USB-C Transition Confusion

Today’s little research adventure came courtesy of a comment on one of my earlier posts: my Dell 7577 laptop has a USB-C port. Some laptops – like the latest Apple MacBook – charge through their USB-C ports. Does that mean I can charge my Dell through its USB-C port?

Well… no. No I can’t. But it was an interesting experiment.

dell 7577 usb c charging no go

As is my usual habit, my first thought was to find if there’s any mention in the online version of my manual.  Clicking on the “Power” section had the usual information about a standard Dell AC adapter but no mention of USB-C charging. Clicking on the “Ports and Connectors” section returns a list that listed several functions for the USB-C port, but that list did not include power.

However, it was still an impressively long list! I had not realized the full extent of what a USB-C connector could do. I was first introduced to this connector with my Nexus 5X cell phone, and I was happy enough just to have a charge connector that had eliminated frustration with orientation.

usb orientation

But it’s not just convenience, USB-C tries to solve an impressive set of problems all with a single connector. The fact it can transfer data was a given due to USB legacy, and I knew it could transfer more power than older USB connectors from the aforementioned Apple MacBook. But it wasn’t until I found the Wikipedia page on Thunderbolt 3 that I realized how wide the ambition spread.

Not just low-speed data like classic USB, but there’s also the option for high speed video data in the form of DisplayPort support. And that’s not all – it can tap into a computer’s internal high speed PCI bus. This part of the spec is how some laptops could utilize external GPU enclosures. Such a wide range of capability explains why Apple decided their latest laptops need only USB-C plugs: one plug can handle all the typical laptop port duties.

But as my blog comment pointed out, there’s also the risk for customer confusion. A USB-C port might do all of these things someday, but clearly not all USB-C ports could do everything today. One marvel of our current system is that, for the most part, if a plug fits into a port then it is the right plug for the right port. Now we’re moving away from that. Sure, it’s nice the protocol negotiation allows the computer to throw up a dialog box telling me I can’t charge through my USB-C port, but would it have been better to avoid this confusion to begin with?

Maybe one day we’ll get to the point where every USB-C port can do everything, bringing us back to the “if it fits, it works” world we once had. In the meantime, there’s going to be a lot of confusion. Let’s see how the industry adopts USB-C over the next few years…

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