This is an article about a small thing. But it’s a pretty neat small thing. And you can find it on some of Kono Store’s upcoming keyboards.
Here comes dual USB Type-C.
Wheee, USB Type-C
There’s been a recent shift in removable keyboard cables from microUSB to USB Type-C. Aside from some of the obvious benefits, like better physical durability and a symmetrical plug, USB Type-C offers better bandwidth and loads of flexibility. Using Alt Modes, you can use the USB Type-C pipeline to deliver DisplayPort, Thunderbolt 3, and more. One of the features I find most interesting, though, is Power Delivery (PD).
Simply put, if your USB Type-C ports support PD, one device can power another. For example, a portable USB Type-C monitor can be powered by the laptop you connect it to, giving you a one-cable way to have two displays. You could reverse that and power your laptop by connecting it to a USB Type-C monitor that’s plugged into an outlet. And so on.
What’s more, you can send data along with the power, all over one cable.
It’s really, really, really important to understand that USB Type-C is simply a connector and a cable–a pipeline, if you will. What is able to run through that pipeline is what makes USB Type-C such a big deal. It can USB 2.0, USB 3.1, DisplayPort, Thunderbolt 3, power, and so on.
Anyway. If one USB Type-C port is good, it follows that two is better. Because then you can get creative. That’s what Input Club is doing with the upcoming RE:Type, which was on display at the NorCal Meetup 2018 in prototype form.
There are two benefits to dual USB Type-C on a keyboard. One is simply about cable management; you have two options for where to plug in your keyboard cable. Nice. But there’s a lot more you can do when you can pass data and power through either port. It means the keyboard is no longer necessarily a “peripheral” in the sense that it’s not necessarily at the end of the power/data pipe. Here are some examples:
Outlet→ PC → Keyboard
Outlet→ Keyboard→ PC
Outlet→ PC→ Keyboard→ Mouse
Outlet→ PC→ Keyboard→ Phone
Outlet→ PC→ Keyboard→ External Monitor
Outlet→ PC→ Keyboard→ External Storage
There are some caveats to the above. First and foremost, there’s a serious data limitation on these ports; they’re only USB 2.0 High Speed, so they’re limited to 480 Mbps. That’s a far cry from USB 3.1’s 5Gbps (Gen1) or 10Gbps (Gen2), so you wouldn’t want to, for example, use connected external storage to transfer large data files. That also means that only external monitors that support USB 2.0 can play here.
Using an additional port on a keyboard as a passthrough or hub for charging a phone or even passing data is nothing new. And with the RE:Type, Input Club chose to play things a little conversative by sticking with USB 2.0 instead of employing USB 3.1 and other Alt Modes.
(That was strategic, though. A Kono Store rep confirmed through Input Club that the idea there is all about future proofing. They expect a raft of USB Type-C adoption on devices like mice. Thus, they wanted the future-looking USB Type-C port but didn’t need anything more than USB 2.0 to serve a mouse.) But they did see fit to include PD, which is largely what unlocks the above device flows.
The one configuration listed above that was previously not possible is Outlet→ Keyboard→ PC, where the keyboard itself is the device that’s plugged into the wall. That changes the paradigm on your desktop in terms of cables and how things flow, and it raises the question of what you might be able to configure with three or even four USB Type-C ports on the keyboard.
Type-C Isn’t Type-C Isn’t Type-C
You may have gathered this from the above, but one of the frustrating bits about USB Type-C is that the port itself tells you little about what a given device can do with it. That issue is already present in the Kono Store family: Although the new Hexgears Gemini Dusk and Gemini Dawn keyboards also have dual USB Type-C ports, they don’t have the same capabilities as the dual USB Type-C ports on the RE:Type. Per a Kono Store rep, “They’re not a hub or USB Power Delivery system. They just provide alternative cable locations.”
So it goes. It’s still handy to have some cabling options, but note well what you can and can’t do with the Gemini Dusk or Dawn, the RE:Type, and any other dual USB Type-C ported keyboards you encounter.