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USB-C

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of USB-C. Lets get under the hood of USB-C to see why the entire consumer electronics sector is going to move to this new port standard! 


The Good

Developers of USB-C were aiming to create a future proof design with fast 40 Gbps IO speed in active configuration and up to 100 watts of power (20vdc @ 5amps).  Greatly enhancing usability the  USB-C cables and ports are symmetrical!

Anyone with an android phone knows the headache of asymetrical micro-usb cables and ports. The fragile one way only micro-usb is one of the weakest mechanical designs but as a standard it replaced dozens of different charging cable standards in cell phones.

USB-C has a symmetrical design like the lighting plug of an iPhone, where you can plug the connector in right side up or upside down. Have you ever tried to plug a USB drive into a USB port only to have to flip it ? Symetical is also better because cables often have a bend configuration that is conducive to plugging in one way and not the other, something I call cable zen. I have extensive experience with USB cables, especially micro-usb cables for mobile electronics.

People bend and break the micro-usb cable tips all the time, they also break the charging ports on the android phones by allowing the cable to produce hanging tension on the tiny fragile port. I hate micro-usb but have been forced to use it with tons of different non- Apple products over the years. Apples 30pin and lighting ports are eons ahead of Micro-USB, as was their laptop MagSafe connector.

USB-C promises to solve all the problems with old USB ports and cables. Looking forward with a single standard, USB-C things will get brighter as vendors make newer higher performance USB-C thumb drives and USB-C variants of every other accessory you might want to plug into a new computer.

Looking even further ahead than USB-C, wireless will replace cables for printers and streaming, HDMI will even fade away eventually. I think wireless will win out over cable designs when long distance wireless charging (energy transfer) technology becomes popular in late 2030's. Cables are ugly, messy, materially intensive and annoying, but cables offer cleaner faster IO, more power, faster charging and more reliable connections, especially today in our bluetooth, wifi, radio, LTE RF noisy world where wireless often struggles to keep people connected to their drones. I had my wifi controlled AR drone almost fly off forever once upon a time because of a flaky wireless data IO control connection; this example illustrative of why wireless can be limiting today.

USB-C cable tips and ports are designed to be stronger that classical USB designs. The double oval stainless interface with symmetrical insides
providing more stability, greater strain limit, better insertion integrity, better pull resistance, stronger tangential strain resistance, better thermal handling, greater torsional strength and higher elastic yield limit (plastic deformation, dent * bend resistant). USB-C ports and cables are potentially much stronger than classical USB designs. This depends on the quality of manufacturing, something that has greatly hindered early USB-C cables, hubs and ports.

Short active USB-C cables offer blaring fast 40 Gbps IO speed where as longer passive cables offer 20 Gbps. Lets have a look.

Apple MacBook USB Type-C "All in One Port"
From Wikipedia on USB-C Cable
Google USB C Notebook 

USB Type-C Cable

Apple USB-C Port


The Bad 

You can't have you cake and eat it too! I think it would be nice for manufacturers to put USB-C ports along side at least one classical USB port until USB-C has good market penetration. Apple's decision to go with USB-C as the only IO for power and data on the MacBooks seems like a bad idea right now given the limited penetration of USB-C. Its not just Apple, Google's Pixel phone uses the newest USB standard as well. You are going to see a lot of new USB-C consumer electronics emerging as a result of Apple and Google using this design now.

Technological innovation is the result of a lot of hard work done by a lot of hard working engineers and scientists all working together over long periods of time. Innovating something that is well establish and well refined is not for the faint of heart. It can be really hard to push an entrenched sector standard like USB-A ports into the past. Moving beyond SD card slots in an era when every camera on earth uses SD cards is also not an easy thing to do. SD cards are not perfect. They have become a lot cheaper, a lot faster, and a lot more reliable. The same can be said for USB drives. Apple abandoned these standards in the 16 MBP because they are one of the only players in the tech sector who can afford to jump past old standards. People including me cried foul when they went from 30pin to lighting, but the reality is that the lighting port and cable design is actually really good!

Standards are great until they hamper innovation. Take the example of AA rechargeable batteries and why we are not using 3 AA's in cell phones today. Prismatic rectangular lithium polymer or LiPo batteries are the standard for cell phone power because they offer much greater energy density and that translates into much longer run time in thinner form factors. A single LiPo cell gives 3.6,3.7 or 3.8vdc nominal which is far greater than the 1.2v nominal voltage of an NiMH LSD cell (the best ones) Cylindrical batteries have their place too, think of the thousands of 18650 NMC/NCA high rate high energy density cells used in the Tesla Model S. AA's are available number of different chemistries for toys, wall clocks, remote controls, field sensors (weather etc), flashlights etc etc. Lithium Primary (energizer)(best), Alkaline (Good) Carbon Zinc (weak, cheap), and Zinc Chloride (super cheap, weak). I have an Xbox 360 and original Xbox One, the remotes take 2 AA cells, primary or rechargeable. I use low self discharge NiMH in my controllers. The Sony Playstation 4 controller takes the smartphone approach with its integrated LiPo battery, which is less optimal for a casual sporadic gammer like me while better suited for a hard core gammer.

The handwriting of laptop energy efficiency is all over the wall everywhere. Longer battery life, faster charging, smaller charging bricks, the 9 cell batteries were replaced by 6 cell designs, new chip sets doubled run time even with 3 fewer cells. New 3 cell laptops offer 5+ hours of runtime, while 6 cell laptops and those with prismatic cells can offer 10 hours, 12 hours, Microsoft just launched a new laptop that can run for 16 hours from it sealed internal polymer batteries.

USB-C can carry up to 100 watts of power, which is going to give more than enough power for all non-gaming laptops. The design mantra in laptop computers is 17% thinner (new Apple MBP) and lighter (Microsoft Surface Pro). The SSD on PCI-E is replacing HDD on Sata 6 for much faster booting up, greatly improved app launch speed, faster reading and writing, vastly improved overall IO performance, the sole compromises over HDD being the high costs of SSD and its reduced longevity, both issues are being addressed with SSD innovations. The future of mobile computing is all SSD. Almost every smartphone on earth uses SSD technology, not spinning magnetic discs! Thin and light is the new "it" for phones, tablets and laptops! Even svelte gaming laptops are available now like the Razor Blade, at a premium price ^^ USB-C will become the dominate power and data IO in future laptop designs!


The Ugly 

The early days with USB-C cables and hubs are a mess. Tons of low quality e-trash class USB-C cables flooded the market. Unable to carry 100 watts of power because of the low quality wires, overheating, shorting, fires, its not just hover boards and Galaxy Note 7 that are blowing up. Many people have had bad experiences with USB-C hubs that overheat and short out! Quality USB-C hubs are expensive (over $100) and rare at this point. Cheap low quality CE hardware creates a lot of short life hardware that becomes e-wast quickly. Apple is known for building quality hardware, so I imagine their USB-C cables and ports will be good quality. Head over to a teardown analysis website and have a look at Apple hardware. They use high quality ports, components, cables, screens, cases, power supplies, etc. You have to be careful though, the iPhone 7 in 32GB is far slower than the 256GB version... Apple did this with the iPod Touch 4, my 64GB model was always way faster than my wife's 8GB model. Make sure to wait when a new product launches and read the user reviews to find out if the new stuff is worth your hard earned money! Many early adopters get burned when companies release low quality new tech that is rushed to the market! In China the ugly truth is that quality is often ignored in favor of rapid commercialization. In consumer electronics with lithium batteries that causes things like the Boeing Dreamliner battery to catch fire, similar to the chinese batteries in hover boards that caught fire, and the Chinese batteries in the Galaxy Note 7 that catch fire! See an ugly theme forming? Quality is often better than getting the absolute lowest price!

Dongles & adapter galore for now. You can't even plug the new iPhone 7 into the 16 MacBook Pro. You have to use a special adapter if you want to listen to music on headphones you already own while charging your iPhone 7 at the same time. Everything cool that Apple could have put into the iPhone 7 was put off for the iPhone 8, including native USB-C to lighting cables. The iPhone 7 is also missing wireless charging, OLED screen, Sapphire screen cover and a better front camera! How are you supposed to shoot a movie on the new iPhone 7 if you can not plug in an external microphone? The omission of the headphone jack also alienated things like the Square credit card reader, light meters, 3D scanners, IR blasters and other fun accessories that used the headphone jack.

Want to plug a regular USB cable into your new 16 MacBook pro, get an adapter. Want too take that SD card out of your nice camera and plug it in, you need a special adapter. You want to plug in your headphones, get an adapter. For now USB-C special adapters galore will be required to adapt all your existing hardware to newer computers. I think Apple might be the only computer vendors to not include a classical USB3-A port in their notebooks for the next few years. I think Apple stepped too far ahead and left a lot of their customers frustrated and confused with 100% USB-C right out of left field. I guess they really are thinking differently down their in Cupertino California. If they had only put a single classical USB-A port in the new MBP all of this UGLY controversy could have been avoided, but then I wouldn't have had this topic to Think About! Thanks Apple!

Solution 

There is a reasonable dongle you can add to a 16 MacBook Pro that adds 3 USB 3.0 ports and an ethernet jack ^^ by plugging into one of the USB-C ports on the MBP.

$28 Anker USB-C to 3-Port USB 3.0 Hub with Ethernet Adapter for USB Type-C Devices Including the new MacBook 2016, ChromeBook Pixel and More (Silver Aluminum) on Amazon




2 comments:

  1. Isn't it lightning port? You kept referring to a lighting port.
    Excellent article. I appreciate your insights and information.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 2012 Lightning ports (16pin) are what plug into newer iPhones
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lightning_(connector)

      Lightning came before USB-C, but it is slower & more limited both in terms of moving power & data.

      The lightning connector was the first really good symmetrical design for power & data commercialized in a high volume CE class of devices by Apple, optimized for thin compact mobile electronics like the iPod Touch, iPhone & iPad etc

      2014 USB-C (24pin) has many variants depending on vendor, and may or may not support data + power etc : some are active or passive data only : others have power with passive data : other have high power with active data.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USB-C


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