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One USB Cable to Rule Them All

The USB 3.1 Type-C

Earlier this week, the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA) announced standardization of the “DisplayPort Alternate Mode on USB Type-C Connector.” This will allow USB Type-C connectors to transport DisplayPort signals.

DiplayPort is primarily for video sources. DisplayPort Alternate Mode will allow a USB cable to carry audio and video along with power and data simultaneously.

This is on top of news earlier this month of the new USB power delivery specification which essentially enables USB to deliver 100W of power through a USB cable.

What about Thunderbolt?

I know what savvy tech-heads may be saying. The Thunderbolt interface developed by Apple and Intel has been around for nearly 3 years now. It also carries data, audio, video, and power. What is special about USB 3.1 Type-C?

The first advantage is the power.  USB 3.1 Type-C can deliver 100 watts of power compared to 10 the watts delivered by Thunderbolt. 100 watts of power is enough to easily charge even top tier laptops.

The second advantage is adoption. Due mainly to expense, Thunderbolt adoption has been slow at best. This is especially true relative to USB.  You’re rarely ever less than 20 feet from a USB port. They are on almost every digital product in your house, while Thunderbolt ports are difficult to come by. Furthermore, you need to shell out $40 for the cable to take advantage of Thunderbolt. A USB cable is literally cheaper than rope.

To be fair, Thunderbolt has had much faster data transfer rates than USB. Thunderbolt 2 can deliver 20 Gbit/s of throughput where USB 3.1 delivers half that at 10 Gbit/s. Personally, I feel that’s not enough to offset the low-cost and utility of USB.

What this New USB Cable Offers

The massive increase in power transfer coupled with the addition of the DisplayPort specification is a game changer on what can be done with a USB cable. Here’s a list of what is possible with this new technology:

  • Connect a Printer or scanner
  • Output to a display and power it with the same USB cable
  • Charge your laptop
  • Charge all your mobile devices with the same USB cable type
  • Daisy chain your devices to charge them from a laptop. (Plugged in to power with a USB cable)

This new USB specification handles every function of Thunderbolt, and also charge most battery powered devices in your home. This allows for one USB cable to power a laptop, while handling input, video, data, and audio. On top of this added functionality, it’s backwards compatible with USB 2.0.

It finally looks as though our wishes have been granted and the all in one cable will be a reality in the near term. Expect the new USB cable to be available for purchase before next year. Smart devices with the new USB port should be hitting the market in 2015.

If you are interested in a fantastic write-up that gets deep into the technical details of this new USB specification I recommend reading this article from Ryan Smith over at AnandTech.

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