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USB Type-C: Is it merely just hype?

Posted: 30 Dec 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:USB Type-C  Type-A  connector  PHY  Apple 

In 1996, the original USB standard and connector was developed. It struggled to gain acceptance until Apple rolled out the connector in its original 1998 iMac. With the USB 2.0 and 3.0 updates, the speeds increased and use of the connector continued to spread, making the "universal" in "universal serial bus" seem prescient. The USB Type-C connector, introduced in August 2014, is already gaining widespread acceptance and is becoming the most rapidly adopted USB standard in history. The big question is: Why? The USB Type-A connector is already in everything from computers to cars, so what makes USB Type-C appealing enough to change the connectors that everyone has been using for a decade? And what are the implications for embedded designers?

The "flip ability" of the connector is the most consumer-friendly attribute of the Type-C connector, but using this connector is more than just saving a few seconds connecting your peripherals and host. This new standard has features and benefits that appeal to a wide variety of user profiles and applications. Some of the key advantages include:
 • Ease of use through the unidirectional capability with a common single connector design on either end of the USB cable
 • Support for up to 10Gbit/s data rates (USB 3.1) while maintaining backwards compatibility to USB 3.0, 2.0 and 1.1
 • Ability to provide up to 100 Watts of power through the USB Power Delivery Standard
 • Flexibility to support additional protocols (called "alternate modes") including DisplayPort and MHL

Normally it takes several years for a new standard to gain widespread adoption, especially one that has all these capabilities and a completely new form factor. However, there are major catalysts behind its rapid adoption—most notably, the amazingly fast introduction of mainstream production host products that incorporate the Type-C connector. Even though the Type-C standard just celebrated its first birthday, high profile products such as Apple's new MacBook and Google's latest Pixel Chromebook contain this new connector. In the tablet space, Nokia released their N1 product with a single Type-C connector providing data and charging capability. The rapid introduction of these hosts has supercharged the market and the ecosystem, pushing other USB host and peripheral manufacturers to add Type-C connectivity.

Host and peripheral developers are keen to include Type-C connectivity for myriad reasons:
 • It differentiates their product—being one of the first allows them to stand out from their competitors.
 • It's easy for end users to grasp the benefits of Type-C (even if it's only the unidirectional capability) and therefore, easy for manufacturers to justify adding it, replacing older connection standards, and possibly charging more.
 • It reduces the number of connectors needed in a product, which reduces the bill of material cost.
 • The slim connector form factor enables thinner product designs.
 • It's easy to add initial Type-C functionality to SoCs. For traditional USB 2.0 products, the addition of just two resistors will suffice to gain the connectivity, but of course will not provide many of the other features.

There are a number of companies offering discrete muxes and crossbar switch discrete components that can quickly convert non-Type-C designs to Type-C (this is how many of the first Type-C products are implemented).

It's backward-compatible. Designers can add Type-C to USB 2.0, USB 3.0, and USB 3.1 so manufacturers can phase in Type-C support at the appropriate speed level.

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