USB-C vs. USB 3: What's the Difference?

USB-C is the port type, while USB 3 is the data transfer rate

When it comes to USB-C vs. USB 3, what are the differences? USB-C tells you the shape and hardware capabilities of the cable connector. USB 3 tells you the data transfer protocol and speeds of the cable. Here's what else you need to know.

Overall Findings

USB-C
  • Term used for USB connector.

  • Smallest shape of all USB plugs.

  • Reversible connector.

  • Capable of up to 100 watts.

USB 3
  • Term used for USB cable type.

  • Data transfer speeds up to 5 Gbps.

  • Includes 3.1 version up to 10 Gbps.

  • Compatible with multiple USB connectors.

The easiest way to understand the differences between USB-C vs USB 3 is that one describes the connector (USB-C), and the other the cable technology (USB 3).

USB-C is the latest generation of USB connectors that provide a reversible plug you can insert into the device without inserting it wrong. USB-C is also capable of providing more power to devices.

USB 3 represents several generations of USB cables including USB 3.0 and USB 3.1. Each of these allows for very fast data transfers up to 10 Gbps.

You may also see the term USB 3.2. This term was introduced in an attempt to re-brand USB 3.0 and 3.1. It is the same specification, but (in some circles) USB 3.0 is now called USB 3.2 Gen 1, and USB 3.1 is called USB 3.2 Gen 2. Essentially, though, they're still the same specifications that you've come to know as USB 3.0 and USB 3.1.

Data Transfer Rates: Only USB 3 Matters

USB-C
  • Can be used with any USB cable type.

  • Does not affect data transfer speed.

USB 3
  • USB 3.1 is capable of up to 10 Gbps.

  • USB 3.0 is capable of up to 5 Gbps.

  • USB 2.0 only supports up to 480 Mbps.

Introduced in 2008, USB 3.0 improved USB data transfer speeds to 10 times faster than USB 2.0. In 2013, the USB 3.1 standard doubled data transfer speeds to 10 Gbps.

This distinction is important. A USB 3.1 cable is more expensive to manufacture than a USB 2.0 cable. Since the USB-C connector works on any USB cable, including USB 2.0, marketers of cheaper USB cables sell cables marketed as "USB-C", leaving the USB 2.0 specification in small print.

If you're looking for a USB cable capable of high speed data transfer rates, make sure it's USB 3.0 or higher, regardless of the connector type.

Another marketing trick is to sell USB cables as "USB 3.1 Gen1". This is a term that references USB 3.0. If you truly want a USB cable with 10 Gbps data transfer capability, look for "USB 3.1 Gen2" on the packaging.

Ease of Use: Only USB-C Matters

USB-C
  • Provides 100 watts power delivery along with data transfer.

  • 24 pins allow backwards compatibility with any cable type.

  • Reversible design means you'll never insert it incorrectly.

USB 3
  • Generation (3.0 vs 3.1) will affect data transfer limits.

  • Compatible with any USB connector.

  • Has little impact on usability.

When it comes to how easy it is to use a USB cable, only the connector type (USB-C) really matters. USB A and B type cables always depend on inserting the connector the right way as well as the port shape.

USB-C connectors have pins that connect regardless which way you insert it. This removes confusion and improves usability.

Whether the cable is USB 2.0 or 3.0 has little impact on how easy it'll be to use.

Compatibility: USB-C Is the Limiting Factor

USB-C
  • Must be used with oval USB-C port.

  • Compatible with USB 2.0 through 3.1 technology.

  • Limited only by available ports.

USB 3
  • Compatible with any USB connector.

  • Compatible with any USB technology.

  • No limitations based on cable choice.

On the surface, understanding compatibility may feel confusing. So let's work with an example. Let's say you have:

  • A printer capable of USB 2.0 with a USB Type-B connector
  • A USB cable rated for USB 2.0
  • Your computer USB port rated for USB 3.1

In this scenario, so long as both ends of the cable fit into the appropriate ports on the printer and the computer, the USB 2.0 cable will work. This is because the computer's port rated for USB 3.1 is backwards compatible with both the cable and the printer.

Here's an alternate scenario:

  • A new printer capable of USB 3.1
  • The computer end of the printer cable is a USB-C type connector
  • Your computer USB port is USB A, without any USB-C ports

This scenario won't work, because your computer doesn't have a USB-C port.

In fact, the most common compatibility issue people have with USB-C is not having a USB-C port on their device.

Final Verdict: USB-C and USB are Different, But Important

Since USB 3 technology is backwards compatible with all older devices and ports, you usually can't go wrong buying a cable rated for USB 3.0 or 3.1. With these cables, you will enjoy better data transfer rates if both devices you're connecting are capable of it.

On the other hand, you wouldn't want to by a cable with a USB-C connector if either the device you're connecting or your computer doesn't have a port that will support that connector.

Always purchase your cables based on the USB type (A, B, or C) of the port you're plugging into on each end.