Here’s why PC notebook makers, aside from Apple, have been slow to adopt USB-C

Twelve inch MacBook Silver closeup 001

When it debuted in March 2015, Apple’s twelve-inch MacBook has ushered in an era of USB-C, then new high-speed connectivity option from the USB Implementers’ Forum with a reversible, ultra-thin plug resembling Apple’s proprietary Lightning port. In fact, the MacBook was the first notebook to incorporate a USB-C connection as its power port, completely replacing Apple’s own MagSafe charging.

PC notebook vendors around the world were supposed to follow in Apple’s footsteps and readily adopt USB-C across their products—and some have—but too many of them were, and still are, less keen to adopt USB Type C connections on their products. The reason for this is two-fold: design and cost considerations.

According to DigiTimes, the USB-C interface is seeing growing popularity among smartphones, tablets and virtual reality devices due to its high speed transmission. Notebook vendors and makers of all-in-one computers, however, have been surprisingly slow to adopt USB-C thus far.

Most notebook vendors, DigiTimes learned from supply chain sources, remain “conservative” about the USB-C interface with only a few of them planning to adopt one USB-C port for their new products for the second half of this year. Asustek and Hewlett-Packard, for example, are upgrading one of their notebooks’ regular USB port to USB-C.

Lenovo, Acer and Dell are still “evaluating the option,” which is an euphemism for “we’re cheapskates who are reluctant to compromise our already razor-thin notebook margins”.

The problem with USB-C

The USB Type C interface—also known as USB 3.1 or simply USB-C—“suffers” from two “issues” preventing it from being widely adopted: higher power output and faster data transfer speeds than the previous-generation USB standard.

Firstly, as it uses electric current that is larger than previous USB interfaces, putting too many USB-C ports on a machine could lead to interference and heat dissipation problems. As a rule of thumb, most 15-inch notebooks require around 60W of power. On top of that, USB-C supports bi-directional power, meaning a host device (notebook) can charge a peripheral device via USB-C and vice versa.

USB revisions chart
USB-C revisions table via CNET.

And secondly, USB-C is a high-speed interface that matches the original Thunderbolt standard’s speeds but in order to achieve its maximum throughout of 10 Gbps, USB-C requires an amplifier chip, a receiver chip and a special-spec transmission wire, which significantly raise production costs.

As a result, the USB Type-C interface is unlikely to become a mainstream technology in the notebook market until 2017.

Crash course on USB-C

USB-C doubles the speed of USB 3.0 to 10Gbps, making it as fast as the original Thunderbolt standard. According to USB Power Delivery Specification, USB-C allows larger devices to draw power from a host: up to 2A at 5V (10W) and up to 5A at either 12V (60W) or 20V (100W).

Twelve inch MacBook Gold closeup 001

The USB-C port and connector is roughly the same size as Micro-B USB, measuring just 8.4mm wide and 2.6mm tall, making it ideal for thin notebooks and the smallest peripheral devices.

“Clumsy” USB-C audio

When it comes to leveraging USB-C on smartphones and tablets as a digital replacement for the industry-standard 3.5mm headphone jack, there are issues there as well. Take it from Cirrus Logic CEO Jason Rhode, who explained on a conference call with Wall Street analysts the problems manufacturers face in using USB-C ports for headphones (emphasis mine):

Well, like I referred to earlier, we are excited to see there’s already models on the market that have switched over to USBC completely, and either ship with—either ship with or have available accessory USBC headsets or adapters, one or the other, or both.

The interesting thing is that as the core chipsets stand today, that’s quite a painful thing to do, just the way the USBC stack is handled and routing of audio and uses of voice interface is kind of clumsy in the handsets themselves.

He said he expects these USB-C audio issues to be resolved in the next six to twelve months. Cirrus Logic, by the way, is the provider of audio chips for iPhones.

“suffers” and “issues”?

Why did I enclose “suffers” and “issues” in the brackets earlier in this article?

Because, from my standpoint, design and cost considerations could only be perceived as “issues” by those PC vendors that are focused on cutting corners and building good-enough rather than great products.

Apple, on the other side, charges a premium for its products but you often get cutting-edge design, reliable components, the latest available technologies, custom-made chips and hardware, software and services designed to work in concert with one another.

new MacBook silver gold space gray

Speaking of DigiTimes, the hit-and-miss publication said yesterday that Apple is gearing up to refresh its aging MacBook Air with USB-C and other features, though this next-generation MacBook Air could easily turn out to be the next MacBook Pro.

Your two cents

Agree or disagree with the assessments made in this article? Either way, we’d be glad to hear your thoughts on the topic down in the comment section. Do you own Apple’s latest MacBook? If so, what has your experience with USB-C been like thus far?