First Click: USB-C arrives in force at CES 2016

January 5th, 2016


Back in June at Computex, I wrote that USB-C has already won. But back in June, USB-C still felt like a new, far-off technology — my point was that its adoption was a foregone conclusion. And as CES kicks off this week, there are already a range of devices that prove the new port is here to stay.

As a reminder, USB-C (also called USB Type-C) is the reversible, versatile successor to USB-A, the ubiquitous port that’s found its way into several billion products shipped since the days of Windows 98. It’s what you’ll find on Apple’s new MacBook, Google’s new Nexus phones, and a whole range of laptops and phones hitting the market in the present and near future. The new MacBook might be the starkest demonstration of USB-C’s capabilities; the port is the only way to charge the laptop, plug in peripherals, attach an external display, or basically expand the laptop in any way beside using the headphone jack.

But until recently, there hasn’t been much in the way of useful support for USB-C devices. Last month we saw the first truly comprehensive USB-C adapter, which lets you plug in a monitor, SD cards, Ethernet cable, USB-A peripherals, and power via USB-C passthrough all in one compact hub. That helps create a convenient single-cable docking solution even for the new MacBook, but it’s only step one for USB-C — it’s necessary because of the lack of native devices that use the new port.

That’s what’s starting to change at CES 2016. The show hasn’t even officially started yet, and already we’ve seen some smart peripherals that you can plug into a USB-C-equipped laptop without an adapter. Samsung’s business card-sized T3 SSD is a great fit for the compact devices enabled by USB-C’s slimline design. Griffin’s BreakSafe USB-C cable is a neat way to restore magnetic charging to the new MacBook, or add it to other product lines that never had it in the first place. Belkin is showing off USB-C hubs with passthrough charging and just about every permutation of cable imaginable.

But the most compelling peripherals to emerge so far this week are native USB-C monitors. Acer, Lenovo, and LG are all introducing their own models, and it’s a product category that just makes a whole lot of sense: you can use a single cable to charge your laptop at the same time as outputting to a second display. USB-C monitors will be the most convenient and clutter-free way possible to dock your laptop on a desk.

While a lot of the initial attention around USB-C focused on Apple’s all-or-nothing approach, I think we’re at the point now where you probably shouldn’t buy a laptop without at least one Type-C port. Even if it isn’t ubiquitous yet, the hitherto fast adoption by computer and peripheral manufacturers means that you’ll likely be limiting your options in a year or two when shopping for accessories.

USB-A isn’t going away any time soon — it’s one of the most entrenched technologies in existence. But USB-C is a functional slam dunk, and the sooner we all get used to our brave new world of reversible versatility, the better. So far, you can chalk CES 2016 up as another sign that things are moving in the right direction.

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