USB-C is a complete disaster, and it doesn’t appear that it will be addressed anytime soon.
Even still, it’s a vast improvement over the old jumble of USB connectors. You simply take a cable and two gadgets, put one end into the other without having to turn the plug around, and you’re done. Except you’re not, because those devices could not be compatible. Perhaps one of them is Thunderbolt rather than USB-C. Alternatively, it’s possible that the cable can only transport electricity and not high-speed data.
“The biggest advantage of USB-C is the faster power, data, audio-video delivery, and more all over one cable. The flexibility and universal use of USB-C makes it currently one of the best connection types,” pro audio-visual product manager Christian Young told Lifewire via email. “[But] the ease in identifying which cord connects to which device can be confusing as every USB-C device looks the same.”
What’s the Problem?
USB-C is a new type of USB connector that will eventually replace all existing USB connectors. Because of its symmetrical form, you can plug it in any way instead of getting it incorrect the first time. Instead of having a computer end and a peripheral end, both ends use the same plug.
It also has a lot more power than ordinary USB—the spec is roughly 100 Watts, with more coming in future revisions—and the data transfer is quick enough to connect 4K monitors or high-speed SSDs. It’s quite wonderful when viewed from this perspective.
The issue arises when you try to use it. Power, USB-C 3.1, USB-C 3.1 gen.2, and Thunderbolt all share the same USB-C connector. Each one necessitates a cable that is speedier and more capable than the previous.
If you use a slower USB-C 3.1 cable to connect a Thunderbolt dock or display, for example, you’ll either get nothing or a distorted visual signal. Apple’s USB-C cables, for example, are primarily used to provide power to its iPads. You’ll get some data through them, but not enough to connect an SSD, for example.
Even the simple power aspect is perplexing.
“In comparison to prior versions of USB, the USB-C standard allows devices to charge at a significantly higher wattage, facilitating fast charging capability,” electrical engineer Rob Mills told Lifewire via email. “However, you’ll need the correct charger, cords, and device to enjoy this benefit. If you buy a USB-C charger that does not support Power Delivery and try to charge your laptop with it, the laptop will not charge.”
What is the solution?
Although USB-C is a fantastic, adaptable, and durable connector, it has received relatively little attention in terms of knowledge and promotion. At the very least, with USB A (the large rectangular plug that you usually plug in incorrectly the first time), you know that it will function if you can plug it in. At the other end of the wire, there’s also the confusion of micro, mini, USB-B, and other connectors.
There’s no way to know whether USB-C cable is the proper one for the job with USB-C, and the problem only becomes worse as we accumulate more cords through successive purchases.
I’ve started labelling Thunderbolt and USB-C 3.1 gen.2 cables as soon as they come out of the box, but I started too late and now have a lot of mystery cords that may or may not be up to the task at hand.
Is it possible to simply go back to having distinct cords for different devices as a solution? Most likely not.
“This can be addressed through cable management or by color-coding the cables for specific devices. However, these drawbacks are minimal and do not outweigh the advantages of USB-C,” says Young.
The USB-IF (Implementers Forum) has just released a new set of labels to aid in the process. These show a cable’s data and charge rates, which are good as long as the cable is kept in its box. Perhaps we just need something along the lines of those classic mauve and peppermint-colored mouse and keyboard plugs? Young’s suggestion of color-coding the plugs would result in ugly cables, but it would be far more practical.
Another possibility is to require all cords to be capable of maximum power and data transfer, but these cables would be more expensive, useless (often all you need is a simple cable), and impossible to enforce on Amazon, where generic no-name cables abound.
Perhaps it’s time for us, the users, to come up with our own color-coding scheme and name those cords.