7.18.2017

USB-C Isn’t Ready for Prime Time

The dream of “one connector to rule them all” can be a nightmare


USB-C (also know as USB Type-C), is a connector “tailored to fit mobile device product designs, yet robust enough for laptops and tablets,” according to the USB Implementers Forum (no relation to the FML Working Group). “USB Type-C is not USB 3.1 [or] USB Power Delivery… If a product features USB Type-C, it does not necessarily support USB Power Delivery and/or USB 3.1 .” So basically, not all USB-C cables support fast charging or high rates of data transfer.

At its heart, the goal of USB Type-C is simple: to have one standardized connector for all devices, peripherals, and portable media. The steps taken to achieve this goal have been half-hearted and ham-handed. In one of the few viral posts of Google+, Google engineer Benson Leung warned early adopters of the “amazing little connector,” using his own time and money to “take [third party vendors] to task for “blatantly flout[ing] the standard.”

The danger of faulty USB-Type C cables isn’t exclusive to third party vendors, unfortunately. Even Apple has had to recall chargers for its USB-C MacBook. Because USB-C is so much more advanced than the Micro USB (for non-Apple smartphones) and barrel connectors (once found on all non-Apple laptops), there is much more room for error. The potential of this new standard its Achilles’ heel. 

Apple MagSafe (credit: Cult of Mac)

Speaking of non-Apple laptops, Microsoft’s Surface Laptop came out a few months ago and has has been criticized by many reviewers (myself included) for retaining Redmond’s proprietary Surface Connector. What these criticisms failed to realize was the opportunity cost of going USB-C only. The tail is long for adoption of the standard, with a majority of things you plug into your laptop sticking with the older yet still ubiquitous USB-A. 

In an interview with The Verge, Microsoft general manager of Surface engineering Pete Kyriacou stated “USB-C is great but also a huge pain for a lot of people” and even went as far as to claim the Surface “brand is at stake” if a USB-C power delivery adapter fails to charge the device. Much like the MagSafe connector, used by Apple from 2006-2015 (RIP), the Surface Connector adds the benefit of piece-of-mind from accidental yanks at the power cord. It also boasts backwards compatibility with older Surface products starting with the Pro 3.

Microsoft Surface Connector (credit: Windows Central)

Moreover, battery life on laptops is improving with each passing year, thanks to Intel's focus in recent years on efficiency rather than raw computing power in its iterations of the Core series of processors. Therefore, there is less benefit to a universal plug since all but the thinnest and power hungry laptops have all-day batteries.

Benson Leung warns cost-sensitive shoppers, looking for cheap cord on Amazon that “what some these [sic] vendors are doing is downright dangerous.” The Google engineer also posted a USB-C FAQ in which he explains that faulty USB-C to USB-A cables can “lie to the phone by telling the phone it's attached to a pure 3A charging path [and] may damage the weaker device you have the Type-A end of the cable plugged into.” This “weaker device” could be a laptop USB port incapable of fast charging or an older wall adapter not rated for the new standard. 

The standard has nearly limitless potential, offering 40Gbps transfer rates when combined with Thunderbolt 3. That being said, USB-C is a minefield that, to many, does more harm than good. In his viral post, Leung predicted that “USB Type-C will only be as good as its ecosystem, and more specifically, the worst of its ecosystem.” Buyers beware.