USB-C: A Beacon of Hope in a Sea of USB Standards

Technology was supposed to continue along that trajectory of ever-easy connectivity. Or, at least, it was supposed to start there, before descending into madness and chaos. That was how it felt at least, when USB-C launched only to be replaced by USB-C+, which was really just USB-C++, which really isn’t USB-C at all. The universal serial bus was meant to liberate us, but instead it’s been consumed by its own restless spell of weird. This article will try to make sense of that spell, and trace the capricious currents of a connector that once promised to be a truly universal standard but has ended up shackled by its own arcane standards. Is it ever possible to sail the seas of USB-C with a compass?

Understanding the USB-C PORT: More Than Meets the Eye

When a Port Is Not Just a Port

The USB-C port seems like an object of modern-day design perfection at first glance: sleek, reversible and seemingly universal, its arrival was hailed with promises of a future where a single port could handle power supply, data transfer and video output, obviating the need for a jumble of cables and ports behind devices. But looks can be deceiving. In reality, USB-C ports are not all created equal. Although they may be identical in design, they can perform very differently depending on how they’re implemented.

The Tangled Web of USB Standards

Deciphering the Code of USB Protocols

Confusion stems from the fact that USB-C describes the port and its related hardware, not the specifications. In addition to USB, various other protocols can run through the USB-C hardware, such as for Thunderbolt, DisplayPort Alt Mode and USB Power Delivery. Each protocol is distinct. It can be used to transmit data fast, charge devices, connect screens or all of the above. But this diversity is also a source of complexity; the same same-looking USB-C port can support different combinations of such protocols, and for the average user it becomes a guessing game as to what their given USB-C port can do.

The Labyrinth of USB Naming Schemes

The Maze Without an Exit

Further complicating matters is the esoteric history of USB naming conventions. Some might remember that the USB Implementers Forum (USB IF) has built a tangled nomenclature over the many years it has navigated the divergent interests of its member companies. When you try to piece together what USB ports and cables are really capable of, it’s a puzzle creative minds could use for boredom-relief. That’s how we got differentiations such as USB 3.1 Gen 1 and Gen 2, then USB 3.2 and its different generations – an exercise in marketing-speak par excellence. The introduction of USB4 hoped to fix this by simplifying things with a Gbps rating, but the storm of standards continues, as manufacturers rearrange ports and specifications on their devices.

The Coil of USB-C Cables: A Knotted Dilemma

Unraveling the Mystery

The most frustrating is no doubt the entangled mass of USB-C…Identifying a USB-C cable is like reading runes without a Rosetta Stone: Plain USB-C cables generally have no markings. Some Thunderbolt cables have a logo and version number, but most USB-C cables are a black-box mystery. Unless paired with the device they shipped with, no one knows what they can do.

Is There a Port in This Storm?

Charting a Course Through the USB-C Tempest

But perhaps the biggest question raised by this storm is whether the USB-C ship is salvageable at all? The USB IF made progress toward this goal with USB4 but is being undermined by manufacturers who refuse to go universal with USB-C ports and cables. Also undermining a one-port future is the fact that we might just be stuck in another decade of roiling USB standards waters.

The Essence of USB Ports

To put it simply, the USB-C port is the one that could. It’s an interface that theoretically offers far greater ease, where we can all^{[1]} use the same cord for our data and audio and video and charging and display connectivity. That doesn’t mean it’s not a confusing mess at present: to get there from here, we’ll have to pass through a filter bubble of bogus specs, branding conventions and ECMA codes. We’ll have to buy cables, open their boxes, and decipher an icon that tells us which way is up in a place where there is no Noble or Vesper.^{[2]} For now, until the industry is steered into one cohesive future, you have to stay at the helm, ready to read your ports, ready to read your cables, ready to tell your HDMI from your DisplayPort, your Thunderbolt 3 from your USB 10Gbps, your DP++ from your DP Alt Mode. We’re all in this until no one is in anything. We’re all out on the deck, looking at the horizon, and hoping that the sky clears soon.

Jun 09, 2024
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