Why Our Gadgets Need to Give Us More Information

Knowledge is power

  • Google’s Chromebook will warn you if you plug in a USB-C cable that isn’t up to the job. 
  • It’s almost impossible to work out what a USB-C cable is capable of just by looking at it. 
  • Imagine if our gadgets told us about the cables and chargers we connected.
close up shot of a USB-C cable

Marcus Urbenz / Unsplash

Our gadgets don't need to be as complicated to manage as a PC, but would it hurt to give us a hint about what's going on inside?

We know almost nothing about the inner workings of our devices. And we're not talking about their deep file systems or defragmenting disks. Those can stay back in the 1990s, thank you very much. But would it kill Google, Apple, and other companies to let us know how fast we can expect our devices to charge with a given brick or whether that USB-C cable is up to the task? Google offers a glimmer of hope with its new Chromebook update, but really, we're more in the dark than ever. 

"Computers are pretty reliable, in terms of coming equipped with a long list of specs, but smaller pieces of tech still lag behind in that sense," Daivat Dholakia, a product VP for Essenvia, a company that helps regulate medical devices, told Lifewire via email.


USB-C and Thunderbolt cables are a mess. Some can only supply power, others support up to 40GB/sec data transfer, some are good enough for high-resolution monitors, and others can barely sync an iPhone while charging it. And the worst part is, there's almost no way to know what that cable can do.

"Processing and connection speeds for smaller devices, for example, would help consumers make smarter decisions about which products will fit their needs," Dholakia said. "This information can be found by scouring the internet, sure, but it would be far more effective for consumers to have this information right on the packaging."

Partly, this is down to the thing that makes USB-C so great—it works with all gadgets. It makes no sense for Apple to put an expensive, high-quality Thunderbolt cable in the box just to charge an iPhone, for example. 

Ideally, this kind of thing would be printed on the side of the cable, so you'd know immediately what you were dealing with. But in a world of cheap-o no-name Amazon widgets, that's an impossible dream. But Google is finally doing something to help.

Chromebook cable display notification

Soon, when you plug a cheap USB-C cable into your Chromebook, one that can’t support full speed, fast data transfer, and so on, the Chromebook will tell you about it. For instance, the example in the screenshot you see here lets you know that the inserted cable may not be capable of connecting a display to the computer. 

Other notifications will even tell you if the cable doesn’t support Thunderbolt 3 or USB-4 speeds.

A Clearer Future

Imagine if this was supported on Macs, too. There’s already a System Information app that provides a lot of detail about the hardware and software workings of your Mac, and it also has sections for USB and Thunderbolt. But to identify the capabilities of your cable, you have to infer it from the speed stats for the devices connected at the other end. And if you don’t know the maximum speed of those devices, how do you know if the max speed is limited by the cable or the device itself?

It’s not just USB and Thunderbolt cables that could do with a bit more data. Take a look at the USB-C and USB-A charging bricks you have around your home. Some of those will probably be five-watt chargers. Others are capable of 85 watts or more, but it’s impossible to tell without looking at the small print. 

And we mean small. On an Apple charging brick, the data is printed in teeny tiny light gray text on the white plastic. Even a teenage eagle with reading glasses couldn’t decipher that. 

Processing and connection speeds for smaller devices, for example, would help consumers make smarter decisions about which products will fit their needs.

Not everybody thinks more information is better, however. Ignorance, as the saying goes, is bliss.

"Devices are developed to make our lives simpler and easier, and getting into the minor details for each device would only end up overwhelming a large audience that doesn't really care," tech writer Jason Wise told Lifewire via email. But that presumes that the average user is a dummy and that this stuff has to be complex. It doesn't.

If Apple decided to do something about this, it could do it in a typically Apple-y fashion. It would either hide the wattage and amperage of connected chargers deep inside a page of the Settings app, or it would perhaps display it right there on the Lock Screen when you plug the phone in to charge, perhaps giving you a time-until-charged estimate.

Or, you know, print the information on the side of the charger where you can actually read it. Even that, absurdly basic as it is, would be a start.

Was this page helpful?