USB C vs. USB 3: An In-Depth Comparison Guide

Welcome reader! If you‘ve shopped for a new laptop, phone or accessory lately, you may have come across both USB C and USB 3 ports. But what exactly is the difference between these two common connector standards?

That‘s what this guide aims to uncover. By the end, you‘ll understand everything important about USB C and USB 3:

  • Brief history and technical background
  • Key differences in design, compatibility, speed and power delivery
  • Where each standard excels based on use cases
  • Recommendations for choosing the right cable

Let‘s get started!

Overview: USB C vs. USB 3

First, a quick refresher. USB C and USB 3 represent different things:

  • USB C refers to the 24-pin reversible oval connector shape itself
  • USB 3 defines the underlying data transfer speed supported by a cable

So comparing them directly feels a bit like apples to oranges. But with both USB C and USB 3 frequently appearing together out there in the wild, understanding how they differ proves important.

USB C Cable Next to USB 3 Cable

In a nutshell:

  • USB C debuted in 2014 sporting a slim, user-friendly reversible design
  • USB 3 first launched in 2008 focused solely on faster data speeds
  • USB C delivers significant advancements in charging capacity and video output as well
  • But USB 3 retains wider backwards compatibility with older devices

Later sections explore precisely how these two USB standards stack up across various usage factors. First up though, a quick history lesson!

Background and History

The origins of USB C and USB 3 stem from industry working groups seeking to improve upon previous USB generations:


In 2014, the USB Implementers Forum released the USB Type-C Specification 1.0 introducing the brand new USB C connector.

Goals included:

  • Reversible design
  • Higher data throughput
  • More power delivery
  • Greater display capabilities
  • Cross-platform compatibility

The slim oval USB C connector realized these ambitions with support for up to 100 watt charging, 10 Gbps data speeds and high-res display output.


The USB 3 standard emerged back in 2008 thanks to the USB 3.0 Promoter Group.

Primary objectives were to:

  • Boost transfer rates significantly beyond USB 2.0
  • Maintain backwards compatibility
  • Increase maximum bus power

The first USB 3.0 specification (SuperSpeed USB) achieved 5 Gbps throughput – a 10x gain over USB 2.0. Further iterations have added faster 10 Gbps and 20 Gbps transfer modes.

With those brief histories noted, let‘s move on to directly comparing these two popular USB standards across several key factors.

Side-By-Side Spec Comparison

This table summarizes the core technical capabilities supported by USB C vs USB 3:

SpecificationsUSB CUSB 3
Release Year2014USB 3.0 (2008)
USB 3.1 (2013)
USB 3.2 (2017)
Transfer Speed40 Gbps (w/ Thunderbolt 3)USB 3.0 – 5 Gbps
USB 3.1 – 10 Gbps
USB 3.2 – 20 Gbps
Power OutputUp to 100 wattsUp to 4.5 watts
Video OutputUp to 8K display supportUp to 4K display support
Connector StyleSlim, oval reversible connectorRectangular connector
Backward CompatibilityWith older USB Type-C ports/cablesWith USB 2.0 and below

Already the table illustrates a few core differences. USB C generally outperforms USB 3 for power delivery and display driving. But USB 3 enjoys wider backwards compatibility with older USB connectors.

Let‘s explore some key areas of differentiation in more detail.

Power Delivery Capabilities

One major leap USB C enables over earlier USB generations is charging capacity.

With support for up to 100 watts, USB C powers far more robust power delivery than USB 3‘s typical 4.5 watt ceiling.

What does this mean in practical terms?

  • USB C can charge high-wattage devices like 15-inch laptops, tablets and even monitors.
  • USB 3 best handles lower-powered accessories like mice, keyboards and flash drives.

For example, here‘s a chart contrasting charging support across cable standards:

USB Power Delivery Comparison Chart

As you see, USB C empowers charging the latest phones and laptops at their maximum rate. For power users, that amped up wattage matters.

Data Transfer Speeds

The original USB 3.0 specification (SuperSpeed USB) delivered a welcome 10x bump over the prior 480 Mbps peak speed of USB 2.0.

Here‘s how theoretical maximum data rates have progressed:

StandardTransfer Speed
USB 2.0480 Mbps
USB 3.05 Gbps
USB 3.110 Gbps
USB 3.220 Gbps
USB C (w/ Thunderbolt 3)40 Gbps

So in data throughput terms, USB C again wins out by enabling blistering 40 Gbps connections when paired with Thunderbolt 3.

However, real-world speeds often sit below those lofty maximums. Factors impacting actual transfer rates include:

  • Drive read/write limitations
  • File sizes
  • Interface hardware
  • Computer processing power

As an example, external SSD‘s commonly max out around 500 MB/s read/write rather than hitting 40 Gbps.

In other words, for most users USB 3.2‘s 20 Gbps speed still proves PLENTY fast enough for transferring photos, videos, backups and more.

But media creators moving large files will benefit from USB C and Thunderbolt 3‘s future-proofed ceiling.

Display Support

Both USB C and USB 3 transmit video signals enabling monitor and television connections.

However when driving external displays – especially higher resolution ones – USB C again outperforms USB 3.

  • USB C easily powers high-end 5K and 8K monitors.
  • USB 3 normally tops out at 4K screen output.

Why does this discrepancy exist? The 60 watt power delivery advantage USB C holds over USB 3.

Driving more pixels requires additional throughput and electricity. So while USB 3 suffices for basic screen mirroring, graphic designers and gamers are better off with USB C cables and ports.

Backwards Compatibility

If you want to use that brand new USB C cable with an older computer, tablet or accessory, you‘re likely out of luck.

The slim oval USB C connector ONLY fits USB C ports. While adapters exist, compatibility represents a hurdle.

USB 3 offers much more flexibility for integrating with existing electronics. Those familiar, rectangular USB-A ports retain ubiquity across devices old and new.

Here‘s a quick compatibility breakdown across common USB connectors:

USB Cable Compatibility Chart

So if you need to connect a new gadget to aging equipment, USB 3 probably outranks USB C for flexibility.

Bottom Line: USB 3 vs USB C

When comparing USB 3 against USB C, is one clearly better overall?

In a nutshell:

  • USB C delivers advancements in charging capacity plus future-proofing.
  • USB 3 provides proven performance and compatibility.

For tech enthusiasts and power users, USB C marks the way forward as more manufacturers adopt its capabilities.

Yet billions of USB 3 ports and peripherals already exist worldwide. This massive footprint guarantees USB 3 remains relevant for years to come powering keyboards, controllers, flash drives and printers galore!

Now let’s condense everything into simple USB 3 vs USB C recommendations.

Recommendations: When to Choose USB C or USB 3

With an understanding of their key strengths, you can make informed USB choices.

Best Uses for USB C

Given its advantages, prioritize USB C for:

  • Charging/powering phones, tablets and newer laptops
  • Connecting to high resolution external displays
  • Future-proof data connections
  • Syncing photos or video from media equipment

Best Uses for USB 3

USB 3 works well to:

  • Connect mice, keyboards and basic accessories
  • Print documents from laptops
  • Plug in flash drives or portable hard drives
  • Sync data on older PCs and equipment

As you shop for your next computer, monitor upgrade or mobile accessory, opt for USB C if available to maximize capabilities now and down the road.

But don‘t sweat using USB 3 gear with older electronics. USB 3 retains plenty of utility while being compatible across countless existing USB A ports.

I hope this guide gave you a helpful understanding of how USB C improvements compare against the USB 3 protocol. Please reach out with any other questions!

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