Is It the End for USB Type-A?

USB Type-A connectors were everywhere for many years. No one especially liked them, but they were simple and worked with all kinds of devices. They had a strong affinity for Murphy’s Law: No matter which way you plugged them in, you got it wrong the first time. But no technology lasts forever, and eventually they’ll go the way of RS-232 and SCSI connectors.

USB isn’t going away, of course. It’s getting better. The new standard is USB Type-C, also called USB-C. It will replace not only Type-A but the Mini-USB and Micro-USB connectors. The use of Type-A has been declining for a long time, because it takes up too much space on a phone or an ultra-thin tablet. The variety of connector types currently in use takes the “universal” out of the Universal Serial Bus.

Type-C will eventually replace all of them. Unlike its predecessors, the plug is reversible; there’s no wrong way to plug it in. With the coming of USB4, the new connector is a requirement. It doesn’t support Type-A connectors. In spite of its smaller size, the Type-C connector has 24 pins, exceeding the 4 pins of the original Type-A connector and the 9 pins of the USB 3 Type-A.

Some of these pins are redundant, to allow reversibility or increase reliability. There are four power and four ground pins, for example. What’s important is the two pairs of pins for SuperSpeed transmission and two pairs for reception. They double the bandwidth available with the Type-A connector.

The old connector type isn’t obsolete yet. Computers, especially desktop models, are still sold with Type-A USB ports alongside the Type-C ones. Tablets and phones almost always have mini, micro, or Type-C ports. We can safely say the four-pin Type-A connector is obsolete, though it will doubtless stay on the low-price racks for buyers who look only at price.

Type-C to Type-A cables have become common and won’t vanish quickly. They’re convenient for connecting phones to desktop and laptop computers and hubs. They don’t give the performance advantage of an end-to-end Type-C cable, but speed usually isn’t crucial in those situations.

A lot of existing devices use Type-A. Their owners can get adapters but would rather not. The convenience of a thumb drive is that it plugs right into the computer. An adapter is one more thing that can malfunction or get lost, and it doesn’t confer the benefits of a Type-C port.

The situation is similar with Micro USB, but it may last longer because so many mobile devices use it. The speed advantage of USB C is less important with these devices than with desktop and laptop machines and disk drives. USB 3 Micro-B, with an odd-looking plug, allows higher speeds but may not have enough of a market foothold to last long. Mobile devices will soon converge on Type-C.

Automotive devices are another significant piece of the USB market. Cars last a long time, and the manufacturers are more concerned with compatibility than speed. Car chargers and connections to entertainment systems tend to use Type-A connectors. Newer devices can use a Type-A to Type-C cable.
Type-A still has quite a bit of life in it. It’s no longer state-of-the-art technology, but it’s the best solution for many situations. Compatibility is often more important than performance.

USB 3 and 4 are backward compatible with 2.0, so old devices will keep working. The slide of the older connectors into an antiquated niche is inevitable, but it will happen slowly. New devices, though, will increasingly move to the newer, faster version of the technology. When USB4, which requires the new connectors, becomes dominant, the shift will become more rapid.

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