The Wonderful World of USB Type-C

Despite becoming common over the last few years USB-C remains a bit of a mystery. Try asking someone with a new blade-thin laptop what ports it has and the response will often include an awkward pause followed by “USB-C?”. That is unless you hear “USB 3” or maybe USB 3.1. Perhaps even “a charging port”. So what is that new oval hole in the side of your laptop called? And what can it really do? [jason] at Reclaimer Labs put together a must-read series of blog posts in 2016 and 2017 plumbing the depths of the USB 3.1 rabbit hole with a focus on Power Delivery. Oh, and he made a slick Easy Bake Oven with it too.

A single USB Type-C connector

When talking about USB-C, it’s important to start at the beginning. What do the words “USB-C” entail? Unsurprisingly, the answer is complicated. “USB Type-C” refers only to the physical connector and detail about how it is used, including some of the 24 pins it contains. Then there are the other terms. “USB 3.1” is the overall standard that encompasses the Type-C connector and new high-speed data busses (“USB SuperSpeed” and “SuperSpeedPlus”). In addition there is “USB Power Delivery” which describes power modes and even more pin assignments. We’re summarizing here, so go read the first post for more detail.

The second post devotes a formidable 1,200 words to providing an overview of the electrical specifications, configuration communication, and connector types for USB 3.1.

A GIF of a flipping USB Type C connector
Marketing at its finest

The third post is devoted to USB Power Delivery. Power Delivery encompasses not only the new higher power modes supported (up to 100W!), but the ways to use the extra 10 or 13 pins available on the Type-C connector. This is both the boon and bane of USB-C, allowing apparently identical ports to carry common signals like HDMI or DisplayPort, act as analog audio outputs, and provide more exotic interfaces like PCIe 3.0 (in the form of Thunderbolt 3, which is a yet another thing this connector can be used for).

It should be clear at this point that the topics touched by “USB Type-C” are exceptionally complex. Save yourself the trouble of a 90MB specification zipfile and take a pass through [jason]’s posts to understand what’s happening. For even more detail about Power Delivery, he walks through sample transactions in a separate post.

60 Watt USB Soldering Iron Does it with Type-C

Some time back we ran a post on those cheap USB soldering irons which appeared to be surprisingly capable considering they were really under powered, literally. But USB Type-C is slated to change that. Although it has been around for a while, we are only now beginning to see USB-C capable devices and chargers gain traction. USB-C chargers featuring the USB-PD option (for power delivery) can act as high power sources allowing fast charging of laptops, phones and other devices capable of negotiating the higher currents and voltages it is capable of sourcing. [Julien Goodwin] shows us how he built a USB-C powered soldering iron that doesn’t suck.

He is able to drive a regular Hakko iron at 20 V and 3 Amps, providing it with 60 W of input power from a USB-C charger. The Hakko is rated for 24 V operating voltage, so it is running about 16% lower power voltage. But even so, 60 W is plenty for most cases. The USB-C specification allows up to 5 A of current output in special cases, so there’s almost 100 W available when using this capability.

It all started while he was trying to consolidate his power brick collection for his various computers in order to reduce the many types and configurations of plugs. Looking around, he stumbled on the USB-PD protocol. After doing his homework, he decided to build a USB Type-C charger board with the PD feature based on the TI TPS65986 chip – a very capable USB Type-C and USB PD Controller and Power Switch. The TI chip is a BGA package, so he had to outsource board assembly, and with day job work constantly getting in the way, it took a fair bit of time before he could finally test it. Luckily, none of the magic smoke escaped from the board and it worked flawlessly the first time around. Here is his deck of slides about USB-C & USB-PD [PDF] that he presented at linux.conf.au 2017 Open Hardware Miniconf early this year. It provides a nice insight to this standard, including a look at the schematic for his driver board.

Being such a versatile system, we are likely to see USB-C being used in more devices in the future. Which means we ought to see high power USB Soldering Irons appearing soon. But at the moment, there is a bit of a “power” struggle between USB-C and Qualcomm’s competing “Quick Charge” (QC) technology. It’s a bit like VHS and Betamax, and this time we are hoping the better technology wins.

Ask Hackaday: Does Apple Know Jack About Headphones?

If you’ve watched the tech news these last few months, you probably have noticed the rumors that Apple is expected to dump the headphone jack on the upcoming iPhone 7. They’re not alone either. On the Android side, Motorola has announced the Moto Z will not have a jack. Chinese manufacturer LeEco has introduced several new phones sans phone jack. So what does this mean for all of us?

This isn’t the first time a cell phone company has tried to design out the headphone jack. Anyone remember HTC’s extUSB, which was used on the Android G1? Nokia tried it with their POP Port. Sony Ericsson’s attempt was the FastPort. Samsung tried a dizzying array of multi-pin connectors. HP/Palm used a magnetic adapter on their Veer. Apple themselves tried to reinvent the headphone jack by recessing it in the original iPhone, breaking compatibility with most of the offerings on the market. All of these manufacturers eventually went with the tried and true ⅛” headphone jack. Many of these connectors were switched over during an odd time in history where Bluetooth was overtaking wired “hands-free kits”, and phones were gaining the ability to play mp3 files.

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DIY USB Type C

For many years, the humble serial port was one of the best ways to communicate with an embedded system. Then USB ports became more popular and serial ports started to vanish. These days, even if you’re using a serial protocol to communicate with the microcontroller, it’s often over USB. And USB provides a convenient source of 5 V too. In short, we’ve made our peace with USB.

And then they go and change it. USB type C is a small connector that is reversible and has more options for power and connectivity. However, it is yet another new interface to figure out. [Scorpia] recently posted an article about USB type C that you may find useful.

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Hackaday Dictionary: USB Type C

USB cables? What a pain. You can never find the right type of connector when you need one, or you can’t figure out which way is up when you plug the cable in. These problems could be a thing of the past, though, with the latest version of the venerable USB connection: USB Type C. This new standard uses a single style of plug for both ends, so you can use cables either way around. The plugs also work both ways up, so you can plug it in with your eyes closed. Let’s take a look at what the USB type C connector means.

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The USB Type-C Cable That Will Break Your Computer

USB has been on our desktops and laptops since about 1997 or so, and since then it has been the mainstay of computer peripherals. No other connector is as useful for connecting mice, keyboards, webcams, microcontroller development boards, and everything else; it’s even the standard power connector for phones. The latest advance to come out of the USB Implementers Forum is the USB Type-C connector, a device with gigabits of bandwidth and can handle enough current to power a laptop. It’s the future, even if Apple’s one-port wonder isn’t.

Ground is red, V is Black. Photo: Benson Leung
Ground is red, V is black. Photo: Benson Leung

The cable of the future is, by default, new. This means manufacturers are still figuring out the port, and how to wire it up. You would think remembering ‘red = power, black = ground’ is easy, but some manufacturers get it so terribly wrong.

[Benson Leung] is a Google engineer who works on the Chromebook Pixel products, a huge proponent of the USB Type-C connector, and a very prolific reviewer of USB Type-C connectors on Amazon. The latest cable he tested destroyed his test equipment, including a $1500 Chromebook Pixel 2. How did a cable manage to do this? The manufacturer switched black and red.

The cable in question was a SurjTech 3M cable that has thankfully been taken down from Amazon. Swapping GND and Vbus weren’t the only problem – the SuperSpeed wires were missing, meaning this was effectively only a USB 2 cable with a Type-C connector. The resistor required by USB spec was the wrong value, and was configured as a pull-down instead of a pull-up.

This isn’t an issue of a cable not meeting a design spec. Ethernet cables, specifically Cat6 cables, have been shown to work but fail to meet the specs for Cat6 cables. That’s shady manufacturing, but it won’t break a computer. This is a new low in the world of computer cables, but at least the cable has disappeared from Amazon.