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Why is USB Type-C so important?

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Over the past decade, devices using the Universal Serial Bus (USB) standard have become part of our daily lives. From transferring data to charging our devices, this standard has continued to evolve over time, with USB Type-C being the latest version. Here’s why you should care about it.

First, here’s a little history

Chances are you’ve encountered devices that have a USB port, such as a smartphone or computer. But what exactly is the USB standard? Simply put, it’s a communication protocol that allows devices to communicate with other devices using a standardized port or connector. It’s basically what language is for humans.

Here’s an example of a USB hub that uses Type-A connectors (Image credit: Anker)

When USB was first introduced to the market, the connectors used were known as USB Type-A. You’re likely familiar with this connector; it’s rectangular and can only be plugged in a certain orientation. To be able to make a connection, a USB Type-A connector plugs into a USB Type-A port just like how an appliance gets connected to a wall outlet. This port usually resides on host devices such as computers and media players, while Type-A connectors are usually tied to peripherals such as keyboards or flash drives.

There are also USB Type-B connectors, and these usually go on the other end of a USB cable that plugs into devices like a smartphone. Due to the different sizes of external devices, there are a few different designs for Type-B connectors. Printers and scanners use the Standard-B port, older digital cameras and phones use the Mini-B port, and recent smartphones and tablets use the Micro-B port.

Samples of the different USB Type-B connectors. From left to right: Standard-B, Mini-B, and Micro-B (Image credit: Amazon)

Specifications improved through the years

Aside from the type of connectors and ports, another integral part of the USB standard lies in its specifications. As with all specifications, these document the capabilities of the different USB versions.

The first-ever version of USB, USB 1.0, specified a transfer rate of up to 1.5Mbps (megabits per second), but this version never made it into consumer products. Instead, the first revision, USB 1.1, was released in 1998. It’s also the first version to be widely adopted and is capable of a max transfer rate of up to 12Mbps.

The next version, USB 2.0, was released in 2000. This version had a significantly higher transfer rate of up to 480Mbps. Both versions can also be used as power sources with a rating of 5V, 500mA or 5V, 100mA.

Next up was USB 3.0, which was introduced in 2008 and defines a transfer rate of up to 5Gbps (gigabits per second) — that’s a tenfold increase from the previous version. This feat was achieved by doubling the pin count or wires to make it easier to spot; these new connectors and ports are usually colored blue compared to the usual black/gray for USB 2.0 and below. USB 3.0 also improves upon its power delivery with a rating of 5V, 900mA.

In 2013, USB was updated to version 3.1. This version doubles what USB 3.0 was capable of in terms of bandwidth, as it’s capable of up to 10Gbps. The big change comes in its power delivery specification, now providing up to 20V, 5A, which is enough to power even notebooks. Apart from the higher power delivery, power direction is bidirectional this time around, meaning either the host or peripheral device can provide power, unlike before wherein only the host device can provide power.

Here’s a table of the different USB versions:

Version Bandwidth Power Delivery Connector Type
USB 1.0/1.1 1.5Mbps/12Mbps 5V, 500mA Type-A to Type-A,

Type-A to Type-B

USB 2.0 480Mbps 5V, 500mA Type-A to Type-A,

Type-A to Type-B

USB 3.0 5Gbps 5V, 900mA Type-A to Type-A,

Type-A to Type-B

USB 3.1 10Gbps 5V, up to 2A,

12V, up to 5A,

20V, up to 5A

Type-C to Type-C,

Type-A to Type-C

Now that we’ve established the background of how USB has evolved from its initial release, there are two things to keep in mind: One, each new version of USB usually just bumps its transfer rate and power delivery, and two, there haven’t been any huge changes regarding the ports and connectors aside from the doubling of pin count when USB 3.0 was introduced. So, what’s next for USB?

USB Type-C isn’t your average connector

After USB 3.1 was announced, the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) who handles USB standards, followed it up with a new connector, USB Type-C. The new design promised to fix the age-old issue of orientation when plugging a connector to a port. There’s no “wrong” way when plugging a Type-C connector since it’s reversible. Another issue it addresses is how older connectors hinder the creation of thinner devices, which isn’t the case for the Type-C connector’s slim profile.

Here’s how a USB Type-C connector looks like. Left: Type-A to Type-C cable, Right: Type-C to Type-C cable (Image credit: Belkin)

From the looks of it, the Type-C connector could become the only connector you’ll ever need in a device. It has high bandwidth for transferring 4K content and other large files, as well as power delivery that can power even most 15-inch notebooks. It’s also backwards compatible with previous USB versions, although you might have to use a Type-A-to-Type-C cable, which are becoming more common anyway.

Another big thing about USB Type-C is that it can support different protocols in its alternate mode. As of last year, Type-C ports are capable of outputting video via DisplayPort or HDMI, but you’ll have to use the necessary adapter and cable to do so. Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 technology is also listed as an alternate mode partner for USB Type-C. If you aren’t familiar with Thunderbolt, it’s basically a high-speed input/output (I/O) protocol that supports the transfer of both data and video on a single cable. Newer laptops have this built in.

A USB Type-C Thunderbolt 3 port (with compatible dock/adapter) does everything you’ll ever need when it comes to I/O ports (Image credit: Intel)

Rapid adoption of the Type-C port has already begun, as seen on notebooks such as Chromebooks, Windows convertibles, and the latest Apple MacBook Pro line. Smartphones using the Type-C connector are also increasing in number.

Summing things up, the introduction of USB Type-C is a huge step forward when it comes to I/O protocols, as it can support almost everything a consumer would want for their gadgets: high-bandwidth data transfer, video output, and charging.

SEE ALSO: SSD and HDD: What’s the difference?

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Explainers

The new online generation: Explaining 5G internet

Faster, better, and more available?

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Are you still bothered by slow internet in your country? Even with the advancements and supposed improvements in infrastructure, we’re all living in a 4G world. The current generation of internet connectivity is still present in today’s mobile and telecommunication networks. But now, a new generation has emerged, and it has the potential of taking the whole world by storm.

Let’s stop and ask first: What really is this new generation? How different is it from the existing generation’s internet? And, what needs to be done to welcome the change?

What really is 5G?

5G is the new generation we’re speaking of here. Specifically, it’s the next level of mobile network connectivity being rolled out at the moment. What 5G offers to everyone is pretty straightforward: faster internet speeds, close to zero latency, and improved accessibility. It’s expected that 5G will replace existing 4G technology once fully deployed in the near future.

Currently, 5G is still in its early stages of deployment — much like an early-access game. Companies are given plenty of time to integrate the 5G connectivity interface on their devices, or at least until March 2019. Once the initial deployment is done, 5G will be available in more devices, whether it’s your phone or your smart device.

A connection that comes in waves

Remember that one science class you had about the electromagnetic spectrum and visible light? Basically, devices that emit electromagnetic waves fall under a spectrum depending on their frequencies and wavelengths. For most network connections, their waves follow a similar concept, with 4G found on the leftmost and 5G in the middle.

There are two ways that 5G can work in any place at any time, and one of them includes waves. This strand of 5G is called the millimeter wave (mmWave), and is currently present in most research facilities and military devices. With mmWave, 5G connections are ideally faster (peaking at 10Gbps) and provide lag-free services because it adds additional bandwidth for devices to use. Although, it is held back by obstacles such as walls and floors that just bounce the signal off.

The second way is through a sub-6GHz spectrum. Unlike mmWave, the sub-6GHz spectrum is more of a middle-of-the-pack approach to 5G connectivity. Basically, 5G signals will strengthen connections that currently exist in the world like 3G and 4G. This is mostly because 3G (2.4GHz) and 4G (5GHz) fall under the 6GHz limit. This method is the more cost-effective approach, and it doesn’t easily experience interference.

How different is it really from 4G?

We always talk about how 5G is faster than 4G in terms of data transfer, which is true. But, there are other things that differentiate 5G from its predecessor. For starters, 5G connections can cover a wider area than 4G. This means that even if you’re far from your router or cell tower, you can still access 5G networks at the same speed. Just don’t be too far away, as the technology isn’t capable of reaching that far yet.

Apart from that, 5G is less prone to interference compared to 4G networks. Even if mmWave is hampered with the presence of obstacles, it still doesn’t stop it from performing relatively better than 4G. For example, even if there were several other antennas in your area, you still experience better speeds while on a 5G network compared to 4G. 5G targets devices directly, instead of spreading the waves across the whole area.

Finally, with 5G connections, more devices have access to the network. Currently, 4G networks still have a cap when it comes to the number of devices simultaneously connected. As more devices connect to the same 4G network, internet speeds tend to get slower. With 5G, however, adding more devices won’t hamper its overall performance mostly because of additional bandwidth and wider coverage.

What’s next for the new generation?

Believe it or not: We’re living in the early-access world of 5G. We hear about major telecommunication companies starting to adopt 5G in their mobile networks, and things are about to get bigger. While their data plans are available to the general public, several improvements to network infrastructure are to follow. We’re talking better signal towers, and more of them across the world.

In the future, 5G may not be limited to just mobile networks. Car companies are looking at the possibility of applying 5G to smart cars, especially for navigation. Cars on the road will be able to share data like traffic situation, road hazards, and other delays. Even things like virtual and augmented reality can make use of 5G for better simulations.

By March 2019, the early deployment of 5G will be finished. Hopefully by then, we can get more information on what 5G can do for the world. The new generation is here, but we still have to wait and see how far 5G will take us.

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C is the key: Explaining USB Type-C

What really makes this new standard special

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For years, people have grown accustomed to using USB ports for almost all of their devices. Whether you need to charge your phone using your computer or use a controller to play games, you can always count on a USB port to be readily available for you. But 2018 was the year of change and innovation, and the USB port you know and love welcomed change in a big way.

Introducing: USB Type-C, the newest port added to the family. Its round shape brought many new uses and functionalities to your ports. But, how different is it from its much older brothers? How have companies revolutionized its use in mainstream devices?

What is this USB Type-C port?

The USB Type-C (USB-C) port is a not-so-recent discovery in the world of tech. The USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) developed this USB port back in 2013, and launched it into mass production the following year. The connector is a reversible oval shape, much different from the usual rectangular shape of the previous generation. Its reversibility allows any orientation of the cable for transferring files or charging your device.

USB-IF developed USB-C following the USB 3.1 standard. Such a standard was particularly used because of its faster transfer speeds and charging capabilities. With a USB-C port, you can transfer an hour-long movie in less than 30 seconds, provided you have the appropriate connector for it.

Computer and smartphone manufacturers have incorporated the USB-C port in most of their devices. One of the early adopters of the new technology was Apple, with their redesigned 12-inch MacBook in 2015. Other computer manufacturers followed in the later years, especially with the release of the Thunderbolt 3 technology used for gaming machines.

It’s the younger, faster and more all-around sibling

USB-C has been around for the past four years, and it has gradually developed into an all-around port for users. Alongside Thunderbolt 3, the USB-C port posts the highest data transfer speed across all the available USB connections in existence. Not only that, USB-C ports these days can now connect your devices to external GPUs and displays, and charge your devices. Most USB-C ports even support fast charging for smartphones.

While the technology behind it is supported by a USB 3.1 standard, it’s still very much different from other USB ports that use the USB 3.1 protocol. For starters, the USB 3.1 standard found in USB-C ports are USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports, which offer twice as much performance in data transfer as USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports. Most of the Gen 1 ports also use an older USB Type-A standard, which works for most of your gadgets and peripherals today. However, you would need more adapters for other functionalities, like displaying to a monitor.

But the USB-C port is a far cry from the old USB 2.0 and 3.0 protocols, which have been in existence for 14 years (and counting). Data transfer speeds for those two protocols are significantly slower compared to the USB-C port. An hour-long movie would ideally take around one to two minutes on a USB 2.0 port. Also, older USB protocols don’t really allow you to power up devices that need more electricity. So, charging devices on them might not be as fast.

Supercharged with Thunderbolt 3

So, you’re probably wondering what really makes a USB-C port just that fast. It’s not so much that it’s round, or that it’s new; rather, it’s the technology inside it. Late 2015 saw the arrival of the new Thunderbolt 3 standard specifically for USB-C ports. It first started out in most Windows laptops before making it to the 2016 MacBook Pro and several gaming motherboards.

What Thunderbolt 3 does for USB-C ports is to significantly increase its capacity and capabilities by a mile. We’re talking faster file transfer, heightened gaming experiences, and being able to plug in 4K displays for clearer images. Thunderbolt 3 also allows much bigger devices to be charged at a controlled rate. This is mostly evident with the MacBook Pro, several high-end Ultrabooks, and most recently, the 2018 iPad Pro.

The charging capacity brought about by Thunderbolt 3 deals with a tweak to how USB power delivery works. USB power delivery standards state that each USB standard has specific conditions that must be met to power up devices. Early versions of USB ports only allow a small amount of electricity (2.5W) for delivery, while USB-C allows for the full 100W.  Basically, you went from just powering up your mouse and keyboard to charging your entire laptop.

What’s to come for USB-C?

At this point in time, you’re already living in the future that the USB-C port hopes to achieve. Suddenly, you can simply bring a USB-C cable around, plug it into a powerbank, and you can already charge your expensive MacBook. More and more devices are starting to adopt USB-C because of its potential to enhance your tech experience as a whole.

However, people still find it difficult to switch to USB-C, and for good reason. Most devices continue to use a USB Type-A or micro-USB connector, especially gaming controllers and peripherals. Also, they can argue that the old ports are more accessible. In a not-so-distant future, using a USB-C port could potentially replace a phone’s headphone jack.

The future of USB-C is still uncertain. Companies will iron out the new technology more so it can become mainstream for the future. Let’s just hope that by the time that happens, there won’t be a USB Type-D yet.

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No more cords: Wireless charging explained

More and more things are going wireless

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A lot of things have gone wireless over the past few years. From internet connections to gaming with your friends, the world is becoming more accessible without the need for physical wires. Over the course of 2018, another aspect of our lives has gone this route: charging one’s device.

Perhaps you’ve already heard of wireless charging and its presence in today’s smartphones, particularly the latest Apple devices. You may have even owned something that could wirelessly charge devices. But, what is wireless charging all about?

Let’s break down the technicalities

Wireless charging is a highly technical concept in the world of electronics. Basically, the way it works is that your charging pad contains coils that give off electromagnetic fields. These fields carry energy with them, which can be converted into electricity to power up the compatible device when placed on the pad. 

There are two ways devices can wirelessly charge: inductive charging and resonance charging. Inductive charging is mostly present in low-power charging devices, or ones that require less electricity to power up. This form is limited in range, to the point that the only way your phone charges is if it’s on the pad. Resonance charging, on the other hand, maximizes the range but lessens the amount of charge transferred.

Induction charging

Within the last ten years, several non-profit organizations have created and set wireless charging standards for companies to follow. The most popular of which is the Qi standard established in 2008 by the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC). Other standards include the Power Matters Alliance (PMA) standard in 2012, and Rezence by Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) from 2012 to 2015.

All about that Qi

As mentioned earlier, the Qi standard is the most popular wireless charging standard in the world. Most of today’s smartphones and peripherals are supported by Qi. It was established in 2008, with smartphones first adopting it in 2012 through the Nokia Lumia 920.

Qi focuses primarily on energy regulation. Most charging pads that use this standard work with flat surfaces for better energy distribution. Chargers with the Qi standard regulate the amount of charge they give to devices, and immediately go on standby once full. These chargers only activate once a device is placed on top, saving on the cost of electricity in the process.

Magnetic resonance charging

Most smartphone companies have made the choice to implement the Qi standard in their latest models. Apart from Nokia, companies like LG and Samsung have adopted it beginning with the LG Nexus 4 and Samsung Galaxy S6, respectively. In 2017, Apple accepted the standard with the release of their iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X. The company also planned a charging mat called AirPower that could charge multiple devices all at once, but it has yet to be launched.

Why do most companies prefer Qi, but some don’t?

The goal of the WPC is to put forward one standard for wireless charging in the world. The organization developed the Qi standard in such a way that companies are able to integrate them into their products seamlessly. It’s because of this standard that smartphones are aligned to wireless charging pads through magnets for better charging capacity.

Apart from that, the Qi standard allows for more intelligent control over charging your phone. It can tell if your phone is fully charged and will stop sending electricity to avoid overdoing it. Of course, you’ll be able to maximize the charging capacity of your Qi wireless charger if you’re only charging one device at a time.

Wireless charges for the Razer Phone 2, Google Pixel 3, and Xiaomi Mi Mix 3

However, some companies recognize that most people own several smart devices. This is where other organizations like Power Matters Alliance come in. PMA initially used inductive charging as their base for wireless charging, which is what Qi uses, as well. Now, that same organization was able to look into resonance charging, which removes the limitation Qi has.

That’s one of the reasons why Samsung, for example, incorporated both Qi and PMA standards into their Samsung Galaxy S6. With resonance charging, devices can be charged a few centimeters away from the pad. This is especially good for people who use their phones while charging. While WPC is looking to incorporate resonance charging into Qi, certain factors and compatibility issues with devices make the standard less effective.

What does the future hold for wireless charging?

With all the talk about standards and devices, there’s no denying that wireless charging is here to stay. There are talks between the WPC and PMA on possibly coming up with just one true standard for all companies to follow. The best part is that it doesn’t stop there.

Both organizations are looking to expand their technologies beyond smartphones and consumer devices. WPC has already done so with furniture retailers like IKEA to apply wireless charging peripherals to office tables and couches. Meanwhile, PMA is looking to introduce wireless charging to restaurants and establishments, like McDonald’s and Starbucks with wireless-charging tables. It even reached a point wherein tech startups are developing their own hardware for wireless charging from longer distances.

It’s safe to say that the future is definitely bright for wireless charging. Whether companies will start making it a must-have feature for all their products remains to be seen.

Illustrations by MJ Jucutan

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