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One Cable to Rule Them All: USB Type C With DisplayPort Alt Mode

DisplayPort Alt Mode DisplayPort Alt Mode

After just recently announcing the DisplayPort 1.3 standard, VESA has today announced yet another major step forward for the entire electronics industry.

VESA, the governing body behind DisplayPort Alt actually has been working with the USB 3.0 promoter group to integrate the new DisplayPort Alt protocols into the new USB Type C connector due to be implemented in future computers and mobile devices. The brilliance of this partnership and announcement is that it combines the simplicity of USB Type C with the interoperability of DisplayPort across various standards and connectors. Remember, USB Type C is the USB IF’s own third standard connector (in addition to A and B) which allows for a perfectly reversible connector that is not only significantly smaller than the current USB connectors, but also orientation agnostic and capable of delivering up to 100 watts of power.

USB Type C Pinout Diagram

USB Type C Pin Out Diagram – Notice how its symmetrical and reversible

In simple terms, that means that you can have a 4K video signal transmitted over the very same cable that also powers your device and sends it other data. You could theoretically connect a Dell (NASDAQ: DELL) 4K display that has USB 3.1 ports and power over a single USB Type C connector, which would mean that most devices would only require a single USB Type C connector for all purposes. This usage model works only when a USB Type C connector is connected to another USB Type C connector, however there is still quite a bit of interoperatbility between previous USB connectors and standards with USB Type C and DisplayPort Alt mode.

Example Configurations of USB Type C with DisplayPort Alt Mode

Example Configurations of USB Type C with DisplayPort Alt Mode

Watch out Thunderbolt

With an industry standard USB Type C connector on both ends consumers can expect that their device will have up to USB 3.1 Gen 1 (5 Gbps) bandwidth, combined with up to 100 watts of power and DisplayPort audio and video signaling capability. This presents a direct challenge to Apple’s own Thunderbolt connector which is capable of both data and video like USB 3.1, but lacks power capabilities as well as the ability to send data, power and video at the same time. In fact, there have been rumors that Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) is actually behind pushing USB Type C and DisplayPort Alt due to the fact that its Thunderbolt cables still require Intel’s (NASDAQ: INTC) proprietary technology and don’t actually help improve bandwidth much greater than what USB 3.1 Gen 2 offers. A USB Type C cable with USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10 Gbps) is essentially just as capable as Thunderbolt is, as both standards only support 10 Gbps per cable.

Also, with DisplayPort Alt, a laptop or mobile device manufacturer doesn’t have to worry about what display a consumer might want to use because DisplayPort effectively supports all legacy standards in addition to DisplayPort (HDMI, DVI, VGA).

It also removes the problem that DisplayPort has been having with manufacturers, which is battling for connector space on PCBs and fitting into manufacturers’ progressively thinner and thinner designs. Now, everyone will want to have a USB Type C connector in their devices purely because of the fact that it fully support DisplayPort Alt mode which means that you can get full DisplayPort functionality through a USB cable and don’t need an additional connector (like you would with HDMI or standard DisplayPort connector). DisplayPort Alt mode essentially means that mobile device manufacturers can toss standards like HDMI and MHL to the wind and adopt a single cable for everything while still supporting legacy standards at the same time.

VESA is working with the USB IF to create a standard set of testing procedures for cables to certify them for DisplayPort Alt mode which will be signified by a simple DisplayPort logo on the USB cable, letting the consumer know that the cable is capable of DisplayPort Alt mode and therefore all of the things that come with that, including video signaling capabilities. The goal is to make this certification and testing procedure to be part of the USB Type C certification process so that manufacturers can easily adhere to it without needing additional equipment or testing procedures.

With this announcement, device manufacturers can now focus on a single connector standard and unify around it on a global scale. It will satisfy governments’ demands to have a single power connector across all mobile devices and it may even entice Apple to move away from their own proprietary lightning connector in order to make consumers’ lives easier and manufacturing costs lower. No more apologizing for not having a lightning connector or worrying about whether or not a friend might have a spare charger. It also will reduce the amount of connectors and cables that consumers may have to deal with in general as the industry moves towards a single standard connector for virtually everything ‘cabled’.

USB Type C and DisplayPort Alt mode are a match made in heaven and are a really great example of when companies (and standards organizations) work together to create industry standards that make technology better for everyone.

 

  • UpTide

    Yay!

  • petergla

    This article has some serious errors. The USB Type C connector is hardly the “third” USB connector; at least nine connector types have been standardized previously. The Type C connector is actually larger than the Micro B connector. There is no such thing as “USB 3.1 Gen 1”; “Gen 1” refers to USB 3.0. Thunderbolt is an Intel technology; it is not from Apple. Thunderbolt 2 supports speeds of 20 gigabits/sec in both directions simultaneously, which is twice the speed of USB 3.1, and has less overhead. Thunderbolt (all versions) does carry power, data, and video simultaneously, though the power is limited to 9.9W, well below the 100W potential of future USB Power Delivery implementations. I agree with your general conclusion that USB 3.1 using the Type C connector and the Power Delivery extensions will be a highly effective and extremely popular solution when it arrives, and Thunderbolt will remain a niche-market technology. But there will be improvements to Thunderbolt in the future, too, including faster modes of operation as well as unique competitive advantages such as standardized optical links supporting long-distance connections. You really must be a lot more careful about the facts in your stories, and if you’re going to compare one technology to another, you should only compare current solutions OR future solutions; it’s intellectually dishonest to compare a current solution on one side to future solutions on the other.

    • Anshel Sag

      Hi Petergla,

      It is indeed the third type of USB connector as there have been USB Type A and Type B connectors for virtually every size, be that standard USB, Mini USB or Micro USB. There has never been a USB Type C connector. Yes, the Type C connector is actually larger than the Micro B connector, but it is also far more capable than the Micro B connector (not sure if you’re referring to USB 3.0 or 2.0 as those are two wildly different connectors).

      Also, we were specifically instructed by VESA (with the USB IF’s recommendations) that the understanding that USB 3.0 does not technically exist and that people differentiating between USB 3.1 Gen 1 and USB 3.1 Gen 2 with the USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 definitions are technically incorrect, so we’ve adjusted our language to reflect this appropriately.

      Also, you refer to Thunderbolt 2 supporting 20 Gigabits/sec in both directions simultaneously but you fail to acknowledge that this require two cables and that each individual cable is still capable of 10 Gbps. Sure, there’s no denying that we could and probably will see updates to Thunderbolt in the future, but I have a feeling that Apple may actually spend less R&D on that if USB 3.1 Gen 2 with Type C and DisplayPort Alt really can do what we’re being promised. As for Thunderbolt, it is true that it does technically supply power of up to 10W, but there are virtually no devices using a thunderbolt connector that can actually utilize the power that it delivers. Anything small enough to consume less than 10Watts (and runs at 18V) is not going to very likely have room to fit a MiniDP connector for power. Virtually all thunderbolt devices are powered by external power…

      http://store.apple.com/us/search/thunderbolt

      There is no denying that USB Type C and DisplayPort Alt Mode are technically future standards, but they’re much closer to reality than something that hasn’t even been announced yet or even acknowledged as existing by Apple. Unfortunately we don’t have an exact timeline of when Type C will be implemented, but the real focus here is that DisplayPort Alt is making USB Type C far more useful than many thought it would be. Not to mention, it gives DisplayPort a vastly larger install base in the future.

    • Anshel Sag

      Hi Petergla,

      It is indeed the third type of USB connector as there have been USB Type A and Type B connectors for virtually every size, be that standard USB, Mini USB or Micro USB. There has never been a USB Type C connector. Yes, the Type C connector is actually larger than the Micro B connector, but it is also far more capable than the Micro B connector (not sure if you’re referring to USB 3.0 or 2.0 as those are two wildly different connectors).

      Also, we were specifically instructed by VESA (with the USB IF’s recommendations) that the understanding that USB 3.0 does not technically exist and that people differentiating between USB 3.1 Gen 1 and USB 3.1 Gen 2 with the USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 definitions are technically incorrect, so we’ve adjusted our language to reflect this appropriately.

      Also, you refer to Thunderbolt 2 supporting 20 Gigabits/sec in both directions simultaneously but you fail to acknowledge that this require two cables and that each individual cable is still capable of 10 Gbps. Sure, there’s no denying that we could and probably will see updates to Thunderbolt in the future, but I have a feeling that Apple may actually spend less R&D on that if USB 3.1 Gen 2 with Type C and DisplayPort Alt really can do what we’re being promised. As for Thunderbolt, it is true that it does technically supply power of up to 10W, but there are virtually no devices using a thunderbolt connector that can actually utilize the power that it delivers. Anything small enough to consume less than 10Watts (and runs at 18V) is not going to very likely have room to fit a MiniDP connector for power. Virtually all thunderbolt devices are powered by external power…

      http://store.apple.com/us/search/thunderbolt

      There is no denying that USB Type C and DisplayPort Alt Mode are technically future standards, but they’re much closer to reality than something that hasn’t even been announced yet or even acknowledged as existing by Apple. Unfortunately we don’t have an exact timeline of when Type C will be implemented, but the real focus here is that DisplayPort Alt is making USB Type C far more useful than many thought it would be. Not to mention, it gives DisplayPort a vastly larger install base in the future.

      • petergla

        Then you meant that Type C is a third _kind_ of connector, but even this is meaningless sophistry. Obviously B, Mini B, and Micro B are different connectors.
        I’m glad you agree you were wrong about Type C being “significantly smaller than the current USB connectors” but bringing up an unrelated point– the capabilities of the connector– seems designed solely to evade responsibility for your error.
        Of course USB 3.0 “technically exists.” Millions of devices equipped with USB 3.0 (and not USB 3.1) interfaces have been sold. What is this sophistry?
        No, Thunderbolt 2 provides 20 gigabit/sec throughput in both directions simultaneously on one connector. Why do you persist in this error? When someone challenges you, why don’t you go verify the facts (e.g. at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thunderbolt_(interface)#Thunderbolt_2) rather than offering a knee-jerk rejection of the challenge?
        Again it’s good that you agree that you were wrong to say Thunderbolt doesn’t supply power, but again it’s bad that you weasel-word your response by saying it only “technically” does this. It doesn’t “technically” supply power. It supplies power. Period. End of discussion.
        You are simply wrong to say there are “virtually no devices” that use Thunderbolt power. The link you gave contradicts you. It shows there are quite a few portable hard drives, I/O adapters, and display adapters that operate on the power supplied over the Thunderbolt cable.
        So please remember the difference between argument and contradiction: “Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.” Don’t just contradict people who say you’re wrong. Either prove they’re wrong, or learn to graciously accept the input and correct your own false statements.

      • petergla

        I’m reposting this comment because it was deleted without explanation, but the factual contents remain important.
        I gather you meant that Type C is a third “kind” or “group” or “family” of USB connector, but that isn’t what you said, and I was only correcting what you said. Obviously B, Mini B, and Micro B are different connectors.
        I’m glad you agree you were wrong about Type C being “significantly smaller than the current USB connectors” but why bring up the unrelated point that the Type C connector has additional capabilities? You said it’s smaller, and I said that it isn’t smaller.
        Upon re-reading, I’m not sure I understand what you were “specifically instructed.” But anyway, USB 3.0 exists, and there are millions of USB 3.0 devices out there. The Gen 1 / Gen 2 distinction describes the differences between USB 3.0 and USB 3.1, so the wording in the article remains incorrect.
        It’s a simple fact that Thunderbolt 2 provides 20 gigabit/sec throughput in both directions simultaneously on one connector and one cable. Not two. You may verify this fact at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thunderbolt_(interface)#Thunderbolt_2 and the references cited therein, if you like.
        It’s good you agree that you were wrong to say Thunderbolt doesn’t supply power, but it’s bad that you say it only “technically” supplies power. It doesn’t “technically” supply power. It supplies power. Period. End of discussion.
        You are simply wrong to say there are “virtually no devices” that use Thunderbolt power. Your own link contradicts you. It shows there are quite a few portable hard drives, I/O adapters, and display adapters that operate on the power supplied over the Thunderbolt cable.

        • Joel Hruska

          Technically USB 3.0 — excuse me, USB 3.1 Gen 1 — also delivers power and you can buy tiny-ass craptastic hard drives that only use a single plug. If you want to actually do anything with your peripherals, you’ll be running a secondary adapter.

          Since the majority of Thunderbolt equipment is high-end hardware, I think it’s fair to say while TB provides power, it doesn’t provide enough of it to power the high-end equipment that people actually use.