USB Simplifies Branding but Reintroduces Active Cables

Originally published at: USB Simplifies Branding but Reintroduces Active Cables - TidBITS

The group that creates USB standards listened to feedback and has released a reduced set of logos that make it easier to figure out the capabilities of your ports, peripherals, and cables. But changes to USB4 also mean the return of active cables to provide maximum throughput for a new 80 Gbps data rate over distances beyond 0.8 meters.

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Thank you, @glennf, for once again delivering an excellent article on protocol/cable standards.

Thinking of my very old (but still Mac using) father, I would imageine if he read this

If Apple adopted the new USB guidelines, it could trim these definitions and say the Mac Studio had four USB-C ports that support Thunderbolt 4, USB 40Gbps, USB 10Gbps, and DisplayPort, plus two USB-A ports with USB 5Gbps.

he’s be quite confused. Think Sam Elliot (only older) and imagine harrumph followed by something along the lines of “Now why would they mention USB 40Gbps and USB 10Gbps as if they were different? Of course that USB-C port will support 10 Gbps disks if it already supports 40 Gbps disks. Why do they always have to make things so *** damned confusing these days?”

So at least to those users perhaps not intimately familiar with things such as 2x2 vs. 2x1 USB3, I would assume this still leaves plenty of room for confusion. It is nevertheless without a doubt an obvious improvement over the present mess situation. :wink:

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I think you might be misreading it in part but also not inaccurate at the remaining potential for confusion! Really, the question is how much do you need to know? USB-IF’s change means you just need to see USB + X Gbps. So you are thinking about buying a peripheral and you check whether it’s compatible with USB 5Gbps or what have you.

You no longer need to read the fine print (in the future) about USB 3.1 Gen 2 or such.

Are Lightening cables all the same, or are there details to look for to make sure that they match the port’s specifications/capabilities?

And they call it UNIVERSAL Serial Bus?:grin:

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Apple certifies Lightning cables under its MFi (Made for iPhone!) program, and thus any legitimately labeled Lightning cable has to have the same specifications. It’s not a very fast standard, though—it’s USB 2.0 (480 Mbps). One argument for Apple to move to USB-C for all devices is partly to get higher data transfer rates for backups and other purposes.

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Thanks for this article.

So does USB-C obsolesce A, B, Mini, Micro, Lightning, Firewire, and Thunderbolt?

And are we done with the need for cables to be inserted one way and the need to have different connectors at each end (ignoring backwards compatibility), something that appeared to have to do with being a “host”?

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Not precisely: USB-C is a connector type, and Thunderbolt 3 and 4 use it. It’s more like:

  • Do I need to keep buying all sorts of cables? Only for older devices that lack newer ports or when you have a computer with USB Type-A ports that you need to access because you’ve run out of USB-C ports (raises my own hand here).
  • Is USB4 better than Thunderbolt 4? More about what peripherals you want and the kind of controller they have built in. Since you only need to buy a Thunderbolt 4/USB4 combo cable, you can use these cables with any devices. If you need to locate your peripheral about a meter or farther away from your device, Thunderbolt 4 is the better choice for maximum data rate right now.

Apple should shift from Lightning to USB-C (probably 10 Gbps USB 3.x over USB-C). FireWire is long dead. The USB variant plants are slowly fading away. Much of the non-Apple world has shifted to USB-C for charging and data. Even tiny peripherals I get, like a rechargeable Find My item, use USB-C now.

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As @glennf points out, the matrix of connector types and capabilities can be hard to keep sorted. Here’s the page I’ve bookmarked as a reference:

https://www.tripplite.com/products/usb-connectivity-types-standards

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Not really. As @glennf wrote, it’s a connector spec that can support many different connection technologies.

  • USB-A. Maybe some day, but there are a huge amount of computers and devices with type-A ports, and as much as some would prefer it, the world won’t be throwing them out until they reach their normal end of life.

    I suspect it will be a long time before the majority of low-speed devices (e.g. keyboards and mice) move from type-A to type-C.

    Note also that USB-A connectors can carry USB 1.x, 2.0 and 3.x (up to 10Gbps) data. But a 3.x cable is wired differently inside the connector - with 9 wires instead of the 4 used by 1.x and 2.0.

  • USB-B. These are the really big connectors typically found on large peripherals like external hard drives and scanners. Like type-A, people aren’t going to trash their devices. Like type-A, these can go up to 10Gbps. But unlike type-A, the 3.x cables use a larger connector. So you can connect a 2.x cable to a 3.x device (giving you only 2.x speeds) but not the other way around.

  • Mini. These are pretty much dead and gone, although you may have some older devices that use them. These connectors were quickly replaced with Micro-USB before they had much time to become popular.

  • Micro. I don’t think the Micro-A connector was ever popular, but the Micro-B is very popular and may be the most popular device-side connector. I suspect it will eventually fall by the wayside as type-C gains popularity, but that hasn’t happened yet.

    Like the ful-size type-B connector, a micro-B connector has an extra-large variation to support USB 3.x. You can connect a 2.x cable to a 3.x device, but not the other way around.

  • Lightning. This is entirely up to Apple. When used with a USB cable, it is USB 2.0, so slow by today’s standards. But Apple has other kinds of devices that use the port as well and at least one (the camera connector) seems to be able to get higher speeds.

    At one point, Apple was talking about how Lightning’s design allows devices and cables to negotiate capabilities, allowing it to be used for a wide variety of different kinds of connectivity. But that appears to have been a technicality, because (with the exception of the camera connector), there really hasn’t been support for much more than USB 2.0.

    The fact that the iPad Pros have gone to USB-C tells me that Lightning will eventually be retired, but it’s anybody’s guess about when that might be.

  • Firewire. This is already pretty much dead. It’s been a long time since any new computers supported it, which is a real shame because the tech had a lot of unused headroom. Apple (and the rest of the world) stopped at 800Mbit/s, even though there were specs for driving it to 1.6 and 3.2Gbit/s. But they clearly decided that USB3 was a better solution.

    Apple still sells a FW adapter, but it’s a pretty old device that hasn’t been updated. It requires a Thunderbolt 1 or 2 connection, so an additional adapter is required if you want to use it with a modern Mac (that has Thunderbolt 3).

  • Thunderbolt. Quite alive and kicking. And used by PCs and servers as well as Macs. Supported as a part of the USB 4 spec as well. While versions 1 and 2 piggybacked on the mini DisplayPort connector Apple used at the time, version 3 and later uses the same USB-C connector

Pretty much. The USB-C connector has the same connector at both ends. The tech requires the devices at either end to perform the necessary negotiation so you can connect it either way. At least for “normal” cables with copper wiring.

Some optical cables (especially those designed for carrying DisplayPort video) are designed to be connected only one way. If you connect them backwards, you may not get any video. And since both sides use the same connector, you need to pay close attention to markings on the cable to make sure you don’t connect it backwards.

See also:

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The simple bottom line (and good news!) is USB-C does replace all other USB-A and B stuff either via adapter or new cable. Whatever that old peripheral has, just get an adapter/cable to it and done. One port to rule them all. And if you’re connecting fancier new stuff where performance/reliability counts (≥USB3), I’d say @glennf’s original advice still holds: get a good TB4 cable and done (for both data and power).

Here’s a couple examples. All for just a few $.

USB micro seems to be very popular as a way to recharge things like headphones and wireless cameras. I have bought a female USB C to male USB micro to handle these non-data issues.

I’m with your Dad on this one. Like so many other things in the world of personal computing, this is much more complicated than it should be for the average person. I’ve been dealing with PCs for many years (at least 30) and have some experience in helping average users with their problems. (I’m not an industry tech person, just an enthusiast). I often told people, “Don’t call yourself stupid—you are not! This stuff is unnecessarily complicated.”

I agree that this latest development is something of an improvement. Still, it sometimes seems as if there’s some secret cabal operating behind the scenes to keep things from being too easy for regular, non-technically savvy users. OK, I’m mostly kidding. :wink:

I like the reference to Sam Elliott. He’s one of my favorite actors and I can just picture his steely disdain for all the nonsense.

I have to admit what I don’t understand is why, after all our experience with connectors, there exists -so much confusion- with USB-C. At least the connector itself is ‘symmetric’. But the USB Forum seems to have learned -nothing- about labeling, branding, and resolving the consumer confusion over what goes with what.

Clearly separating the “USB-C Connector” from “Protocols that ride on that connector” would have been a good start. Then clear markings for “protocols” on cables should have been part of USB-C from Day 1.

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I wish USB and Thunderbolt would just merge, for goodness sake. There are still too many variations/considerations for end users to have to deal with.

Once merged, the protocol should be fully backwards compatible with ALL previous USB and Thunderbolt protocols, at their full speeds, with no caveats. Make it so, Number One!

This simplification is a good news but it is always not easy to understand what ports and cable can transmit.
An example : I have a MacBook Pro M1 and a Studio Display; MBP is connected to Studio Display by the cable provided by Apple.
I would like to use Studio Display as a hub, but it is not possible for Ethernet (no problem for drives, iGadgets,…).
I have a box with a USB-C port and an ethernet port ; when I connect it to the MBP, it works, when I connect it to the Studio Display, it doesn’t work.
Is it a problem of standard or a problem of implementation in Apple devices ?

Odd issue. The specs say:

  • One Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) port, three USB-C ports
  • One upstream Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) port for host (with 96W host charging)
  • Three downstream USB-C ports (up to 10Gb/s) for connecting peripherals, storage, and networking

The box you have—if it’s a Thunderbolt 3/4 device and you plug it into one of the USB 3.x 10 Gbps ports, it won’t work. What are the specs on your box?

The box is a Lenovo USB-C travel hub
The manual does not give many information.

The connection diagram that does not work :
MBP port Thunderbolt <<-- cable USB-C -->>port Thunderbolt Studio Display port USB-C <<-- Lenovo <<-- cable ethernet -->> internet box
The connection diagram that works :
MBP port thunderbolt <<-- Lenovo <<-- cable ethernet -->> internet box

USB-C port on Studio Display is specified as this :
Three downstream USB-C ports (up to 10Gb/s) for connecting peripherals, storage, and networking
Not much informative ; I suppose that those ports can’t transmit the signal for ethernet (word downstream)…
This display is very nice but this a failure ; people from Apple probably don’t use their devices.

I can’t figure it out from the manual or specs. Seemingly, you just need a compliant USB-C port of any 3.x vintage that produces 15W (5V @ 3A) power. I believe that all USB-C ports must produce this at a minimum. It’s possible that Apple’s Studio Display ports do not, and that might explain the problem.

Three Thunderbolt 4 (USB-C) ports with support for:
Charging
DisplayPort
Thunderbolt 4 (up to 40Gb/s)
USB 4 (up to 40Gb/s)

The functions are more complete on MBP ports but the word ‘networking’ for Studio Display should authorize the operation with ethernet ?
I will go to an Apple Store to ask the question.