Since it was first released in 1996, the USB technology has come a long way. Did you know that there are more than six USB types out there, with multiple versions?
Digging through piles of cables and adapters to find the USB you need can be a hassle. There have been several occasions where I had to do intense research just to figure out what USB version my device uses.
With that in mind, I decided to write this article to help simplify a few things about the USB industry. In this article, I’ll explain the main differences between the USB types and versions to make things easier for you.
Let’s get started.
What you need to know about USB is the most common type of USB connector is USB Type-A which has 4 pins. It’s what most USB devices use, such as mice, keyboards, flash disks, and whatnot. There are other types that you should know about too, which we’ll get into in the next section, but USB Type-A is the most common.
You have probably seen advertisements for USB hardware that mention either USB 2.0, 3.0, or 3.1. (USB 4 is the latest, released in 2019) Much like HDMI, there are multiple versions of USB, but the physical port remains the same. In other words, all of the above versions of USB use the same connector, the USB Type-A design, but the technical specifications are a bit different.
The version, on the other hand, depends on the hardware. The good news is USB devices are backward compatible. For example, you can connect a USB 3.0 device into a USB 2.0 port, and so forth, as long as the connectors are the same. You probably wouldn’t want to do that because the USB version will bottleneck your device, meaning it won’t reach its maximum data transfer speeds.
USB 2 to 3.1 with Type-A connectors are the most common in electronics today, but they’re slowly being replaced by newer versions, which I’ll get into now.
The main difference between the USB versions 3.0 and 3.1 is data transfer speed. USB 3.0 can support up to 5 Gbit/s, and USB 3.1 can support up to 10 Gbit/s. On the other hand, USB Type-C is a more modern version with a different connector, more commonly found on new phones. It’s built on the 3.1 standards, so it offers similar speeds, but with a few additional features.
USB Type-C has 24 pins, allowing for many more features. For example, you can charge a device with USB-C, output video (usually with an adapter), transfer data at high speeds, and much more, all through one cable.
So I mentioned USB Type-A and USB Type-C but what about the other connector types? There are a few other USB connectors that you should know about.
Here’s a quick list:
- USB Type-A (most common)
- Mini USB (popular on small devices, such as digital cameras)
- Micro USB (still in use, PS4 controllers use micro USB, as well as older phones)
- USB B (rare, very few devices, most common on printers)
Mini and Micro USBs are very similar, except micro has a flatter and wider surface, similar to USB-C, while the micro is more of a thick rectangle shape. USB-B is rare and usually used on printers or other bulky devices. The USB-B connector is more like a square shape.
The easiest way to tell what is the version of USB ports on your computer is to look for the blue ports. Most USB 3.0 ports are marked with blue, so those will deliver the best data transfer speed, and you should connect your USB 3.0 compatible devices there.
Another way to check USB ports is to enter your computer’s device manager and expand the Universal Serial Bus controllers menu, it should show a list of your USB ports. The last resort would be to research your motherboard’s model and check its manual, it should show all the USB ports and their supported versions.
In most cases, if you have USB ports on your computer that are not blue and are not labeled as USB 3.0 in the device manager, then they are probably USB 2.0. Chances are your computer has a combination of USB 3.0 and 2.0 ports, depending on your hardware. If you plan to buy a new computer, make sure it has mostly USB 3.0 or newer ports. For laptops, I recommend at least one USB-C port because it’s very versatile.
Thunderbolt 3 is the future for new devices, it’s using the USB-C physical connector, but it expands on technology. Most Apple products such as the Mac use Thunderbolt. Currently, Thunderbolt 3 is in high demand because it can support a wide range of services and also charge devices. It’s also faster than USB-C with a maximum 40 Gbit/s transfer speed (double USB-C) which can also support two 4K monitors at 60 Hz (a dongle is needed).
Thunderbolt 3 looks like a female USB-C port, and it usually has a small lightning icon next to it which indicates that the port supports a power charge. The benefits of Thunderbolt 3 are simple; you can use one cable for everything – connecting displays, charging your computer, transferring data, and you can even use the same cable with your phone. If you’re looking to buy a new laptop, I highly recommend looking for one that has a Thunderbolt 3 port.
To conclude, the USB industry can be very confusing but you don’t really need to understand all the technical specifications and details. But you do want to look for computers or devices that use the latest versions so you can get the best speeds. USB 3.0 and 3.1 are the standard for ports these days, but USB-C is slowly starting to show up in consumer electronics.
I recommend looking for devices that have a USB-C port with Thunderbolt support, one should be enough because you can expand it with dongles. In a nutshell, make sure you match the device to the right port, for example, a USB 3.0 device should be plugged into a USB 3.0 port, and so on.