You can't do all this with an iPhone
We know USB-C mostly for no longer needing to think about which way to stick a USB plug when inserting a charging or data cable. That's convenient, especially in an era when trying to figure out which side is up on a microUSB plug is a challenge.
But USB-C does more than charge or transfer data. It is the all-encompassing port on which we have been waiting. It handles:
- Memory card read/write
- Ethernet cable networking
- External peripherals like keyboards, mice, and portable hard drives
- Sound output (sound input? I dunno)
- And it is fast at data transfer
Now, be sure that the capabilities of a port depend on the device, and so I tested it with my new Asus Android phone and new Acer Chromebook, both equipped with USB-C ports.
On the Phone
I had heard that USB-C headphones could sound better than ones plugged into a 3.5mm socket. (Don't get me started on wireless Bluetooth headphones: this protocol requires music to be compressed to an even greater extent that the damage MP3 already does.) I bought a couple USB-C headphones cheap off eBay and was instantly disappointed. The sound was very distorted. Here's why:
When you plug headphones into the 3.5mm socket, the D/A circuit inside the phone converts the digital music file into analog sound. The quality of the sound depends on the quality of the D/A circuit, which can be hardware and/or software.
When you plug headphones into a USB-C port, the digital music file bypasses the phone's D/A circuit and goes directly to the port. This can be good, because now it up to the headphones to convert the digital into analog. The circuitry is cramped inside the headphone's USB-C plug and with cheap headphones the result is terrible. Perhaps one day I'll be able to try a quality set of USB-C headphones.
I tried out an external SSD drive (by SanDisk) with the phone's USB-C port and it worked just fine: the phone immediately recognized the drive, and allowed me to access files from among the 1TB of data -- no problem. This drive is about half the size of the phone, and transfers data at 3GB/minute (when connected to a PC).
I had read that newer Android and Chromebook devices could connect to ethernet cables, and decided to try it out by buying a multi-port USB-C adapter. The one I picked out from amazon is made by Vilcome (CAD$39) and is made of solid-feeling aluminum.
The hub from Vicome connects to a USB-C port and offers eight ports:
- ethernet cable
- SD card
- microSD card, which it labels TF
- three USB v3 ports, the rectangular kind, which can be used for USB drives, keyboard, mouse, printer, and so on
- HDMI port for an external monitor
- PD port, for which I needed to read the manual: this is an input power port, in case the hub takes up the only USB-C port on the device. My Chromebook has two USB-C ports, so that's not an issue, but it would be with my Android phone with its single USB-C port.
(Note that the phone or computer provides the power needed by the hub, again over the USB-C connection.)
I plugged the hub to the phone, and the phone instantly recognized that there was an ethernet adapter buried inside the hub.
Hooking up an ethernet cable to a phone lets you bypass potentially insecure WiFi and mobile data connections. I turned off WiFi and cell data, and could access the Internet with the ethernet alone -- the cable, of course, being connected to my office network.
I plugged a full-size keyboard into the hub, and my Asus phone immediately recognized it. I could type into a word processor. Next I added a wired generic mouse, and the phone recognized it too. An arrow cursor let me move around the screen.
I plugged the SanDisk drive into the hub, as well as an SD card. The phone recognized the extra drives.
What did not work with the phone was the USB-connected printer. Lastly, I plugged in an external monitor to the hub's HDMI port, but the Android phone does not handle external monitors. Too bad, as it could become a portable computer while on the road (borrowing a keyboard, mouse, and monitor).
With the Chromebook
All the same things worked with the Chromebook, even though it has its own keyboard and trackpad.
In addition, the printer worked, although in this case it was not recognized immediately. I suppose ChromeOS had to download the driver for my aging HP 1320 laser printer, and so it took about a minute to be recognized by the Chromebook.
When I connected the hub between the Chromebook and the external monitor, the Chromebook immediately recognized the external screen, and now I can use a two-monitor Chromebook, in either mirrored or extended mode; see figure below.Update
This week I also tried the adapter on my ASUS 10" Android tablet, wondering if that could work as a portable workstation when I don't want to haul a heavier laptop around.
It works. And it doesn't. Here's why:
It works, in that the USB-C dongle and its inserted peripherals are recognized by the tablet -- ethernet, keyboard, mouse, etc.
It doesn't work, in that the dongle, corded keyboard, and corded mouse are bulky, and so it is more efficient to just take a laptop that has the keyboard and mouse built-in.
So I tried an uncorded keyboard and mouse, but the cordless devices were not recognized by Android. I suspect this is due to a lack of support for the 2.4GHz dongle that the peripherals depend upon.
Which brings me down to a Bluetooth mini-keyboard with integrated touchpad. It worked. No USB-C dongle needed, and the keyboard is just one-inch longer than the tablet.