Debugger

A mix of hidden standards make the ubiquitous cable a pain to deal with

Owen Williams

Close-up image of a USB-C cord on a colored background.

Close-up image of a USB-C cord on a colored background.

Photo: Cosminxp Cosmin/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Techies hailed USB-C as the future of cables when it hit the mainstream market with Apple’s single-port MacBook in 2015. It was a huge improvement over the previous generation of USB, allowing for many different types of functionality — charging, connecting to an external display, etc. — in one simple cord, all without having a “right side up” like its predecessor.

Five years later, USB-C is near-ubiquitous: Almost every modern laptop and smartphone has at least one USB-C port, with the exception of the iPhone, which still uses Apple’s proprietary Lightning port. For all its improvements, USB-C has become a mess of tangled standards — a nightmare for consumers to navigate despite the initial promise of simplicity.

Anyone going all-in on USB-C will run into problems with an optional standard called Power Delivery. The standard allows devices to charge at a much higher wattage relative to older connectors, therefore allowing them to charge faster. But it requires the right combination of charger, cables, and device to actually achieve this.

If you buy a USB-C charger that doesn’t support Power Delivery and try to use it with a Microsoft Surface, for example, the laptop will complain that it’s “not charging” despite receiving some power. Fixing this requires figuring out whether or not it’s the cable or wall charger that doesn’t support Power Delivery, and replacing it with something that does support it. There would be no way for a layperson to hold two USB-C chargers and know the difference between one that supports Power Delivery and one that doesn’t.

How any normal person is supposed to grasp this soup of standards, built atop a single port that looks the same, is anyone’s guess.

Furthering the confusion, some devices actually can’t be charged with chargers supporting Power Delivery, despite sporting a USB-C port — because they weren’t designed to negotiate the higher wattage being delivered by the Power Delivery standard. A pair of cheap Anker headphones I own, for example, refuse to charge when plugged into a MacBook charger. Other devices, like the Nintendo Switch, only partially support the standard, and some unsupported chargers have bricked devices, reportedly due to the Switch’s maximum voltage being exceeded.

Then there’s DisplayPort and Thunderbolt, another set of standards supported by some USB-C devices. DisplayPort allows the use of an external display, such as a 4K monitor, but only supports one at a time at full resolution.

Thunderbolt, yet another optional standard, is a much faster layer on top of USB-C that allows additional possibilities, like the use of multiple displays daisy-chained from a single port, or the use of an external graphics card. It uses the exact same connector, but can be identified with an additional “lightning” symbol when supported.

While DisplayPort is relatively universal on devices with USB-C ports, Thunderbolt support is a patchwork and requires both devices being plugged in to support it. Apple’s modern MacBooks support Thunderbolt, for example, but Microsoft’s new Surface Book 3 doesn’t. Monitors with Thunderbolt support also tend to be more expensive than those without, because they’re able to support more devices and additional monitors without slowing down.

If that sounds good, and you’re excited about Thunderbolt like I was recently, there’s another catch: Individual Thunderbolt ports are not equal. The standard allows for 40Gbps of throughput on the port, but some device makers only implement it partially, with 20Gbps of throughput, which limits how you’re able to use it.

Despite working in the tech industry and having a deep interest in gadgets, I tripped over this recently when trying to buy a new monitor: I wanted to be able to chain two of them off a single port and discovered that I’d not only need to buy a specific screen to achieve this (which was more expensive), but this would only work with my work MacBook Pro, and not my brand-new Surface Book 3.

How any normal person is supposed to grasp this soup of standards, built atop a single port that looks the same, is anyone’s guess. Having a single, universal port on the majority of my devices is a godsend, but it feels like spinning the wheel every time I plug something in: Will it behave the way I expect? If it’s this difficult for me, I’m not sure how the average person will know how to figure out what’s wrong.

There is some hope in the future with USB 4, which the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) announced in 2019. The new standard uses the same USB-C connector, and is actually built on top of Thunderbolt, which will help resolve a large amount of confusion and offer fast speeds universally. But, like with previous versions of USB, getting devices certified will remain optional, and there’s no clear plan for how consumers will be able to identify cables or devices that support the new standard, all of which will need to be replaced to actually use it.

I’m thankful that USB-C is becoming universal, slowly pushing us toward a future where we have a single standardized connector for everything. But it’s more confusing than ever to perform the simple act of plugging things in. When it first arrived on the scene, USB-C was pitched as a utopia: One cable to rule them all, but now that we’re living in that future, figuring out which cable is the right one when they all look the same is an unresolved nightmare.

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