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Intel explains how USB-C could be far better than the headphone jack

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New specs pave the way for powerful features

The impending death of the 3.5mm audio port is one of the more contentious tech industry narratives this year. With Apple rumored to remove the jack with the iPhone 7 and devices like the Moto Z already having ditched the port altogether, consumers are justifiably concerned about a standards war they didn't ask for. As it stands, USB-C is only used in a select few phones and laptops like the aforementioned Moto phone and the newer Apple MacBook. Intel, however, thinks the versatile new USB-C standard won't just make for a viable headphone jack replacement, but a superior one as well.

At the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco yesterday, Intel architects Brad Saunders and Rahman Ismail explained how improvements to the USB-C standard, slated to arrive later this year, could make it a far better port for the modern-day smartphone, according to CNET. The most obvious advantage, at least to devices manufacturers, is slimmer phones. Without needing to route analog circuitry, a phone maker could switch to digital audio and shave off precious millimeters from the device's body. With digital audio, Saunders added, software and device makers could help cheaper earbuds take advantage of features reserved for more expensive headphones, like noise cancelling and bass boosting.

Intel has been one of the biggest proponents of USB-C technology

Beyond the need for cumbersome adapters, one of the biggest concerns with the loss of the headphone jack is power use. USB controllers are inherently more power-hungry than a 3.5mm port, and if there's anything that will push consumers to resist change, it's detrimental effects to battery life. Saunders says he and Ismail's revised specifications for USB-C could allow it to detect when users are not using the microphone on headphones and turn it off to save battery. "The difference in battery life is negligible" with USB headphones, Saunders suggested.

There's also some video potential with USB-C, the duo explained. While not a viable HDMI replacement, USB-C is capable of high-throughput data transfers. That means you could hook a smartphone or computer up to a display through USB-C to run apps or watch movies. It may not be viable for gaming, but it's certainly a way to work around extra cable needs. Plus, USB-C can handle multiple connections at once, so you'd be able to use a USB hub to transmit video or mirror a display from a single port while at the same time charging the device and connecting a separate cable for peripherals. These changes collectively "will really make USB Type-C the right connector for audio," Saunders concluded.

This isn't Intel's first vocal push for USB-C. Back in April, the company detailed a proposal to remove the 3.5mm audio jack at its Shenzhen developer forum. The proposal laid out how the port is antiquated when considering the multi-purpose needs of modern phone users. It's not just video or audio improvements — USB-C opens up the possibility for all sorts of health tracking and other fitness-related functions that can be controlled from a single port. And last year at Computex, Intel became the most high-profile industry name to throw its weight behind USB-C, declaring that its Thunderbolt 3 interface would use the new standard instead of the existing Mini DisplayPort.


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