I love USB-C, the data and charging port that I first encountered in my 2016 MacBook Pro and has now spread to virtually every device in my life.
I wanted a USB-C iPhone in 2018, when Apple first added that technology to the iPad Pro. I became more optimistic in 2021, when Apple spread USB-C to cheaper iPads. And while I’m skeptical that regulation is the best way to guide product development, I’m not unhappy that the European Union has now pushed Apple toward USB-C. Charging everything with USB-C is great for me.
So I’m excited that the iPhone 15 models will all get USB-C ports. But here’s the bad news that Apple didn’t share at its iPhone launch event on Tuesday: Millions of people entering the USB-C ecosystem will also encounter the ugly side of the technology.
USB-C’s usefulness and flexibility are compromised by confusion over what exactly is involved with that USB-C port on the side of a device and the cable you connect to it. In short, it’s not always clear whether your device or cable supports high-speed data transfer, high electrical power for fast charging, both, or neither.
As the rumors predicted, the iPhone 15 will come with a USB-C port and charging cable that will give customers a taste of the issues. That cable will reportedly be fine for charging, but will transfer data at just 480 megabytes per second, the measly speed achieved with the 2000 USB 2.0 standard.
During the launch event, Apple conspicuously avoided saying anything about how fast the iPhone 15’s USB-C port is, but the spec sheet says it’s just a slow USB 2.0. The iPhone 15 Pro models run at the usable 10Gpbs speed of USB 3.
More from the Apple event
For most people, the problem is probably just an inconvenience. But it reflects the difficulties of the vast USB ecosystem, where pressure to keep costs down is high and certification is not required. USB-C is a much faster, more useful connection technology than iPhone users have had with the Apple Lightning port since 2012, but Apple customers will have to endure some pain as they leave the cozy Lightning world.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment on this article. But it did advertise this major change in what is perhaps the most important gadget in the world. For starters, USB-C means a single charging cable is all you need for many Apple devices. You can also use your iPhone to charge your AirPods. And on iPhone 15 Pro phones, you can record data-intensive 4K 60fps ProRes video to an external storage device.
The triple USB mess
Part of the problem with USB is that the term actually refers to three separate standards. Let me explain.
The original standard, Universal Serial Bus, controls how devices identify themselves and transmit data over a connection. USB hit the market in 1996 with a top speed of 12 Mbps, but USB 2.0 was much more useful at 480 Mbps, enough for printers and USB sticks. The first big speed jump after that was USB 3.0 in 2008 with 5 gigabits per second, better for external hard drives. Successors will achieve 10Gbps, 20Gbps and most recently 40Gbps with USB 4. The upcoming USB 4 version 2 should reach 80Gbps. That’s good for powerful storage systems, fast networks and large, high-resolution monitors.
The next standard is USB-C, which only refers to the oval connector technology. Earlier in USB-C’s history, it was common for Android phones to only support slow USB 2.0 data transfer speeds, although that issue has faded with newer models. The latest USB standard, USB 4.0, requires USB-C ports, so as time goes on it will be fairer to equate USB-C with high speed.
Last but not least is USB PD, short for Power Delivery, which determines how USB is used for charging at speeds up to 240W. Most devices don’t need that much power, but they do need to know how to handle electrical matters, such as whether a portable battery needs to charge your laptop or vice versa.
Having three standards – USB, USB-C and USB PD – makes it harder to understand the capabilities of all your devices and cables.
Even worse, many device manufacturers trying to cut costs and ship products quickly skip the certification process that the USB Implementers Forum provides. Unlike Intel’s Thunderbolt, which pioneered the high-speed data transfer in modern USB, there is no requirement to pass testing.
Low cost fuels USB-C’s problems
No one wants to spend $60 instead of $15 for a USB cable. But be careful: you pretty much get what you pay for. It is more expensive to build cables that support high-speed data transfer or high-power charging. One rule of thumb: cables billed as “charging cables” in my experience don’t suffer the added cost of high-speed data support. This also applies to the USB-C cables that Apple has been supplying with MacBooks for several years.
One affordable cable I saw was advertised as a USB 4 product, but upon closer inspection it only supported USB 2.0 data transfer. Either the manufacturer was confused, lied, or tried to claim that the cable would work in a USB 4 port even if it only supported low data speeds. (USB’s good backward compatibility means that older products run slower and generally still work fine when connected to newer ones.)
I haven’t struggled that much with the slow cable issue. I usually use USB-C for charging, and my devices that need high-speed connections stay connected to their own high-speed cables.
But problems can arise. When I got a new mirrorless camera from Canon a few months ago, I found myself on a journey with slow cables that really bogged down the process of transferring photos to my laptop.
When USB-C is a problem and when it isn’t
The good news for future iPhone owners is that most of them won’t worry much about having a slow cable. Owners of iPhone 15 non-Pro phones won’t be able to take advantage of the speeds of a high-speed cable, even if they have one.
Data speeds used to be more important, when we used iTunes to sync music and photos between laptops and iPhones. Even as photo and video files have exploded in size thanks to 50-megapixel phone cameras and 4K video, most of us get that data from our phones using cellular networks, Wi-Fi, and AirDrop, not cables.
That’s the main reason why Apple could largely justify shipping an iPhone 15 with a USB 2.0 cable.
For serious data hogs, the kind of person who records many gigabytes of 4K ProRes video, a faster cable comes in handy. It’s one reason why I was annoyed by the Lightning port on my iPhone. I hope that these customers will generally be discerning enough to find a high-quality cable for their needs – or, if the rumors are true, will simply use the faster cable that Apple includes with the iPhone 15 Pro models. (Apple hasn’t yet revealed what comes with the new phones.)
I prefer to buy USB-C products that have passed USB-IF compliance testing. I look for the USB-IF certifications, and I love it when companies like Plugable add clear descriptive labels so we don’t have to decode USB-IF icons. (And most products don’t even have icons.)
But if you’re nervous about doing the product comparisons yourself, you can always ask Apple’s sales staff to recommend more expensive Apple USB-C accessories that generally work well together, even though they’re often more expensive than third-party products.
USB-C transition less painful than Lightning
There was a lot of debate when Apple switched to the Lightning port, even though it was clear that Lightning was superior to the bulky, fragile 30-pin connector that preceded it. I expect to see more complaints about the iPhone’s USB-C switch as people discover that all those cables they have stashed in glove boxes, desks, school backpacks, and nightstands are outdated.
But the good news is that USB-C is already very well established, and not just on MacBooks and many iPads. The oval connector is found on modern Android phones, Windows laptops, Nintendo Switch gaming consoles, iPad Pro and Air tablets, Sony noise-cancelling headphones, and countless other devices. Chances are, many of us already have some spare USB-C cables lying around.
When I talk to USB-IF executives about USB-C’s labeling problems, they assure me that most people won’t notice them, and that the gradually maturing technology will introduce incompatibilities and product shortcomings will eventually trickle down into the problems . our collective junk drawers.
I hope so. For me, the flexibility and power of USB-C are well worth the pain. But I wish there wasn’t so much pain.