USB-C was supposed to be a port paradise, but it’s become a nightmare

hdmi alternate mode usb type c specification mac header
Maurizio Pesce/Flickr

When the transition to USB-C began, we were all promised a better life. Connections would be faster and simpler. One connection to end all connections. The reality of what happened couldn’t be further from that dream.

USB-C is a mess. The way manufacturers implement and communicate its features is confusing — and downright misleading at times. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

USB-C was meant to be a standard

In its most basic form, USB-C is a new kind of physical connection. It’s smaller than the rectangular USB-A connection that’s existed since USB was first implemented on PCs, and that makes it better for very thin notebooks and tablets. It’s also reversible, meaning that you don’t need to worry about plugging it in the “wrong” way. Finally, it’s also a standardized port, and it essentially replaces all of the variations you’ll find with the older USB technology.

On top of all that, USB-C is also a new specification that provides additional features and functionality. Because it’s all very complex, we’re not going to delve into the details of USB-C here. Suffice it to say, though, that USB-C can provide three basic capabilities: data, power delivery, and display support.

So far, so good, right? Well, yes — but that’s also where things get frustrating.

In terms of data, USB-C fully supports all of the usual USB specifications up to USB 3.2. That includes USB 3.1, which is also the latest specification for the older USB-A port. USB 3.1 has two levels, Gen 1 that supports up to 5 gigabits per second (Gbps) and Gen 2 that supports up to 10Gbps. Confusingly, USB-A 3.0 was renamed as USB 3.1 Gen 1, and so you’ll see recent notebooks list USB-A 3.0, USB-A 3.1 Gen 1, and USB-C 3.1 Gen 1 — and all of them support the same 5Gbps data rate. And not all cables support all of those specs.

Confused yet?

usb c implementation messy and unclear asus zenbook ux330 jacks1 800x533

USB has long supported power delivery, both outgoing to charge external devices and more recently incoming to charge a PC itself. The most recent Power Delivery Specification 2 supports up to 100 watts, which is enough to charge many (but not all) notebooks. USB-C can support this latest power delivery specification and it’s bi-directional, making it a great solution for hubs that can power both external devices and the notebook itself. When it works, it’s awesome.

Finally, USB-C can provide display support via its alternate modes, including HDMI and DisplayPort. Of these two, DisplayPort Alternate Mode is the most useful, with active cables and adapters supporting a number of display protocols including DVI-D, HDMI 2.0b, and DisplayPort 1.4. Note that USB-C does have some display limitations, for example, it can only support a single 4K display at a full 60Hz, and so you’ll want to make sure all of your desired monitors will be supported before deciding on your notebook. And HDCP 2.2, the latest copy protection standard that’s required to play Netflix and other premium content at 4K, is also supported on USB-C.

But here’s the real kicker: Not every USB-C port from every manufacturer supports all of these features. Asus, for example, only supports data on some of its newer notebooks with USB-C (not Thunderbolt 3) ports. And you won’t find that anywhere in the specifications. Microsoft supports data, power, and display on the Surface Book 2’s USB-C port, but it only supports the older HDCP 1.4 standard — that means no 4K Netflix. HP supports all of the data, power, and display capabilities of USB-C, with the exception that some of its consumer machines omit the ability to power the notebook itself.


A note on Thunderbolt 3

To make things even more confusing and messy, there’s another connection type that uses the same USB-C physical connection but is not the same thing as “simple” USB-C. That’s Thunderbolt 3, a specification that provides PCIe and DisplayPort connections to external devices. Thunderbolt 3 is a much more powerful connection type, providing 40Gbps of bandwidth and support for niceties like two 4K displays at 60Hz and external GPU enclosures. But it looks identical to a standard USB-C port, outside of the tiny Thunderbolt symbol, which (sometimes) appears next to it.

usb c implementation messy and unclear asus zenbook ux490u jacks2 1500x1000

If your chosen notebook has one or more Thunderbolt 3 ports, then that’s a very good thing. Not only is it more powerful, but once you know it’s a Thunderbolt 3 port then you’re pretty much guaranteed that it’s going to support all of the usual Thunderbolt 3 capabilities.

The only caveat is that some vendors implement Thunderbolt 3 ports with only two lanes of PCIe rather than the usual four lanes, and only up to 20Gbps of bandwidth. And so even with Thunderbolt 3, you’ll want to check with the manufacturer to make sure you’re getting the full capabilities.

USB-C is like a box of chocolates…

If all you want from your USB-C port is to connect to the usual USB devices by using a USB-C to USB-A dongle, then chances are you’ll be fine with the ports on any notebook on your list.

If you want power delivery and display support, however, then you’ll want to contact the manufacturer to make sure any USB-C ports will do what you want them to do. And be sure to use precision when asking your questions, because things like HDCP 2.2 support aren’t guaranteed — even when it might seem obvious that they should be. So much for our USB-C utopia.


Is your PC safe? Foreshadow is the security flaw Intel should have predicted

Three new processor vulnerabilities have appeared under the 'Foreshadow' banner. They're similar in nature to Meltdown and Spectre, only they steal data from different memory spaces. Here's everything you need to know.

Is your smartphone frozen? Here's how to reset your iPhone

You can do a lot with an iPhone, but if you ever run into an issue with it, the first thing you should do is restart it. In this guide, we tell you how to reset your iPhone, and explain how it differs from a factory reset.
Home Theater

If you've got questions about Ultra HD Blu-ray, we've got answers

Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and players are a killer way to beef up your home theater. Here's everything you need to know about one of the most significant advances in home entertainment to arrive in years.
Home Theater

Cutting the cord? Let us help you find the best service for live TV streaming

There's a long list of live TV streaming services available to help you cut the cord and replace your traditional TV subscription. Each is different in important ways, and this guide will help you find the best one for you.
Home Theater

HDMI 2.0b is a whole lot more than just a connection to your TV

HDMI 2.0b is the backbone for many of the latest updates in 4K UHD technology. And while a new cable standard can often involve a bunch of changes for consumers, that is not the case this time around.

Google claims censored search in China is ‘not close’ as employees protest

Google CEO, Sundar Pinchai, has promised employees that the company is "not close" to releasing a censored search product in China, despite claims that it was working on such a project.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 850 chip appears in benchmarks with improved performance

A benchmark for Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 850 processor show a less-than-stellar increase in multi-core performance over the previous 835 chip. Introduced in June, the Snapdragon 850 promises up to 30 percent better performance.

Adobe Spark Page makes web design easy — here’s how to use it

Using artificial intelligence and simple tools, Adobe Spark Page is designed for easy web page design. Here's how to use Adobe Spark Page to create a travel journal, event page or any other one-page website.

Best Buy drops the price of MacBooks for its anniversary sale

It's not every day you see a MacBook sale like this, so you'll definitely want to consider these savings -- especially if you're a student. Students can save an additional $150 just by signing up for Best Buy student deals.

Walmart Back to College sale: Save big on computers, TVs, tablets, and more

Walmart's Back to College sale is your chance to score big discounts on name-brand electronics, so whether you're getting ahead of the new school year or just doing some shopping, we've picked out the best deals that can save you hundreds…

These 30 apps are absolutely essential for Mac lovers

There are literally hundreds of thousands of great software programs compatible with MacOS, but which should you download? Look no further than our list of the best Mac apps you can find for the latest MacOS and how they can help out your…

Apple’s rumored entry-level MacBook may appear in September starting at $1,200

Apple may reveal new products in September including an entry-level 13-inch MacBook based on Intel’s seventh-generation processors. Apple originally intended these units to rely on Intel’s now-delayed 10nm “Cannon Lake” processors.

AirDrop makes sending files to Apple devices easy -- here's how

Want to send files or photos to your friends when you're standing directly beside them? Instead of texting or emailing, why not learn how to use AirDrop? Here's everything you need to know about using AirDrop on both iOS and MacOS.

Stay safe on the web and save up to $70 with McAfee Total Protection

If you don't have some sort of protection on your phone, tablet, or computer, you're basically leaving the door open for anyone looking to do some cyber burgling. Protect yourself for a year with McAfee Total Protection for just $30.