USB-C's Confusing Cable Standards Explained

Image: Gizmodo

USB-C is a hot mess of confusion that can leave even the savviest tech geek scratching their head. Some cables are good for charging laptops while others will only work with phones. What's going on? Here are all the facts in one place.

Getting one connector that could solve all of our data and power connectivity challenges has been like the perilous trip to Mordor in The Lord Of The Rings. There have been missteps and diversions but finally we arrived at the destination and have one connector to rule them all: USB-C.

But having made it to the one connector, the adventure hasn't quite ended. Here's our USB-C navigator to help you find your way through the storm.

What Is USB-C?

USB-C is a connector. That's it. Unlike USB-A, USB-B, micro-USB and mini-USB it doesn't have a right-way-up as the connector is reversible.

Where the confusion comes is that the USB-C connector can be used for a bunch of different things - which has an impact on the cables and devices that are used.

Where Does Thunderbolt Fit In?

The default protocol for USB-C, which is currently USB 3.1, moves data around 10Gbps. Thunderbolt 3 boosts that to 40Gbps and allows the port to handle up to 100W of power. That's why a single USB-C port can keep a laptop charged, connect it to an external display and keep the data moving to an external hard drive.

Report: Apple Is Ditching The Lightning Port For USB-C

Apple is set to unveil its new iOS products this Thursday - and there could be a very welcome surprise in store. According to a new memo from supply chain analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, Apple's Lightning port will be replaced by universal USB-C. In other words, no more expensive proprietary cables. This could be a very big deal.

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USB-C Uses

Some cable makers have cut corners and say their cables can only be used to charge mobile devices, whereas other cables can be used to charge laptops. But the beauty of USB-C is that, with the right cable and connectors, it can be used to transmit data, video and power over a single cable.

I needed a USB-C charging cable for my MacBook Pro and went to a local tech store. Interestingly, the seller offered me a $10 cable but when I said it was for a computer, and not a smartphone, he suggested a slightly dearer cable ($14).

And looking at prices through larger retailers, you can pay almost anything you like up to about $50.

I use a Satechi USB-C adaptor with my MacBook Pro. Through one of the four USB-C ports, I've connected an external display, a scanner, an external hard drive and charger. That's everything an old-school laptop used to do through a proprietary connector and clunky docking station.

That ability to do everything means that for the foreseeable future USB-C connectors will be the most common connector on our laptops and smartphones. And desktop displays will increasingly adopt it as well, following the short-lived availability of DisplayPort.

Buying USB-C Accessories

As I've walked through a number of electronics retailers, large and small, I've looked at USB-C accessories, trying to tell the difference between "good" gear and stuff I'd stay away from.

For starters, I'd favour products that specifically say they support USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3. Anything lacking that support is probably not worth bothering with. And beware cables that only say they are "charge cables" - they may not support data transfers at all.

I'd avoid anything that wasn't from a brand I don't recognise. If you're not sure - the Internet is your friend. Search for the brand and look at reviews to make a judgement on whether you trust the cable maker.

Look at the cables and make a call on whether they look well-made. In particular, look at the join between the connector and cable to ensure it won't break off or leave exposed wires if it's bent a few times.

With cables that go from USB-C to USB-A, there was a big fracas back in early 2016 with poorly made cables that fried a bunch of devices. Thankfully, that seems to be behind us but I'd still be wary about buying cheap, no-name cables.

The Future

USB-C looks like it will become the standard connector for almost all new devices. And that means crappy cables should disappear from the market as only well-made gear stays around. Retailers won't want to get in any trouble so they'll be careful with what they stock. But you should still do your homework and pay attention to what standards the cable supports.


Comments

    Better than the last one, Anthony :) Just wanted to note that Thunderbolt 3 is complicated as well with the concept of passive and active cables. A passive cable can't do 40Gbps at more than 0.5m length and drops down to 20 or 10 depending on length. Active cables are quite a bit more expensive and have messy support for USB protocols over 2.0.

    Is it just the cables that have different specs? Or do the ports on devices differ as well? I have a computer with three different types of USB-A ports: black for USB 2.1, blue for USB 3.1, yellow for something else. Are all USB-C ports on all devices Thunderbolt?

      I think it's more what a device will support more than the port itself. E.g. The Google Pixels don't support video out over USB-C. But I'm assuming that was intentional as they're pushing people to use casting instead.

      Regarding the power delivery issues of the past, as long as the cable you want is USB-IF approved it's fine. Which, as mentioned, most well known brands are.

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