Why USB-C needs to take over Micro-USB

One charger and cable for all our devices

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When we talk about the evolution of technology we are actually referring to a simpler, viable and unified solution for all. In this new era, I believe that USB-C could be the solution of unifying charging and high-speed data transfer standards in almost all kind of computing devices. It could be the future of one cable, one charger for all your devices.

A Little History

The Universal Serial Bus (USB) evolution started back in 90’s when the first USB 1.0 standard was developed (1996), but it never went commercial. So technically, USB 1.1 was the first standard that made it commercially and we all used. It could deliver data at 12Mbps (at full-bandwidth) and draw maximum current of 100mA. Now, most of us hear about USB 3.0, a standard that arrived in 2008. However, the last major update to the USB standard came in 2013 with USB 3.1. This standard comes with the capabilities of data transfer up to 10Gbps, while 2A can be drawn over 5V, or optionally it can be programmed to draw 5A over 12V (60 Watts) or 20V (100 Watts).

The Connector: Micro-USB vs. USB-C


Mini-USB, Micro-USB, USB-C are all types of connectors or ports. They don’t stand for a particular data transfer speed. That is determined by the wiring setup within the connectors. Manufacturers started implementing USB-C in flagship smartphones like OnePlus 2, Nexus 5x and 6P in 2015. In fact, the Nokia N1 tablet had it even before these smartphones in November 2014, but all of these worked on USB 2.0 speeds. Last year Google flagship Pixel and Pixel XL came with USB Type-C with USB 3.0.

When we talk of Micro-USB in smartphones, it is nothing but a miniature version of USB. Additionally, over time, multiple miniature formats of the USB connector were implemented, such as Mini-USB, Micro-USB, given the nature of the devices they were being installed on. However, USB Type-C design is small enough (3mm height x 8.4mm width) that it wouldn’t need any further miniaturization and can fit in all kind of portable computing devices, eliminating need of multiple port formats.

If we talk about the USB-C architecture it is a 24-pin double-sided connector. These are sideband use pins (SBU1 and SBU2), out which four pins are for USB 2.0, eight pins (in four pairs) for SuperSpeed USB, and two pins for alternate-mode. Additionally, two pins are used for channel configurations and USB-PD communications, four pins for VBUS, and four pins for ground (GND). The connector interface also supports display in/ out supporting resolutions up to 4K, which means you don’t need HDMI or VGA, and the same port can do all your tasks.

Image Source: Wikipedia

Transfer Speeds and Fast Charging

The USB-C standard takes advantage of USB 3.1 data transfer speeds is also capable of delivering higher current and voltage to a device, allowing for any form of fast charging. The port is also backward compliant with USB 3.0 and USB 2.0. In terms of software comparability, the Android 6.0 onward support USB C 3.1 standard. USB-C connectors allow for data transfer speeds of up to 10Gbps and coupled up with their ability to handle up to 100 watts of power, they can be used across a multitude of devices.

The Fragmentation Problem

The one great thing about Android phones was the fact that they all used Micro-USB ports for charging. It meant you could borrow anyone’s cable and charger to charge your phone. Today with USB-C becoming more prevalent, manufacturers have started creating their own charging techniques. Qualcomm has its own Fast Charging, which it licenses to OEMs for a fee, OPPO has VOOC, OnePlus has Dash Charging. Once again, we see a fragmentation of charging methods. You can charge your USB-C device with a charger from another USB-C device, however, it may not charge fast enough. Often, we are worried if plugging our phone into another company’s charger would damage it. These kinds of worries did not exist with Micro-USB.

Image Source: USB.org

Google to the Rescue

Google in its Android 7.0 compatibility documentation to OEMs has out-rightly asked to not use Qualcomm’s Quick Charge and instead suggested USB-PD (USB power delivery) as the future tech. The connector itself can support USB-PD along with USB 3.1.

“Type-C devices are STRONGLY RECOMMENDED to not support proprietary charging methods that modify Vbus voltage beyond default levels, or alter sink/source roles as such may result in interoperability issues with the chargers or devices that support the standard USB Power Delivery methods. While this is called out as ‘STRONGLY RECOMMENDED’, in future Android versions we might REQUIRE all type-C devices to support full interoperability with standard type-C chargers” , noted Google Android 7.0 compatibility document.

What this means is that Google could potentially force all Androind phone manufacturers to ditch proprietary charging methods and switch over to USB-PD, an extremely efficient unifying method of data transfer and power delivery. All Google phones use this standard. The USB-PD specification can deliver power up to 100 watts for USB-C with USB 3.1. The interface is bi-directional, so a device can either send or receive power. Many low-cost Type-C systems only have USB 2.0 and a native Type-C power capability of 15W.

When will USB-C Become the Standard

Experts believe that as parts become cheaper over time, we will see faster adoption of USB-C, not just in high-end devices, but also in mid-range or even the entry-level devices. Last year LeEco used the Type-C port in their mid-range devices. For big power devices like laptops, we saw Apple and Google (in Chromebook Pixel) use USB Type-C to eliminate proprietary power connectors. With USB-C you can manage charging a phone and a laptop using the same cable and port. These laptops can also be charged using a power bank, provided the power bank has sufficient throughput. The adoption has started, now it is just a matter of time. There is very little reason why a port that is capable of power delivery of up to 100 Watts, fast charging, data throughout of up to 10Gbps, audio-out, Video-out (up to 4K) should not be a standard across devices. The USB-C port spells true unification for not just mobile devices, but also a large number of peripherals.