending on the standards it supports.

The need for a separate power port on a laptop is gone, enabling manufacturers to make even smaller devices.

Apple's MacBook led the way in the laptop space in 2015 with a single USB-C port for all purposes, but most new PC models also now also have USB-C, meaning that you can use the cable from your laptop to charge your phone, for example. This is especially the case for thin and light laptops and tablets, although Apple has thankfully started to include more ports on its recent laptops.

Some manufacturers have been more resistant; while Microsoft Surface devices have USB-C for data, they also have their own non-standard chargers - and the reintroduction of MagSafe on some MacBooks again means there's a mixture of connectors appearing.

USB-C also has display support so you can connect up a monitor and other devices to a single USB-C port. Charging can be performed while transferring data at the same time, something previous standards could not always manage and that allows greater versatility in how accessories can be designed.

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There are plenty of adapters for USB-C, making Type-C backwards compatible so anyone can adopt it.

In any case, it's likely you'll need to buy at least some accessories; even if you have a high-end MacBook Pro with four USB-C ports you will almost certainly have enough ports but there will be some devices you own that you will need a converter for. 

The USB-C connector has been designed so that it can be scaled with future developments in speed, meaning the shape itself shouldn't need to change again for a long time. 

Writing by Dan Grabham. Editing by Chris Hall.