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To make sure the data gets through at higher speeds, always get high-quality cables. They will often have the SuperSpeed logo and a “10” on them to show they’re capable of moving 10Gbps. The good news is that there’s a good chance that this spaghetti bowl of cable standards could disappear with the next rev of the USB spec with a universal USB cable. More on that later.
Speed, power, and video delivery
A big bonus is that on many laptops and desktops, the USB-C specification also supports Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 data-transfer technology. A USB-C port equipped with Thunderbolt 3 can push data speeds to a theoretical limit of 40Gbps. To show how far we’ve come, that’s four times faster than USB 3.1 and more than 3,000 times faster than the original USB 1 spec of 12Mbps.
With increased data-transfer speeds comes the ability to push video over the same connection. USB-C’s Alternate Mode (or “Alt Mode” for short) for video enables adapters to output video from that same USB-C port to HDMI, DisplayPort, VGA and other types of video connectors on displays, TVs and projectors. It pays huge dividends for the ultramobile among us by allowing many recent phones and tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab S7+ and Note and Tab 6 systems, to directly plug into a monitor at home or a projector in the office.
What’s more, USB-C supports the USB Power Delivery (USB PD) specification. A USB 2.0 port can deliver just 2.5 watts of power, about enough to charge a phone, slowly. USB 3.1 ups this figure to about 15 watts. But USB PD can deliver up to 100 watts of power, more than six times what USB 3.1 can. This opens up the potential for laptop-powered projectors based on USB-C, but today it is mostly used for high-power chargers and external battery packs.
Next up: USB4
With USB-C accepted as the de facto connector today, the next step is USB4. It can move up to 40Gbps, provide at least 15 watts of power for accessories, and support two 4K displays or a single 8K display. To its credit, USB4 will continue with the small oblong connector that USB-C brought to the party and will work with existing devices, including USB 2.0 ones. (You will need the right adapter for devices without a USB-C port, though.)
Behind the scenes, USB4 uses the Thunderbolt 4 spec. It sets up bidirectional lanes of data that should help things like videoconferencing, which require two-way data flow to prevent congestion and jams. In addition to extra security to prevent a hack attack, Thunderbolt 4 will be compatible with Thunderbolt 3 devices, like docking stations and External Graphics Processing Units (eGPUs). It includes dynamic data flow that is adjusted to suit the devices, so older devices won’t slow down newer ones.
On the downside, you’ll need a Thunderbolt 4 cable to make it work, but there’s a potential bonus: all Thunderbolt 4 cables will be able to be used on anything from USB 2 (with adapter) through USB4 systems. This will make it as close to a universal data cable as exists today. They’ll be available in 2-meter lengths (about 6½ feet), more than twice the standard 0.8-meter length of current USB-C cables. The key to look for when shopping is that they will have the iconic Thunderbolt lightning icon and a 4 on the plug.
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