USB-C vs. Lightning: What's the Difference?

Is USB-C the same as Lightning?

Despite being similar, USB-C and Lightning are not the same. They are among the most popular charging cables on the market, especially when it comes to mobile devices. The biggest difference between the two cable types is that Lightning is a proprietary connector used on iPhones and other Apple devices, but there are some other key factors setting USB-C and Lightning apart. 

Connectors for USB-C and Lightning

Overall Findings:

USB-C
  • Introduced in 2014.

  • Joined USB-A and USB-B as popular connector.

  • Used for connection, communication, and power supply.

Lightning
  • Introduced in 2012.

  • Replaced Apple's 30-pin dock connector.

  • Used for connection, communication, and power supply.

USB-C and Lightning (not to be confused with Thunderbolt) are both protocols used for connection, communication, and power supply. Although both cable types are used primarily to charge devices like smartphones and tablets, they can also be used for a variety of digital transfer tasks such as uploading or downloading movies, music, photos, and more.

USB-C is considered by many to be the current standard for charging and transferring data, though Lightning has effectively stood in the way of this due to its inclusion in every iPhone and iPad model from September 2012-to-present (the exception being the iPad Pro, which adopted USB-C with the release of 3rd generation models in 2018). Keep in mind Lightning has remained on the iPhone since 2012, while other manufacturers have used several types of USB ports before (mostly) settling USB-C.

Setting aside Apple exclusivity, USB-C is superior to Lightning in just about every way having the benefit of being a new connector coming out years after Lightning.

Data Transfer Rates: USB-C Is Significantly Faster

USB-C
  • Transfer speeds up to 40Gbps.

  • USB4 support.

Lightning
  • Transfer speeds up to 480Mbps.

  • Comparable transfer speeds to USB 2.0.

USB-C is capable of supporting USB4, the latest and fastest USB specification. As a result, USB-C cables are capable of transfer speeds up to 40Gbps. By comparison, Lightning cables are much slower and transfer data at USB 2.0 rates of 480Mbps.

Complicating matters is the fact that Apple doesn’t release all specifications for its proprietary technology, so it’s unclear what Lightning’s true maximum transfer speed is. That said, Apple hasn’t released a protocol update since Lightning’s release, meaning its functionality has changed little since 2012. There are, of course, pluses to this. You can use a cable from 2012 and it's still compatible with new iPhones.

As the numbers indicate, USB-C has a massive speed advantage over Lightning. That said, this advantage isn’t as significant as it seems considering most people now transfer data wirelessly from their phones and other devices instead of using a cable.

Compatibility: Lightning Only Works With Apple Devices

USB-C
  • Supported by most modern devices, including Android phones, Windows PC, PS5, Xbox Series X, and more.

  • Used by iPad Pro (3rd generation and later).

  • Can be used in Thunderbolt 3 and 4 ports.

Lightning
  • Exclusive to Apple.

  • Supported by iPhone (5 or later later), iPad (4th generation or later), iPad Mini, iPad Air, iPad Pro (1st and 2nd generation only), iPod Nano (7th generation), and iPod Touch (5th generation or later).

  • USB-C support through USB-C to Lightning cable.

Although it isn’t officially a universal standard, USB-3 is supported by the wide majority of modern devices including Android smartphones, Windows PCs, and more. Even Apple’s modern Mac computers have hybrid USB-3/Thunderbolt ports. You’ll also find USB-C support across next-gen consoles like the PS5 and Xbox Series X, as well as the Nintendo Switch.

On the other hand, Lightning’s compatibility is limited as it’s exclusive to Apple products. With the exception of 3rd generation iPad Pros and later, all iPhones and iPads released since 2012 use a Lightning connection. In order to connect your iPhone or iPad to a charger or other device, you need a cable with at least one Lightning connector. 

Power Delivery: USB-C Supports Higher Wattage and Current

USB-3
  • Native power support for 100W/3A and up to 240W/5A.

  • Supports USB Power Delivery for fast charging.

Lightning
  • Native power support for 12W/2.4A.

  • Fast charging requires USB-C to Lightning cable and 20W or higher power adapter.

USB-C offers a higher power delivery rate than Lightning, which means it can deliver a faster charge under the same voltage. Whereas Lightning supports a maximum current of 2.4A, USB-C carries 3A with support for up to 5A. This makes USB-C much better for fast charging, as it supports the USB Power Delivery fast charging standard. 

In fact, standard Lightning cables don’t support fast charging. However, Apple has found a way around this in recent years by including a USB-C to Lightning Cable with most of its products. Combined with a 20W or higher power adapter, you can fast charge an iPhone up to 50% battery in about 30 minutes.

Durability: USB-C Cables May Last Longer, but Lightning Offers More Stable Physical Connection

USB-C
  • Has reversible ends.

  • May last longer than Lightning.

Lightning
  • Has reversible ends.

  • Tighter physical connection than USB-C.

In terms of ease of use and durability, USB-C and Lightning are closely aligned. Both connections have reversible ends, making it easier to plug into your devices. They also include chips to help guarantee compatibility and control power supply for stabilized current and data transfers.

Anecdotally, there’s considerable debate over which cable offers better durability. Some people claim that Lightning cables break more easily, while others argue that Lightning's connecting tabs fit better in their respective ports and are less prone to loose connections than USB-C. That said, much of this comes down to personal preference.

The best thing you can do to increase the longevity of either cable is to purchase one from a trusted manufacturer and take good care of both the cable and your device’s condition.

Final Verdict: USB-C the Better Connector

Durability debates aside, USB-C is superior to Lightning in just about every way. It offers wider compatibility, faster data transfer rates, and increased power delivery for better fast charging. 

With pressure mounting from European regulators for the mobile industry to adopt a universal standard Apple might not have much say in the matter.

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