The latest USB connector – USB Type-C - is getting ready for prime time as electronics components manufacturers for connectors, controllers and circuit protection start to ramp up production and device makers, led by Apple Inc., add the USB Type-C ports to their latest generation of devices. USB Type-C is forecast to grow from 200 million shipments in 2016 to 2 billion shipments by 2021, according to ABI Research.
The tiny USB Type-C connector is part of the latest round of USB standards - USB 3.1 aka SuperSpeed Gen 2 and USB power delivery (USB PD). The biggest benefits of the new technology include its range of power levels (up to 100 watts); ability to handle faster data rates (up to 10 Gbits/s) and multiple data protocols, and reversible mating. This means the tiny interfaces can provide both data and power to devices, offering a single-cable solution for audio, video, data, and power, and they can be plugged in any way. Potential applications range from mobile devices and wearables to storage devices and video systems.
There are two primary drivers in terms of application, said Jeff Orr, research director at ABI Research, Bend, Ore. “The first is for driving power. The USB 3.1 spec allows for more power to be transferred across that cable interface than we’ve seen in USB 2.0 and previous generations.”
One of the interesting physical characteristics about the Type-C interface is that it is reversible, said Orr. “The USB Type-C connector can be plugged in in either direction, and will work the same way. This overcomes that usability challenge that has plagued USB interfaces historically.”
USB Type-C also delivers a single cable interface to all of these different devices, said Orr. “It not only delivers power, it also delivers all of the other traditional connector interfaces that would be found on a desktop or laptop computer including Ethernet, other serial interfaces and other buss types. This provides an opportunity to the broader hub ecosystem to rethink how to provide that interface to users and what it does.”
“Case-in-point: A monitor that sits on my desk has interfaces on the back of it for connecting the video and audio. Moving to USB 3.0 Type-C as a connector interface allows all of those signals to be run in parallel over that one connection, and eliminates the potential cable clutter that can come from the back of that monitor,” Orr added.
In lieu of getting everything wireless the simplification of getting all of the electrical connections down to a single interface is the next best step and that is what USB 3.0 Type-C can deliver, said Orr. “We started to see that across a range of products most notably from the Apple brand. We also see it on smartphones such as the newest Google Nexus smartphone and on tablet designs and across all PC platforms that have the Intel architecture, which can span from as small as wearables all the way to the server space.”
Orr also thinks the industry needs to be thinking about how to use the technology in a vehicle or a larger transportation system, as well as newer applications like the Internet of Things (IoT).
But getting to that point requires components to feed the adoption and design-in channels. There are already handful of connector manufacturers offering USB Type-C connectors, including Amphenol, FCI, JAE and TE Connectivity. There also a host of semiconductor manufacturers that offer USB Type-C controllers, including Cypress Semiconductor, Microchip, NXP, ROHM, STMicroelectronics, and Texas Instruments, along with evaluation kits to speed up designs.
Currently, there is some confusion in the industry about USB Type-C, which is going to require some education. The USB-C is all about the connector while USB 3.1 (both 5 Gbits/s and 10 Gbits/s speeds) are separate standards, said Raymond Yin, director of technical content, Mouser Electronics, Mansfield, Tex.
Type-C can also operate in alternate mode so it can be used with HDMI and Displayport for video for an all-in-one cable solution for video, high power and high-speed data over a single USB cable, he said.
While the industry is touting “one cable to connect them all,” that really isn’t the case due to legacy USB products, and users need to pay close attention to the cable certifications.
A colleague of Yin’s – Lynnette Reese, who is on the technical staff at Mouser – addressed some of the challenges with current USB-C cables in a recent blog. “Turns out that this amazing connector that will de-clutter our lives by channeling up to 10 Gbits/s data and 100W power in one small cable has many not-quite-right cables flooding the market,” she noted. “The USB-C standard is somewhat new, and so cable markings or logos for USB Type-C certification are not clear yet for even the ones who are legitimately certified.”
The upshot: Reese recommends only buying a cable that is certified as a Type-C, USB 3.1, and USB PD compliant cable to avoid any confusion.
Cypress, for example, offers a cable kit (CY4502) for the CCG2 controller that teaches USB Type-C cable manufacturers how to properly build a cable, said Yin. “We’ve never seen this from a semiconductor manufacturer.”
“One of the great things about the Type-C connector is that it is completely reversible,” said Yin. “Think about how many times you tried to connect in a USB connector and gotten it in the wrong way. But from an adoption standpoint it’s a whole new set of standards.”
“Clearly Type-C is going to require a little bit of education, and our goal is to educate engineers on the latest technology and manufacturers in the industry,” Yin added.
That is one of the primary reasons for Mouser’s initial partnerships with Amphenol Commercial Products, Fairchild and Littelfuse. USB-C connectors require integrated port controllers in order to be used in a certified USB-C cable assembly, and with the high data rates, enhanced circuit protection is needed more than ever.
As more electronic components vendors deliver USB Type-C products, Mouser Electronics is partnering with vendors to help drive adoption in new and existing designs, starting with Fairchild, Littelfuse, and Amphenol Commercial Products. This effort will provide key building blocks of a USB Type-C solution.
As the technology gains inroads it’s very likely the industry will see more components, particularly controller designs, pack features and functionality that target specific applications.
Orr doesn’t expect to see a single chip span all of the different power requirements that the different platforms have. “What works in a smartphone is going to be different than what a server needs. We are now going to see the ability for differentiation and specialization to occur.”
The Fairchild USB Type-C portfolio, for example, is optimized for cost, footprint, and low-power use. The devices are said to consume 90 percent less power than the nearest competing solutions, in packages that are up to 43 percent smaller. The offerings include discrete, flexible solutions ranging from controllers to power switches and USB 3.1 SuperSpeed switches. Fairchild also offers a FUSB302 dev kit.
Amphenol Commercial USB 3.1 Type-C connectors are fully compliant with Type-C specifications and are small enough to fit into smartphone, tablet, and other mobile device designs, but the company said the devices also meet the performance requirements of laptops. The connectors offer reversible plug and cable directions and support scalable power charging with extended 5A current ranges plus USB Power Delivery specification. The connectors also meet USB 3.1 protocols for high throughput speeds up to 10 Gbits/s.
Circuit protection becomes more critical especially at high-data rates, said Yin. “We want to make sure that engineers put a few of these circuit protection devices on the board or at least plan for it because it’s one of the last things that typically get designed in.”
The Littelfuse USB 3.1 Type-C circuit protection devices, for example, provide overcurrent and electrostatic discharge (ESD) protection while maintaining USB 3.1 Type-C data integrity. The circuit protection offering includes both resettable polymeric positive temperature coefficient (PPTC) devices, which provide overcurrent protection for the enhanced-capability power bus, and diode arrays, which offer ultra-low ESD protection for the high-speed data line, helping to ensure signal integrity.