The ups and downs of usb-c

It should have been the connection with which everything could finally be arranged. Usb-c could charge both smartphones and laptops and transfer files and connect screens. No more hassle with different cables for different devices. Unfortunately, the practice is different. USB-C is now a confusing mess of protocols and connections.

There was a big surprise when Apple announced a MacBook in 2015 with only one connection port. That one USB-C port was needed to charge the laptop as well as to transfer data; you also had to use it if you wanted to connect the laptop to an external display. Certainly the fact that there was only one such port on the computer that had to do all of that (sometimes simultaneously) made the Macbook impractical to use. But Apple also seemed to be on the right track somewhere. A truly universal connection, isn't that what we've always wanted?

Until a year or two ago, the word "universal" in usb didn't really seem to deliver what it promised. After all, USB has never been so universal: micro, mini, regular ... There are dozens of different cables with which you can connect phones, tablets and computers to disks and screens. USB-C should change that.


When the new port was introduced in 2014, it had potential: a transfer speed of up to 5 Gb/s and a charging capacity of 100 watts.

When you think of usb-c, you probably mainly think of the charging cable that comes with most new smartphones. It is the cable with the somewhat oval connection, which, unlike previous chargers, simply fits into a charging port in two ways. Useful! Although USB-c as a connection finally seems universal, a large number of standards and protocols are required that do not always work together with each other. How this exactly works is complicated to understand. That is why usb-c does not yet deliver what has been promised for years - and consumers are regularly confused.


When we talk about usb-c we are talking about the physical connector. That's the connector you're probably using in your Android phone right now, the oval-shaped connector that you never have to try three times to make sure it's plugged in correctly.

That connection has a number of pins inside. That is where the biggest physical difference of the usb-c connection is: it has no less than 24, compared to a paltry 5 that has the older micro-usb. And without making it too technical: more pins mean faster file transfers and uploads. You can also use the extra pins to do things like video streaming. And, more importantly, you can do both with the same connection. So in theory you only need one cable with which you can charge your laptop and put files on it. And in theory you only need one cable to connect all your peripherals such as monitors and hard drives to each other.


So far it is all quite logical: one cable to connect everything. In theory. But then it gets more complicated. In addition to the physical connector, USB cables come with different standards. It is in particular the USB 3.1 standard that makes the whole story somewhat complicated. USB 3.1 was released about the same time as USB-C. USB 3.1 is the successor to USB 3.0, with the main difference that it became easier and more universal for developers to build equipment and software for it. Usb 3.0 was therefore gradually phased out and more or less 'included' in the usb3.1 protocol. So if you see a device in the store with 'usb 3.0' on the box, it's probably an outdated piece of technology.

The difference between the various generations of USB 3.1 is quite confusing

Two generations

A year later, another new USB protocol was introduced. It was a better version of USB 3.1, which has since been divided into 'gen 1' and 'gen 2'. Here the difference is suddenly a lot more noticeable. Gen 2 doubles the maximum transfer speed of USB, from 5 gigabits per second to 10.

What makes it all a bit confusing is that usb 3.1 (whether it's gen 1 or gen 2) is separate from usb-c. There are also USB 3.1 cables with a micro-USB connection, or mini-USB, or the standard USB-A connection. Conversely, it is also possible that a USB-c connector does not use USB 3.1, but USB 2.0 - although the latter is rare in practice. And if you then have a USB 3.1 connection, is that gen 1 (with 5 Gb/s) or gen 2 (with 10 Gb/s)?

Oh, and then there's Thunderbolt, similar in how universal it is but slightly different. That was developed by Intel (together with Apple), and in 2015 the company decided that the new Thunderbolt 3 from 2015 would only use USB-C.

Additional options

Usb-c has other added value than just faster file transfer, and that's where the real universality of the 'universal serial bus' comes into play. Usb-c can be used to play sound, or to control a screen, or to charge a device. The latter of course already happens with telephones, but in theory you could also charge laptops with the same cable with which you also transfer your files.

At least... That was the idea. In practice, this does not all seem to work. The reason: these functionalities are all optional. They are so-called 'alternate modes'; Displayport (with which you can control DVI and HDMI) or PCI Express are also included. Makers have the choice of whether to implement such alternate modes, so it's often up to the consumer to figure out when something will or won't work with a device.

“You can't tell from the outside whether that works,” says Wouter Hol. He is the founder of, one of the largest cable web shops in the Netherlands. Kabeltje regularly receives questions from customers who are confused about the different standards. “If you have a device with a USB-C connection, that does not automatically mean that all cables work on it. Video streaming on smartphones is a well-known example. For example, many of our customers buy an adapter from USB-C to HDMI and only then find out that their phone does not support it at all.” Part of the problem is the limitation that hardware brings. "A video card in a computer is powerful, but a phone can't handle sharing images to a larger screen in this way," says Hol. “The computing power is not there for that.”

Play music

Those alternate modes are also increasingly being used to play music on smartphones. That trend started when Apple made the decision to stop providing the iPhone 7 with a headphone jack. A brave decision and besides, bluetooth should be the future, according to Apple, which could not come up with any sensible arguments for consumers. Listening with traditional headphones was still possible – but with a dongle. Other manufacturers slavishly followed. Meanwhile, more and more high-end smartphones are no longer equipped with a headphone jack. Music fanatics should therefore turn to either a Bluetooth headset or one with a USB-C connection.

That too often causes problems. Audio via USB-C can be active or passive. The DAC (digital audio converter) is located in the headset itself or in the telephone, respectively. If you use 'normal' headphones or listen via, for example, a USB-C dongle, the phone must support the so-called 'audio accessory mode'. But not all phones have that. So you also have to look carefully at which headphones go well with which phones - although the manufacturers naturally hope that you use their own supplied earphones, or buy from the more expensive range (which could be the real reason behind the removal of the headphone jack).


You can't talk about USB-C without meeting the elephant in the room: Apple. Although usb-c is now quite some years old and has also been used for longer, it is Apple that first announced the new port to the general public. That happened with the MacBook from 2015. It only had one port, and that was USB-C. The company came under a lot of criticism for this. Somewhat rightly so, because for users it turns out that life with one connection for both charging and transferring files and connecting a screen is not so simple. Apple's reasoning is somehow understandable: thanks to Bluetooth and WiFi and Apple's own AirDrop, wireless seems to be the future. It will also help that dongles are a lucrative business. “The connection itself is a good idea because the customer knows where he stands”, thinks Hol, “but it is quite inconvenient for the customer that there is only one connector and he has to fiddle with all kinds of adapters.”

Lightning C

Apple has always been a bit of a contrarian when it comes to connections and in particular standards. The company's iPhones and iPads, of course, use the lightning connector, a proprietary connector that isn't used for anything other than Cupertino's phones and tablets. That lightning connection is not reversible and cannot be used with other connections such as USB-C. That makes it all the more confusing that Apple opted for a USB-C connection with the MacBook: wouldn't it be easier to slowly but surely implement a Lightning connection there too? Or the other way around: shouldn't the phones and tablets just switch to USB-C? That almost happened earlier this year when the company announced the new iPad Pro. It did have a USB-C port. According to Apple, that does not mean the end of the lightning connection. “The iPhones and iPads will continue to use lightning,” said a company spokesperson. The main reason to implement usb-c on the latest iPad? “Usb-c fits well with the new capabilities of the iPad Pro, such as connecting to external 5K displays and connecting new devices such as cameras, musical instruments and accessories.” Apple does not allow you to connect external storage to the iPad Pro.

Apple also opts for a USB-c port with the iPad Pro, but otherwise sticks to lightning


This lack of clarity can be confusing for consumers. They want a device to just work, that you can just plug it into the corresponding port without any hassle. “We noticed that this was a problem, especially in the early years of usb-c,” says Wouter Hol of “At the time, we received many questions from customers about their newly purchased cables. That has now diminished somewhat. It's hard to say why that is. Perhaps by now customers know the difference between different types of USB-C cables. Or it has to do with the fact that people are more likely to read the manual of their smartphone or device before buying a cable for it. And in recent years we have also started to provide consumers with more information about which cable they need. That can also play a role.”

Hol thinks that in principle it is good that there is one universal connection such as usb-c, but there should also be more information. After all, you cannot assume that buyers will easily understand the subtle and confusing differences. “It should be stated much more clearly with what you buy. Both devices and cables should read "This device works with so-and-so cables." That happens too little now and then you get confusion.”


There does not seem to be a single universal connection for the time being. However, USB-C is a good start in terms of plug and port. It is mainly the different standards and protocols that currently make it difficult in practice to make that one cable so universal. However, if you see the connection as a separate thing, then USB-C is well on its way to becoming the connection for everything. That's not surprising, because the connector was built with such scalability in mind. So now it is mainly waiting for the manufacturers.

European standard

“Does anyone have an iPhone charger handy?” Chances are you've heard that phrase if you work somewhere in the office. While the problem is much less severe than, get it, bite it, eight years ago, it's still very irritating that there are different chargers for different phones. People with an older device are still on micro-usb, newer devices have usb-c, and Apple users have their own charger.

Europe has been trying to solve this problem since 2009. The European Commission wants to oblige telephone makers through laws and regulations to make one universal charger. That would not only be handy, but also save 51,000 tons of electronic waste per year because not everyone throws away their chargers anymore.

Companies have been saying for years that they have come up with their own solution; in 2009, Apple, Samsung and Huawei collectively decided to use micro-usb, but in the end Apple did not participate. The EU no longer wants to leave it to the business community itself, but is now thinking about taking tough measures itself. But how long can that last...

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