USB-C May Suck, but It’s Still Better Than Anything Else

It's the best plug we’ve ever had, and also the worst

Key Takeaways

  • USB-C plugs are secure, sturdy, small, and easy to plug in on the first try.
  • USB-C cables are not interchangeable—Thunderbolt, Power Delivery, and others all have different specs.
  • Labeling or color-coding might be the answer.
Image of a girl inserting a USB-C cable in a smartphone

JGI/Jamie Grill\Getty Images

USB-C is an utter mess, and it doesn’t look like it’s getting fixed anytime soon.

Still, it's so much better than the old mishmash of USB connectors. You grab a cable and two devices, plug either end into either device, without having to get the plug the right way up, and you’re done. Except you’re not, because maybe those devices don’t work together. Maybe one of them is not USB-C, but Thunderbolt. Or perhaps the cable itself can only transfer power, 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 connector designed to replace all previous USB connectors. Its symmetrical shape lets you plug it in either way, instead of always getting it wrong on the first try. And the same plug is used on both ends, instead of having a computer end and a peripheral end. 

It also carries way more power than regular USB—the spec is up to around 100 Watts, with more to come with future revisions, and the data transfer is fast enough to connect 4K monitors or high-speed SSDs. Looking at it from this angle, it really is amazing. 

Closeup of a USB-C cable.

Mishaal Zahed / Unsplash

The problem comes when you actually use it. The same USB-C connector is used for power, USB-C 3.1, USB-C 3.1 gen.2, and Thunderbolt. Each one requires a faster, more capable cable than the last. 

If you hook up a Thunderbolt dock or display with a slower USB-C 3.1 cable, for example, then you'll either get nothing or a degraded video signal. The USB-C cables that Apple ships with its iPads, for example, are mainly for power. You'll get a bit of data through them, but not enough to, say, hook up and SSD. 

And even the basic power part is confusing.

"The USB-C standard allows devices to charge at a much higher wattage relative to older versions of USB, and therefore facilitate fast charging capability," electrical engineer Rob Mills told Lifewire via email. "To get this benefit, however, requires the right combination of charger, cables, and device. For instance, if you buy a USB-C charger that doesn't support Power Delivery and try to use it with a laptop, the laptop will not charge."

The Solution?

USB-C is such a great, versatile, and robust connector, but it's been very poorly handled in terms of information and marketing. With USB A (the big rectangular plug you always plug in wrong the first time), at least you know that if you can plug it in, it will work. Ditto the confusion of micro, mini, USB-B, and other connectors at the other end of the wire. 

With USB-C, there's no way to tell which cable is the right one for the job, and this only gets worse as we collect more cables with subsequent purchases. I've taken to labeling the Thunderbolt and USB-C 3.1 gen.2 cables as soon as I take them out of the package, but I started too late and have a bunch of mystery cables that may or may not be up to the task at hand. 

A stack of coiled iPhone and iPad charging cables.

Solen Feyissa / Unsplash

Is the answer to just go back to having separate cables for different devices? Probably 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) recently announced a new set of labels to help. These display the data and charging rates of a cable, which are fine as long as you keep the cable in its box. Perhaps we just need something like those old mauve- and peppermint-colored plugs used for mice and keyboards? Color-coding the plugs, as Young suggests, would make for uglier cables, but it'd be a lot more practical. 

Another option would be to mandate that all cables be capable of maximum power and data transfer, but those cables would be more expensive, wasteful (sometimes all you need is a basic cable), and impossible to enforce over at Amazon, where generic no-name cables saturate the market.

Maybe it's time for us users to invent our own color-coding scheme and label those cables ourselves.

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