USB Type-C: Doing Away with a Difference Makes a Difference
A connector technology that does away with a source of consumer frustration will invigorate the industrial, smartphones/tablets, automotive and other markets, too.
With a traditional USB connector, the orientation of the connector makes a difference. One orientation works. The other doesn’t. Gervais Fong, senior product marketing manager of USB PHY IP at Synopsys, calls non USB Type-C connectors “three-try connectors.” “First,” Fong explains, “you plug in your connector, it is not quite aligned correctly, two, you think you have the orientation wrong and you flip it around, three, having discovered that flipping it from the way you first had it is clearly the wrong orientation, you flip it back, and it finally works.”
Fong, along with Ajay Srikrishna, Cypress Semiconductor’s vice president of USB Business Unit, and Ganesh Subramaniam, product family executive for USB Type-C at Cypress, shared insights recently on the USB Type-C specification.
EECatalog: How is USB Type-C shaking things up?
Gervais Fong, Synopsys: USB Type-C could well become the fastest adopted USB standard in history. What is really quite amazing is that the USB Type-C specification was released back in August of last year and in the short space of seven months, with Apple’s release of a Macbook with Type-C, one of the most high-profile companies in the consumer space released a product that supports the new Type–C specification. That speed of adoption is almost unheard of [for] a brand new standard.
Not only did Apple announce its product with Type-C, but Google announced its latest Chromebook, Pixel, which also has Type-C on it, and Nokia announced a tablet with a single Type-C connector for data and power. And there is a host of third-party smartphones rushing to offer Type-C as the standardized USB connection.
Ganesh Subramaniam, Cypress Semiconductor: The entire USB ecosystem is changing because of USB Type-C, not just the semiconductor industry. The marketplace, specifically PC original equipment manufacturers, has recognized the obvious benefits of Type-C, including the reversible connector, slim form factor and its ability to do way more than just USB. There is an ongoing refresh cycle in the ecosystem, and we are seeing changes faster than we have seen in previous USB standards updates. Every kind of device, whether it is a smartphone, desktop, laptop or power adapter, is being refreshed to support this standard. Even devices that previously did not utilize the USB standard, like power adapters, are changing.
EECatalog: How are you addressing any design complexity associated with Type-C?
Fong, Synopsys: Yes, the design complexity at the system level for Type-C is actually quite high. A single cable connector must be able to handle both data and power and be reversible, seamless and invisible to the user.
One of the things we do at Synopsys is to serve on the working groups for standards including USB Type-C, so we not only help develop these standards, but we also gather knowledge as we participate in the work groups. We investigate the best way to implement new standards like Type-C, and we incorporate that knowledge into the IP that we provide for the standard.
So, for example, for PHY IP, we use the knowledge gained from the working groups to design the most area-efficient implementation for a Type-C PHY. On the controller side, we look at the features that are required and that designers ask for to enable an efficient Type-C design.
Ajay Srikrishna, Cypress Semiconductor: Since the USB Implementers Forum has not frozen the USB Type-C specification yet, the spec is still evolving. Changes are coming and we want to make sure our customers are not subject to long wait times. Cypress’ advantage here is in the programmability of our solution. Customers will not need to wait very long or need to get a brand new chip altogether. If, for example, the customer is using a fixed function solution or simple analog front end instead of a programmable solution, it becomes imperative that they spin new silicon each time there is an update.
During a recent USB interoperability event, the compliance suite was changing the night before the testing was going to take place. We were able to flash firmware onto our products and upgrade our customer solutions, get our product certified and get our customer certified as well. Had the programmability not been there, they would have failed certification and would have had a longer cycle to achieve compliance.
Fong, Synopsys: We make additional enhancements to our Type-C IP in such a way that how engineers use our IP—ad the overall design paradigm—can be implemented in a way that engineers are already accustomed to for non Type-C USB designs. Helping designers very easily adopt new IP for Type-C and to do it effectively and efficiently is our goal.
And that’s why, for example, we have an IP Prototyping Kit for USB 3.1 that will enable designers to prototype their Type-C system and verify it is working properly before they ramp up volume production. Making the designer’s job easier in turn results in lower cost, less risk, higher quality and better time to market.
Subramaniam, Cypress: The USB Type-C specification is truly one connector to rule them all, which speaks directly to the original intent of the USB standard. It brings the ability to serve multiple power profiles from 7.5W to 100W in a small, reversible connector. At first glance, who could possibly think that Type-C could utilize multiple protocols like DisplayPort, HDMI and Thunderbolt? Handling all these different protocols, requirements and signal integrity across one small cable and connector is the biggest challenge designers are currently struggling with. Making this ecosystem work requires domain experts in all the areas of data, power and video.
EECatalog: What else should we be aware of and watching for on the USB Type-C front?
Fong, Synopsys: Traditional chip design before IP ever came about meant, for example, that designing a USB interface for a hard disk drive involved dealing with the specific configurations needed to do that. Now, as an IP provider, we need to know how to design [a USB interface] for a hard disk drive, a smartphone, a laptop, a digital TV, a WiFi dongle—there is a whole host of more system-level experience that we, as an IP provider, must have. Our experience and investment in supporting USB customers for more than 15 years gives us a deep and broad reservoir of knowledge.
Srikrishna, Cypress: Speaking from an end user perspective, things could be greatly simplified if manufacturers had the same solution in both the devices you are trying to connect, as well as the cable, adapter and dongle you are using to do so. What we are seeing is the market wanting USB Type-C to quickly replace many different parts of the communication ecosystem. Even though the adoption of Type-C is happening quickly, there will still be a period of overlap where older devices co-exist with Type-C. Adapters and dongles are the key pieces that interface between the new and the legacy standards, making the transition easier for consumers.
Anne Fisher is managing editor of EECatalog.com. Her experience has included opportunities to cover a wide range of embedded solutions in the PICMG ecosystem as well as other technologies. Anne enjoys bringing embedded designers and developers solutions to technology challenges as described by their peers as well as insight and analysis from industry leaders. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org