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An initial look at USB Type-C

Posted: 09 Feb 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:USB Type-C 

Have you heard about USB Type-C? If not, then you better get ready, because this little beauty is poised to take the world by storm. The USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) demonstrated USB Type-C at CES 2015, and industry leaders are expected to start launching USB Type-C-enabled products by mid-2015. This new USB incarnation offers so many advantages that I predict the rate of its deployment will make all of our heads spin like tops.

Now, if you are already au fait with USB in general, feel free to bounce directly over to the USB Type-C portion of this article. Alternatively, if you'd care for a little refresher, read on...

The world before USB

It seems strange to me that a lot of younger folks don't actually remember a time before the USB (Universal Serial Bus) standard appeared on the scene, so this portion of the proceedings may prove to be of interest to them. And, in the case of us "old timers," it may be fun to take a brief stroll down memory lane and remind ourselves just hard life used to be.

Let's start by considering a typical desktop or deskside computer system circa the early-1990s. Each of the peripheral devices that plugged into this machine would do so using one of a cornucopia of capriciously convoluted connectors.

Figure 1: Different connectors.

On the I/O (input/output) panel on the back of the computer there would be two PS/2 connectors—one for the keyboard and one for the mouse. Even though these connectors were physically the same, however, the devices weren't interchangeable because they used a different set of commands. The only clue you had in the early days were little mouse and keyboard icons next to the ports on the I/O panel. Unfortunate, these could be quite difficult to locate and decipher when on one's hands and knees in the gloom under one's desk. I can remember the first time I saw a computer that had color-coded plugs and sockets associated with these connectors and thinking to myself: "Wow, that's an amazingly clever idea!" (As you can tell, I was easily impressed in those days.)

Next, you would have one or two 9-pin RS-232 connectors. These were referred to as serial ports or COM ports (for communications), and they could be used to connect a variety of external devices such as scanners, plotters, external modems, and so forth. On the one hand these ports were extremely useful; on the other hand they could be a real pain, because when you connected a new device you often had to set up a load of nitty-gritty communications details, such as the number of data bits, the number of stop bits, and the speed of the interface.

But wait, there's more, because you'd almost certainly have a parallel port and/or a Centronics port to drive your printer, plus you might have a Scuzzy port to connect to external storage devices, and the list goes on. Oh, what fun we had!

Quite apart from the fact that these connectors were bulky and expensive, they—and the systems that employed them—were somewhat limited in their capabilities. For example, there was no such thing as a hot-plug capability in which devices could be added or removed without powering down the computer. These things were cold-pluggable, which meant that if you wanted to add or remove a device, you would have to power-down your computer, make your change, and then power everything up again.

Another big problem came when you ran out of connectors on the back of your machine. If you required an additional RS-232 port, for example, you would have to add an expansion card to your system.

Figure 2: Expansion card.

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