USB-C Has Finally Come Into Its OwnOctober 27, 2019
The Surface Pro 7. The Kindle Fire HD 10. The PlayStation 5. All major gadgets announced or detailed this week, each with a bevy of enhancements. But more important than any of those flagship products on its own is the fact that together they embraced something their predecessors did not: USB-C.
You know USB-C. If you own a premium Android smartphone, chances are you’re already using it. But its ubiquity otherwise has been slow in coming. WIRED and others first anointed USB-C as “the port of the future” in 2015, when Apple’s entry-level, 12-inch MacBook introduced it to the masses. That’s well over four years ago, a long time in the tech world—so long, in fact, that said MacBook has since been discontinued.
Now, though, USB-C has claimed its rightful place. “USB-C has become the industry standard for about every personal computing and connectivity device,” says Patrick Moorhead, founder of Moor Insights & Strategy. That “about” includes some notable exceptions—the iPhone, mostly—but otherwise, including USB-C has finally become the default.
The reason for USB-C’s ascent is simple: It’s just better. It can charge both ways, letting you use a laptop to power your smartphone, for instance. It can also charge fast, pumping 18 watts to your device to get you from empty to 80 percent full in only an hour. It can transfer data at blistering speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second—and eventually much faster, as Intel’s Thunderbolt protocol converges with USB4. It can power video to external displays. And it’s reversible, meaning it works whichever way you plug it in.
Even so, the road has been bumpy. Just because USB-C can do all these things doesn’t mean that it always does. Take charging. While the body that governs USB protocol, the USB Implementers Forum, sets a Power Delivery standard, manufacturers have come up with their own unique implementations as well. Qualcomm has Quick Charge, Samsung has Adaptive Fast Charging, and so on. The result, as nicely detailed by Android Authority earlier this year, is a landscape where you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get, especially once you reach for a third-party cable. Your phone will still charge, just not as fast as advertised if all of the involved components aren’t built for the same spec. And in extreme cases, some dodgy cables have been capable of frying devices altogether by drawing too much power for a specific task.
The situation has improved over time, but it’s still something of a tangle. To know exactly what you’re getting, you’re best off sticking with the USB-C cable that comes in the box. If you need a replacement, either get it straight from the same manufacturer, or something with clear labeling from a reputable vendor like Amazon or Monoprice.
It’s an issue that the USB-IF readily acknowledges. “There were definite growing pains and differences on OEM implementations during the initial USB-C industry ramp,” the group said in a statement to WIRED, “but we expect that as the adoption of USB Type-C products and USB Power Delivery continues to increase the market will guide [manufacturers] toward a common implementation.” Which feels like another way of saying that eventually enough people will complain loudly enough that the problem will fix itself. USB-IF can’t force every manufacturer to get on the same page, but they could have made the text more legible from the start.
In its statement, USB-IF pointed to the USB Audio Device Class 3.0 specification as an example of its successful clean-up efforts, although that example also underscores just how bad the problem was. In the early days, USB-C headphones weren’t universal by default; some manufacturers actually sold USB-C earbuds that were only compatible with specific smartphone brands. The current availability of a standardized approach is great, but would have been even better if it were there from the outset.
Still! Despite the confusion, USB-C momentum has become unstoppable. “I’m not seeing any product which has USB-A not shipping with USB-C,” says Dinesh Kithany, the lead power supply analyst for IHS Markit. “The shift is happening.” Look no further than the Fire HD, Surface Pro 7, and PS5 for proof. USB-C’s complications may not be totally solved yet, but the benefits—smaller port size, versatility, high speeds, fast charging—outweigh the muddle.
“While [USB-C] had some early fits and starts, users can rely on the notion that if [a device] has a port, it will work,” says Patrick Moorhead. “There are still some nuances around the highest level of power and performance, but that doesn’t overshadow its pervasiveness and usefulness.”
Which brings us to the asterisks. While Apple pushed USB-C early in the MacBook, and has since implemented it in the iPad Pro as well, the iPhone remains a holdout. The other is the automotive industry, albeit for different reasons.
In Apple’s case, the hesitation at least makes some sense. As long as USB-C compatibility is more tangled than a late-stage game of Twister, it will remain anathema to Cupertino’s mantra of “it just works.” USB-C can still feel more like “it works, just not always how you were expecting.” Apple already achieved USB-C’s space-saving and reversibility benefits seven years ago with the introduction of its Lightning cable. And in those seven years, an expansive ecosystem of Lightning peripherals has emerged, all of which would head straight for the scrap heap with a jump to USB-C. Of course, that hasn’t stopped Apple before—the switch to Lightning sent countless 30-pin hotel-room speaker alarms to the dump—and there are persistent rumors the company will make the smartphone switch, but for now the iPhone remains USB-C-less. Apple declined to comment for this story.
The auto industry, meanwhile, has a more straightforward excuse. When each of your products costs tens of thousands of dollars, you tend to change things up a little more slowly. “Maybe because of Apple, but also other market factors, automotive has still not picked up USB-C. There are many reasons for that,” Kithany says. “They can only have one or two ports. At the same time, when you see the cycle of automotive, they’re around a five- or six-year change cycle. It takes a long time to accept a technology and put it into a market.”
Still, hope springs. Apple’s latest MacBook Pro features up to four USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 3 connectivity. The iPad Pro added USB-C last fall, as did the resurrected MacBook Air. Then again: These are productivity devices, which stand to benefit from USB-C’s video chops as well as data speeds. The positives outweigh the negatives. On the iPhone? Maybe not so much. At least not yet.
Maybe the good news, though, is this: USB-C didn’t need the iPhone to come into its own. It still has its wrinkles to iron out, as manufacturers coalesce around the same standards within the standard. Even so, it’s largely fulfilled the promise it showed in 2015. And now that it’s finally the default port of the present, it should only get easier to wrangle from here.
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