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Plug-n-play, the USB way!

 After 20 years, the USB  connector is  up for a major upgrade. Here's what you need,  to  tide over the transition
By Anand Parthasarathy
Bangalore, June 12 2016: Older reader  will remember the   big,  fat,  desktop PCs of the 1990s -- with their  bulky dabbas and  a fat CRT monitor , taking away  most of the space on your desk. Perhaps,  the most vivid memory is of that cat's cradle of wires on the back of the machine --  a rear wall  pockmarked like ageing cheese,  with multiple  holes for a serial port, a printer port, a keyboard port and a PS/2 port for the mouse, plus those tiny coloured  holes in which to stick the  loudspeaker and mike connector.
Checked   any PCs lately?  Chances are you'll find  4 to 6 identical  USB ports which work with almost every  accessory device.  Plug-n-play is the new way with PC accessories.  The Universal Serial Bus or USB   is actually  just over 20 years old --  but it is only in recent years  that it has emerged as the  undisputed king of the connector jungle, in the process, having gone through a  few  upward bumps in the speed at which it can transfer data.  The current USB 3.1 standard, is the zippiest, to date,    transferring   data at a typical  150 - 200 MBPS which is about 10 times faster than what we could achieve with USB 2.
While USB reading  speeds have been jacked up, the physical connector has remained largely  unchanged, until recently.  The familiar USB Type A connector  has one big hassle: it goes in only one way -- and   it seems,  we always insert it  the wrong way,  the first time! 
The new Type C USB connector  overcomes this pain point: it is reversible, ie,  you can  insert it into a USB socket, any  way you like. You will increasingly  find,   that  newer devices like  notebooks, tablets, printers, music players or  speakers come with  the new Type C port.   In fact its smaller sized has allowed phone makers  to replace the  micro version of the USB Type A connector  even  on phones,  with the Type C.  And this immediately poses a problem.
Almost all the things we connect into our smart phones --  battery chargers, memory sticks,  external speakers --  currently sport a micro USB A connection.  For some time to come, we  need to carry an extra adaptor cable that  lets you use  your Type C phone or device with a Type A accessory.
This has one downside:  You may overcome the physical problem, but you will lose out on the higher speed and  considerable versatility of your Type C device.   Just think:  The single  Type C port in your new phone or tablet  is   a sort of agni astra:  Industry is all set to ditch the  3.5 mm audio jack and  let the USB port on your phone  do double duty:  charging devices  and providing an audio path.  The Chinese   company   LeEco,   recently  launched a couple of phones -- Le 2  and  LeMax 2 -- where they have done away with the audio jack completely: the  Type C audio jack  does the job and if required also charges the phone.  The phones  are coming to India   starting June 28 -- and we will bring you our detailed review in this space very soon. We can however provide a   sneak  preview of an unexpected bonus that comes when  a Type C USB is used to make an audio connection:  Since any USB connection carries  5 volts DC, headphone makers have  been able to  throw away  the  heavy batteries they  used to put in to drive the  noise cancelling  circuits  -- and simply use the current that is available to all takers on the USB connection. 
The Type  C also handles  more power up to 20 volts and  5 amperes ( or 100 watts). This means   it can be used   to charge  almost all devices -- even a laptop  typically  needs only  60 watts.
Such are some of the benefits of the industry's lurch to a new USB standard.   
To tide over the transition, makers of USB flash drives  have just launched  some  dual drive models-- with a Type C connector at one end and a Type A at the other:

  • I have been trying out Kingston's new  DataTraveler microDuo 3C  USB drive  and  using it to   add some external storage to either a Type C or a Type A USB device, at will.  The  drive comes  in   3 sizes -- 16, 32  and 64 GB and costs Rs 800, Rs 1200 and Rs 2000 respectively  and is covered by a 3-year warranty. Grab one -- to smooth over your USB crossover pains.​​
  • ​Other makers   have come out with similar dual drive products:   Sony has  launched  its own USB Type-C & Type-A Dual Connection Flash Drive in the same three sizes -- USM 16CA1,  USM 32CA1 and USM 64CA1  costing Rs 1999, Rs 4099 and Rs 7999 respectively.   
  • ​SanDisk's Dual USB Drive Type C is currently available with 32 GB  for Rs 3099.
  • For iPhone and iPad owners SanDisk has also  brought  its mobile storage device iXpand Flash Drive, to India. It comes with  a USB 3.0 connector and is available in 16GB, 32 GB, 64 GB and 128 GB capacities, at Rs.3990, Rs.4990, Rs.6990 and Rs.9990, respectively. The drive is compatible with iPhone  5 and 6 series,   and most  iPad  versions,  running iOS 8.2 or later. 

A simple  USB Type C-to-Type A convertor  with no onboard storage can be bought online for a couple of hundred rupees. 
Armed with such a  cable, plus  a double ended  Flash drive  like the ones  described, you can  have a relatively hassle free  time,  as you  say:  'Goodbye Type A,  hello Type C',   in the  Brave New World of the USB connector.