Over the last few years, there has been something of a battle going on when it comes to cables and connectors. Undoubtedly the two major opponents in this war have been USB and Thunderbolt, but what created these opposing factions, and will they be able to work together for a brighter future?
In this article we'll take a closer look at the newest iterations of these two standards, and the unlikely way that they've combined to provide all computer users with more power and versatility than ever before.
The notorious USB
For a very long time, Universal Serial Bus – or USB to its mates – has been regarded as the benchmark for connecting various devices and transferring power and data between them. Even though it's been faced with stiff competition in recent years, the standard is still dominant and an estimated 3 billion USB ports are shipped every year, according to CNET. That's a considerable amount, to put things mildly, but USB wasn't always the powerhouse that it is today.
Back in the late 1990s, it took a special set of circumstances for USB to gain a foothold within the industry. That was, of course, the release of the first iMac in 1998, and since then various iterations on the familiar rectangular port have been released, each bringing more power and functionality to the format.
A challenger emerges
Just when it seemed as if nothing could touch USB, a challenger to its throne appeared almost from out of nowhere in the early 2010s. Initially known as 'Light Peak', this new standard was renamed to Thunderbolt and launched in 2011. Interestingly, Thunderbolt was developed by a group of companies including Intel and Apple, which had played such a major part in USB's rise to popularity a decade earlier.
While many experts and speculators were predicting the launch of Thunderbolt, few could have predicted that it would completely eschew the traditional USB port in favour of a completely different connector – Apple's proprietary Mini DisplayPort. This resulted in many laptops and desktops being forced to provide multiple connector options, which has proved to be both impractical and expensive. This is especially true in areas such as film production, where many different pieces of technology and hardware are required for a typical workflow.
It's rumoured that nobody has ever plugged in a USB cable the right way up on their first attempt.
More ports more problems
But it isn't just the need to use two different standards that has caused frustration within the world of cables. There are a few other issues that have needed to be addressed for some time. One of the most obvious is the USB port itself, which hasn't changed for a while even as technology has rapidly improved.
It's rumoured that nobody has ever plugged in a USB cable the right way up on their first attempt, and in an age where most other ports feature shapes that can be used from any angle of approach, it's ridiculous that the standard has featured a 'right' and a 'wrong' way of plugging in for so long.
There's also an issue of uniformity at the other end of the cable – with many devices requiring a specialised end that won't work on anything else. With the power and data that can now be transferred via USB or Thunderbolt cable, there's no reason to have different connectors for your phone, printer, hard drive and external monitor.
All of these issues may seem to be relatively minor, but when taken as a whole there has been a marked need for improvement, and fortunately that has come with the arrival of new standards in USB-C and Thunderbolt 3.
USB-C and Thunderbolt 3
The single biggest piece of news surrounding the newest iterations of USB and Thunderbolt is that for the first time they will use the same port – the new Type-C. This standard measures 8.4 by 2.6 millimetres, and best of all is designed to work no matter which way you plug it in. Convenience aside, the new standard will provide up to 10 gigabits per second, depending on which type of cable and port you're using, and will also be backwards-compatible through the use of adaptors.
It's expected that over the next few years, most devices will switch to this port as their principal method of exchanging information, and we're already seeing this on new products from Apple. According to ABI Research, "almost half of [all] smartphones and 93 per cent of laptops will include USB Type-C connectivity by 2020," but there's also reason to believe this may be the end of the road for cables.
With wireless technology getting better all the time, most tech experts are predicting the Type-C port to be the last hurray for traditional cabled connections. When the transition happens in heavy-duty application like film remains to be seen, but the new standard is certainly a great way to cap off what has been a fascinating journey for the humble USB port.
For more information on which products currently support the standard and how you can use them, get in touch with DVT today.
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