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USB-C Was Supposed to Simplify Our Lives. Instead, It’s a Total Mess.

A mix of hidden standards make the ubiquitous cable a pain to deal with

Owen Williams
Debugger
Published in
4 min readSep 14, 2020

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Close-up image of a USB-C cord on a colored background.
Photo: Cosminxp Cosmin/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Techies hailed USB-C as the future of cables when it hit the mainstream market with Apple’s single-port MacBook in 2015. It was a huge improvement over the previous generation of USB, allowing for many different types of functionality — charging, connecting to an external display, etc. — in one simple cord, all without having a “right side up” like its predecessor.

Five years later, USB-C is near-ubiquitous: Almost every modern laptop and smartphone has at least one USB-C port, with the exception of the iPhone, which still uses Apple’s proprietary Lightning port. For all its improvements, USB-C has become a mess of tangled standards — a nightmare for consumers to navigate despite the initial promise of simplicity.

Anyone going all-in on USB-C will run into problems with an optional standard called Power Delivery. The standard allows devices to charge at a much higher wattage relative to older connectors, therefore allowing them to charge faster. But it requires the right combination of charger, cables, and device to actually achieve this.

If you buy a USB-C charger that doesn’t support Power Delivery and try to use it with a Microsoft Surface, for example, the laptop will complain that it’s “not charging” despite receiving some power. Fixing this requires figuring out whether or not it’s the cable or wall charger that doesn’t support Power Delivery, and replacing it with something that does support it. There would be no way for a layperson to hold two USB-C chargers and know the difference between one that supports Power Delivery and one that doesn’t.

How any normal person is supposed to grasp this soup of standards, built atop a single port that looks the same, is anyone’s guess.

Furthering the confusion, some devices actually can’t be charged with chargers supporting Power Delivery, despite sporting a USB-C port — because they weren’t designed to negotiate the higher wattage being delivered by the Power Delivery standard. A pair of cheap…

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Owen Williams
Debugger

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. Design Manager in Tech. https://twitter.com/ow