USB-C was supposed to be a universal connector - but it still has a lot of problems

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  • USB-C has caused a lot of confusion for phone and laptop users alike - two cables that look the same can transfer data and power at different speeds.
  • Not all USB-C to headphone jack adapters are compatible and good USB-C headphones are still tough to find.
  • Watch the video above to clear up the confusion and find the right cable for your device.

You might have seen this type of charger on some of your newer devices. It's a USB-C cable. USB-C is great. It can transfer data, power, video, audio, and it's not limited to one manufacturer, like Apple's Lightning cables. Finally, a universal connector has arrived. But, wait a minute. How come this USB-C cable costs so much more than that one? And why does this cable transfer data and power slower than that one? How can two cables that look identical be so different?

Even though it's been around for a few years, there's still a lot of confusion surrounding USB-C. It was supposed to be a universal connector, bridging together phones, computers, power supplies, and accessories. But there's one big issue holding it back. The USB-C name refers to the physical shape of the connector, not the protocol. Even though two cables can have the same physical connector, what's happening on the inside can be very different. The protocol, or specification, determines what the cable can transfer and how fast it can send it. A USB-C cable can be limited to either USB 3.1, 3.0, or 2.0 speeds. Some USB-C cables are USB 3.1 Gen 2 cables. This means they can transfer an HD movie in about five seconds, around 10 gigabits per second. But, you can also have a USB-C cable that is as slow as the ancient USB 2.0 spec. Transferring that same HD movie would take almost two minutes at a speed of 480 megabits per second. Using the USB-C cable that charges your Android phone probably won't be as fast as the one that came with your new external hard drive. To make things more confusing, some USB-C cables can be used with a second monitor, while others aren't capable of sending a video signal at all. You could easily end up stranded if you mix up two different cables. And things can get even more complicated when you're using adapters to change from USB-C to another connector, like the headphone jack. Not all adapters are created equal. A headphone adapter that came with one phone isn't guaranteed to work with a phone from a different company.

Okay, so your data might transfer slower, or you might mix up two different cables, but what's the harm? Well, USB-C cables are also responsible for transferring power. The stakes are much higher when you're relying on a cable to send the correct amount of electricity to your device. Many smartphones and laptops can charge over USB-C, but the amount of power that these cables can deliver isn't necessarily the same. In some cases, a laptop can require almost twice as much power as a smartphone. The consequences of using the wrong cable can be worse than a slower charge. If you happen to connect a USB-C device to your laptop that draws more power than the port can deliver, there's a chance that port could stop working entirely. In 2016, a Google engineer tested several off-brand USB-C cables from Amazon. One cable even caused his Pixelbook to stop working. Since then, he has continued to review dozens of cables from Amazon and continues to find cables that do not perform as advertised. But, why would companies like Google and Apple support a connector that can cause so much damage?

USB-C cables are supposed to have safeguards put in place to prevent damage. If they're used on a device that doesn't support their maximum power draw, the cables are supposed to keep the device safe. But, sometimes manufacturers will cut corners to reduce costs. The cables that aren't compliant with USB-C standards can seriously harm your device. This might make USB-C seem like an evil cable that's just waiting to destroy your device. But the horror stories you hear only happen with cables that don't include the safety mechanisms.

So, what can you do to prevent yourself from using the wrong cable? Always buy from trusted brands, fully read descriptions and reviews, and make sure other people are using the cable for what you need. You can also label your cables to avoid mixing up two that look the same. Finally, try to only use the cable that came with that device in order to avoid any nasty surprises. Even with the risks, USB-C is still a really good thing for consumers. It can handle a variety of uses and doesn't come with a proprietary premium. But it's important to know what your cable should and shouldn't be used for so you don't harm your device. And also, it's reversible.

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