Juha Saarinen: The USB charging cable kerfuffle

OPINION:

The European Union floating a new law that would standardise smartphone charging to be done over the latest Universal Serial Bus Type C connectors seems to have given a number of industry observers and tech companies rage-nosebleeds, but why?

Surely it wasn’t that long ago when phones and other devices invariably came with a proprietary charger that usually didn’t fit anything from another vendor? Other times you would rejoice in finding one of the round plug adaptors, which might fit the hole in the device but then would have the wrong polarity, incorrect voltage or not deliver sufficient current.

I’ve cooked a bunch of devices in my time by accidentally plugging them into the wrong power supply, and from that point of view it was great to get the early USB connectors that stopped all that. The Chinese were the first to mandate USB for mobile phones in 2007, which meant you could reuse them, which probably did less to reduce e-waste than imagined because you still got a new wall-wart with each new device.

Even so, few people like the first generation USB 1.1, 2.0 and 3.0 connectors of which there were no fewer than nine types, if I count them right, all of which had to be plugged in the right way round. Also, microUSB in particular with its feeble power delivery and easy to break port was something we could’ve done without.

In comparison, USB-C connectors fix almost all that was wrong with the past tech. They can be plugged in either way, and the tech can be used for very fast data transfer between devices, connecting network adaptors, monitors, audio gear, extension docks, charging other devices, you name it.

The maximum charging is a meaty 20 Volts and 5 amps, around 100 Watt in total for USB-C. What’s there not to like? Well, Apple thinks mandating USB-C on smartphones will stifle innovation but how that equates to hanging on to ye olde Lightning connectors being a good thing is hard to understand.

Apple’s Lightning port and connector popped up in 2012, and while they were an improvement on the prior iPhone and iPad connector with its small size and limited data transfer capabilities, they’re not anywhere near as useful as USB-C equivalents. Lightning connectors are Apple-only as well.

How much power delivery Lightning supports is buried in Apple specifications documents somewhere. However, if you want to fast-charge an iPhone, you’ll need at least a 20 Watt charger. It is in fact possible to use up to a 96 Watt charger, but how much output that results in is not clear. Oh, and fast charging of iPhones only works with a Lightning-to-USB-C cable.

Apple has gone USB-C for iPads and Macs, without users getting upset. The “wireless” charging on iPhones involves using the Qi industry standard, and it really isn’t clear why moving to USB-C for smartphones is problematic for Apple. There’s some validity in the argument that existing Lightning gear will become obsolete if USB-C is mandated. Given how long Apple users hang onto their premium devices, it’s not particularly convincing as the Lightning port will live on for a long while still.

Not that USB-C is perfect tech. Given that people could be putting up to 100 Watt of power through them, the cables need to be well-designed and made or damaged devices could be the result.

If you want to do more than charge devices, you need to figure out which USB-C cable to use. A USB-C cable with version 2.0 data speeds can be up to four metres long, but it won’t support faster data speeds than 480 megabit/s. Newer USB standards are much faster, and feature the Thunderbolt high-speed device interconnection tech, can drive 8K monitors and more, but may need to be active with extra power and control electronics, or they’ll be very short.

It’s a hidden complexity that you can’t really spot by looking at a cable. So much so that a Google engineer, Benson Leung, became something of an authority and superstar in the field by testing cables, and working through the inordinately complex USB specifications to explain to mere mortals what they actually mean.

Leung learnt the hard way what happens when you use the wrong USB-C cable, killing a Google Chromebook Pixel in the process. If you’re not sure about a USB-C cable and want to be safe rather than sorry, make sure it’s Benson Leung approved.

So yes, USB-C is a bit messy, but generally speaking, still a massive improvement on the really awful cabling not so long ago. With its high power delivery ability, versatility and fast data speeds, and symmetric connector, yeay! It’d take some serious innovation to beat USB-C.

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