USB-C cable shopping for an iPad or Thunderbolt 3 Mac is still a nightmare for consumers

Posted:
in iPad edited November 15
USB-C is the future of computer connectivity, but in the two years we've been using it there remains a great deal of confusion over USB-C, Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.1, and what any given cable with USB-C connectors is capable of. AppleInsider breaks it all down again, makes some specific cable recommendations, and talks about why we think it isn't the last time we're going to have this conversation.




Apple introduced USB-C to its user base with the Retina 12-inch MacBook. At the time, it was in essence a basic USB port that could power the Mac from an external source, yet limited to USB 3.0 speeds of 5Gbit per second. It was officially called USB 3.1 type C Generation 1.

The same physical port was used in the 2016 MacBook Pro refresh, offering a faster, more capable Thunderbolt 3 connection with the same USB-C physical connector. And now, the MacBook Air and Mac mini has Thunderbolt 3, and the iPad Pro is a USB 3.1 type C device, instead of Lightning.

Two years down the road, let's take a look at what Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C means to Apple users. And, we'll try to ease some of your pain if you're in the middle of the battle.

USB-C versus USB 3.1 versus Thunderbolt 3

Put simply, and we cannot emphasize this strongly enough, USB-C as a term by itself means nothing about data speed or charging ability -- it is literally, and only, a description of the physical connector.

Thunderbolt 3 at 40Gbit per second has to be USB-C at both ends. USB 3.1 at 5Gbit per second or 10Gbit per second does not. Both share the same physical USB-C connector for the host device, though.

Seven USB-C cables, seven different specs -- which is which?
Seven USB-C cables, seven different specs -- which is which?


Complicating matters somewhat, some Thunderbolt 3 cables can function as a USB 3.1 type C cable -- but not all can. A USB 3.1 type C cable is never a Thunderbolt 3 cable, despite having the same connectors.

Also, not every USB-C cable -- be it Thunderbolt 3 or USB 3.1 Type-C -- is capable of providing 100W that is allowed in the specification. In fact, between poor quality cabling available at multiple venues, terrible cable markings, and Apple's obsession for plain white cabling, this is more confusing now, with no improvement in the last two years.

Where Apple's choice fits in

With the MacBook, the MacBook Pro since 2016, and now the MacBook Air and iPad Pro, Apple includes a USB-C charging cable. A 15-inch MacBook Pro cable is rated for 87W when plugged into the appropriate MacBook Pro adapter. It can be used on the MacBook and 13-inch MacBook Pro at appropriate wattage.

The converse is true, but the combination will only supply charging power of the lowest rated component, be it cable or AC adapter. For example, an 87W power adapter with a 60W-rated cable will only provide 60W to the host computer.

Simple enough. But, the Apple-supplied cable is only capable of USB 2.0 speeds, and is in no way a Thunderbolt 3 cable. This isn't unique to Apple, though -- most high-power USB-C cables found on Amazon are only capable of USB 2.0 speeds.

Confusion still reigns

We've had a pile of very short Thunderbolt 3 cables pass through the testing lab while we've gone through the docks, eGPUs, and other Thunderbolt 3 peripherals. None of them arrived clearly labeled on the cable itself. Some are capable of even 100W. Some aren't. So, that's a problem. We get around that with careful sorting, color-coding, and hanging on a pegboard -- but admittedly a surplus of Thunderbolt 3 cables still isn't a common problem.

Plus, at present, there is no chance a Thunderbolt 3 device will connect at all with a USB 3.1 type C cable, despite the cable fitting and even possibly providing power to the peripheral device. This may change for newer peripherals, as a change in the spec and a modernization of controllers will allow for failback, meaning a Thunderbolt 3 peripheral will ultimately be able to use a USB 3.2 Type C cable for connectivity, but at the slower speed that the protocol allows.

Most Thunderbolt 3 accessories come with 18-inch compatible cables, but in our experience they are mostly useless because they are cripplingly short. Users shopping for longer cables aren't being greeted with universal language, or with complete specifications in every case.

Short versus long, passive versus active

The short Thunderbolt 3 cables that come with docks and other peripherals are generally passive cables. To keep costs down, passive cables are no-frills cables, and because of it, runs longer than 18 inches have slow transfer speeds for connected devices. This can cause problems in high-bandwidth situations like docks or the LG 5K Ultrafine display.

Short, passive Thunderbolt 3 cables, such as those packed-in with docks, are very nearly always fully compatible with USB 3.1 type-C peripherals. But, like we said, the length isn't that handy.

Thunderbolt 3 runs longer than 18-inches can be passive or active. The passive ones have lower speed, with the max data rate hitting about 20Gbit/second at two meters of cable length. However, at present, active cables contain transceivers to regulate the data transfer through the cable. At the same two meters, speed is still at the maximum of 40Gbit/second.

Passive cables maintain USB 3.1 type-C compatibility. Active ones generally do not. There is no correlation between passive or active, and maximum wattage.

And, that USB 3.2 speed failback thing we talked about a few paragraphs ago? It likely won't be backwards compatible to older cables or peripherals.

Choose wisely...

We presented a picture earlier in this article. Here it is again.




In the above picture, left to right: 2 meter 60W active Thunderbolt 3 cable, 2 meter 100W active thunderbolt cable, 2 meter 60W passive Thunderbolt 3, 2 meter 60W USB 3.1 Type-C cable, 2 meter 60W USB 2.0-speed Type-C Apple charging, 2 meter 87W USB 2.0-speed Type-C Apple charging, and a 0.5 meter passive 100W Thunderbolt 3 cable capable of 40Gbps. All of the markings on each cable are shown in the picture.

A mess, that doesn't have to be

We like the concept of USB-C. We love Thunderbolt 3 as it finally fulfills Apple's vision of one cable from a computer to absolutely everything else that it's tried several times before. But, buying the right cable remains a nightmare for consumers.

Looking for the data rate isn't enough when shopping for Thunderbolt 3. Searching on 40Gbps doesn't tell you if the Thunderbolt 3 cable in question is passive or active. And, even after you get the cable, if you toss it in your snake's pit of cables in that box you know you have in the basement, you won't know what the cable is capable of if you fail to label it.

The industry has spoken out about the issue, but hasn't mandated the use of the iconography leaving it up to the user to be clear on what's what. This needs to be mandatory, and permanently affixed to the cable somehow, with common labels that at the very least can be looked up.

Enter Titan Ridge

About a year ago, Intel started shipping the Titan Ridge chipset for Thunderbolt 3. We're not sure if it made it better or worse overall, but for the first time, a universal USB-C cable, capable of USB 3.1 type C or Thunderbolt 3 supplying up to 100W on a two-meter cable run is possible at a cost.

This universal cable isn't here yet, though. It's coming, and we'll let you know when it arrives.

Here's what we recommend

Hard drives, even most small-scale RAID arrays with them we've examined, aren't that demanding. Passive, long Thunderbolt 3 cables, such as that from Plugable at 20Gbps, work fine and you won't see a speed hit. They also work with USB 3.1 Type-C printers, and other accessories. Obviously, if you have a RAID of SSDs or an external NVMe drive, you'll want 40Gbps, though.

After much trial-and-error, and some of our favorite cables not coming back after running out of stock, we presently like the Cable Matters 40Gbps 6.6 foot cable. It has reliable connections, can provide 100W of power. It isn't cheap at $57.99 at the time of this revision, but we highly recommend it for the most demanding applications. And, as a reminder, this cable is not compatible with USB 3.1 type C applications.

And, if you just need USB 3.1 Type C, just get that. Don't pay the premium for Thunderbolt 3. Be mindful of reviews in addition to maximum power limitations if you're going to charge a 15-inch MacBook Pro. We like the Anker Powerline II USB-C to USB-C 3.1 gen 2 cable for most of our connectivity and power needs given that it is rated for 100W and full 10Gbit/sec speed -- but it is only three feet long.

As a quick cheat-sheet: Active Thunderbolt 3 cables are high-speed but expensive, and mostly lack USB 3.1 Type-C compatibility -- but very new ones might retain it. Passive Thunderbolt 3 cables are generally short for best performance, and nearly always maintain USB 3.1 Type-C compatibility. Neither passive nor active imply anything about maximum charging power, nor are they necessarily labeled on the cable indicating what they are capable of delivering.

But, even now, two years later after Apple adopted USB-C and a year after we first started talking about this particular conundrum, regardless of what you buy, come up with your own solution for labeling what's what, and what it can do. It'll save you time in the long run.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 64
    mac_128mac_128 Posts: 3,282member
    Lightning is so much simpler. The wisdom behind managing their own standard becomes clear when faced with these issues.
    racerhomie3StrangeDaysauxiomacplusplusrandominternetpersonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 64
    Thank God , iPhone has not gone USB C. Hopefully Apple removes the port before changing it. 
  • Reply 3 of 64
    anomeanome Posts: 1,174member
    Plus, at present, there is no chance Thunderbolt 3 device won't connect at all with a USB 3.1 type C cable, despite the cable fitting and even possibly providing power to the peripheral device.

    I think you mean "there is some chance [a] Thunderbolt 3 device won't connect at all...", or possibly "there is no chance [a] Thunderbolt 3 will connect at all..."

    Probably the latter, now I think about it.

    The article is a useful reminder, but it can sometimes be hard to tell when looking at stuff online. Apart from the odd seller that just lies in the product description, some of them are vague to the point of uselessness.

    On an unrelated note, do Monster make gold-plated USB-C/TB3 cables? Because I can't wait to see the reviews on Amazon.

    randominternetpersonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 4 of 64
    Mandatory clear labelling should be the minimum. Especially since you get some devices with cables and have no idea what kind of specs these cables have. 

    Please inform us when the “one-in-all” cables are available. 

    And thank you for this helpful article. It’s indeed a mess. 
    chasmrandominternetpersonbonobobwatto_cobra
  • Reply 5 of 64
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 3,715administrator
    anome said:
    Plus, at present, there is no chance Thunderbolt 3 device won't connect at all with a USB 3.1 type C cable, despite the cable fitting and even possibly providing power to the peripheral device.

    I think you mean "there is some chance [a] Thunderbolt 3 device won't connect at all...", or possibly "there is no chance [a] Thunderbolt 3 will connect at all..."

    Probably the latter, now I think about it.

    The article is a useful reminder, but it can sometimes be hard to tell when looking at stuff online. Apart from the odd seller that just lies in the product description, some of them are vague to the point of uselessness.

    On an unrelated note, do Monster make gold-plated USB-C/TB3 cables? Because I can't wait to see the reviews on Amazon.

    The latter. I edited that sentence like a hundred times. Perhaps 101 would have been better.
    randominternetpersonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 64

    Same lousy photo of the six cables. 

    Please take a new photo, and perhaps with side and top-down versions.

    Show us the markings. Who makes each?



    watto_cobra
  • Reply 7 of 64
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 3,715administrator
    stevenoz said:

    Same lousy photo of the six cables. 

    Please take a new photo, and perhaps with side and top-down versions.

    Show us the markings. Who makes each?



    FTA: "All of the markings on each cable are shown in the picture." 

    If time allows, I'll take another shot a bit later this evening or Friday morning, but that's not really the point of the article.
    edited November 15
  • Reply 8 of 64
    anomeanome Posts: 1,174member

    anome said:
    Plus, at present, there is no chance Thunderbolt 3 device won't connect at all with a USB 3.1 type C cable, despite the cable fitting and even possibly providing power to the peripheral device.

    I think you mean "there is some chance [a] Thunderbolt 3 device won't connect at all...", or possibly "there is no chance [a] Thunderbolt 3 will connect at all..."

    Probably the latter, now I think about it.

    The article is a useful reminder, but it can sometimes be hard to tell when looking at stuff online. Apart from the odd seller that just lies in the product description, some of them are vague to the point of uselessness.

    On an unrelated note, do Monster make gold-plated USB-C/TB3 cables? Because I can't wait to see the reviews on Amazon.

    The latter. I edited that sentence like a hundred times. Perhaps 101 would have been better.
    Happens to the best of us. Sometimes it needs to be 101, sometimes it should have been 99.
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 64
    I am more confused now then I was before. I did not even know of all these different types of USB-C. Goes to show how ignorant I am about this. Especially for technological knowledgeable person I am ashamed of myself. Everything you you wrote was very knowledgeable & helped me to understand better, but still don’t understand the point about “active & passive”. 
    Great article. Really do believe we will have many more articles related to this. 

    pscooter63muthuk_vanalingamtechnorandominternetpersonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 64
    I am surprised that this article does not list the best cable.  What a person wants is a cable that works with all standards.  After a lot of research (more that this author it seems), the longest universal cable is made by Apple.  It is .8m, which is the longest passive cable I could find.  (Usually they are .5m) "This 0.8-meter cable supports Thunderbolt 3 data transfer up to 40 Gbps, USB 3.1 Gen 2 data transfer up to 10 Gbps, DisplayPort video output (HBR3), and charging up to 100W. Use this cable to connect a Mac with Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 3 devices such as docks, hard drives, and displays. You can daisy-chain up to six Thunderbolt 3 devices. " 

    2.6 feet and will do everything.  $39.  If you need longer, you need to wait for the new ones like the author says.

    The other major problem that the author does state is that there is no LABELING standard, which means that you can have a stack of USB-C cables and have NO idea which one is for what.  If you buy the other cables, then you get to decide - do you want thunderbolt 3 but not USB 3.1 gen 2?  Or do you want to be throttled on thunderbolt 3 to 10Gbps?  60W?  100W?  Everytime I need a USB cable, I need to look at the cable and try to recall what kind of cable it is and if i cant remember, I have to determine by trial and error.  So I am throwing out all my cables except the Apple ones.  

    My opinion is that right now, get the Apple 2.6ft cable that is universal and if you need longer, get the 2m thunderbolt 3 cable.  You will have just 2 types of usbC cable:  2.6 ft universal and 6 ft thunderbolt 3 and your life is simple. The amount of money you save isnt worth the headache or time to have a bunch of specialized cables that each has different limitations.

    BTW, here is some tech details: active means there is a chip on the connector, passive means no chip.  Passive has limits to the length before the signal degrades.  usually .5m, but apple's is .8m, which is significant in terms of usability.  active chips only do thunderbolt and not usb3.1 right now.
    edited November 15 chiaStrangeDaysstevenozspace2001dtb200watto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 64
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 3,715administrator
    whodiini said:
    I am surprised that this article does not list the best cable.  What a person wants is a cable that works with all standards.  After a lot of research (more that this author it seems), the longest universal cable is made by Apple.  It is .8m, which is the longest passive cable I could find.  (Usually they are .5m) "This 0.8-meter cable supports Thunderbolt 3 data transfer up to 40 Gbps, USB 3.1 Gen 2 data transfer up to 10 Gbps, DisplayPort video output (HBR3), and charging up to 100W. Use this cable to connect a Mac with Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) to Thunderbolt 3 devices such as docks, hard drives, and displays. You can daisy-chain up to six Thunderbolt 3 devices. " 

    2.6 feet and will do everything.  $39.  If you need longer, you need to wait for the new ones like the author says.

    The other major problem that the author does state is that there is no LABELING standard, which means that you can have a stack of USB-C cables and have NO idea which one is for what.  If you buy the other cables, then you get to decide - do you want thunderbolt 3 but not USB 3.1 gen 2?  Or do you want to be throttled on thunderbolt 3 to 10Gbps?  60W?  100W?  Everytime I need a USB cable, I need to look at the cable and try to recall what kind of cable it is and if i cant remember, I have to determine by trial and error.  So I am throwing out all my cables except the Apple ones.  
    The Apple cable doesn't fit that well into the 2016, or 2017 MacBook Pro, or the 2018 MacBook Air. It's okay -- but not great -- with the 2018 MacBook Pro and the Mac mini. In general, it's too wobbly, and therefore, not recommended. The cables we listed we haven't had a problem with.

    I'm glad the Apple one is working for you. Of the four we got scattered over a year, we weren't happy with any of them.

    Appreciate the technical details, we talk about transceivers in the piece. By the USB-C and TB3 spec, passive cables can be any length up to two meters, and can generally maintain a decent signal out to that full two meters with the ones we've looked at peaking at 15Gbit/sec at those two meters -- certainly not full speed. 
    edited November 15 chiamuthuk_vanalingamwatto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 64
    melgrossmelgross Posts: 31,215member
    Great, Mike. Thanks for this. Cables can be very confusing to a lot of people, because there are really no standards too often, or standards that make sense. I’ve been on a few standards committees over the years, and it can be a mess. It’s akin to getting all the children to sit and work well together, even though they all want to do different activities (been through that too).
    chiamuthuk_vanalingamrandominternetperson
  • Reply 13 of 64
    A nightmare is waking up to your house on fire. A nightmare is having a crazy person point a gun at you. A nightmare is a nuclear bomb detonating in the middle of your city. It is NOT having a little bit of trouble buying a computer cable. C'mon, guys/gals.
    randominternetperson
  • Reply 14 of 64
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 3,715administrator
    RSGinSF said:
    A nightmare is waking up to your house on fire. A nightmare is having a crazy person point a gun at you. A nightmare is a nuclear bomb detonating in the middle of your city. It is NOT having a little bit of trouble buying a computer cable. C'mon, guys/gals.
    Those are disasters. They can be nightmares.
    chiapscooter63muthuk_vanalingammretondowatto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 64
    USB-C is a totally mismanaged debacle. They let it happen and persist and now it will not be easy to rein in, and it should not have implemented without standards in place first.
    The people who have pushed for this standard are smart (that's debatable) and get paid way more than $100000, so they would of known what would happen but displayed incompetence, lack of  planning, and foresight. There is no excuse for this mess.






    wozwozwatto_cobra
  • Reply 16 of 64
    volcanvolcan Posts: 1,737member
    RSGinSF said:
    A nightmare is waking up to your house on fire. A nightmare is having a crazy person point a gun at you. A nightmare is a nuclear bomb detonating in the middle of your city. It is NOT having a little bit of trouble buying a computer cable. C'mon, guys/gals.
    Oh jeez! The word nightmare as a figure of speech is very common usage -- meaning a pain in the ass, to use another figure of speech. Your examples are not nightmares if you want to get all technical about it. A nightmare means you would have to be asleep and dreaming about those scary events.
    edited November 15 chiaroundaboutnowmretondowozwozwatto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 64
    stevenoz said:

    Same lousy photo of the six cables. 

    Please take a new photo, and perhaps with side and top-down versions.

    Show us the markings. Who makes each?



    FTA: "All of the markings on each cable are shown in the picture." 

    If time allows, I'll take another shot a bit later this evening or Friday morning, but that's not really the point of the article.
    Mike, is the fourth cable hidden under the Apple cable? I only see 6 connectors but the caption mentioned seven.  And I assume it has no markings on in?
    watto_cobra
  • Reply 18 of 64
    ShannonMcStormyShannonMcStormy Posts: 2unconfirmed, member
    volcan said:
    RSGinSF said:
    A nightmare is waking up to your house on fire. A nightmare is having a crazy person point a gun at you. A nightmare is a nuclear bomb detonating in the middle of your city. It is NOT having a little bit of trouble buying a computer cable. C'mon, guys/gals.
    Oh jeez! The word nightmare as a figure of speech is very common usage -- meaning a pain in the ass, to use another figure of speech. Your examples are not nightmares if you want to get all technical about it. A nightmare means you would have to be asleep and dreaming about those scary events.
    Lol. My sweetie is a software engineer and old school techie who had to write a program to use the modem to dial into her first bulletin-board she felt really at home with. She makes jokes based on literal interpretations of things, which she thinks are hallarious. She also dislikes colloquialisms, figures of speech, and the continuously evolving/living nature of speech. Thus, she hates it when people say, “Literally, my mouth fell into my lap!” I’m not a techie, but I love nerds, always have. They can be tiresomely pedantic sometimes. But they can also be so cute! (Well, the female ones can be anyway.)   ;-)

    - Shannon :-)    

    P.s. I was so stoked when I heard the new gen 3 iPad pros were going to usb-3, but sighed heavily when I found out they were nerfed. There should have been two of them, one on the short side, one on the long side, and they both should have been full thunderbolt 3’s. Desktop replacement? How about a mouse?! And both backspace and delete keys. Finally, you can’t write a college paper without a full version of MS Word. “Pages” or MS Word for IOS doesn’t cut it. To finish the wish list: 15” model pls.

    .
  • Reply 19 of 64
    ShannonMcStormyShannonMcStormy Posts: 2unconfirmed, member
    Opps. Not usb-3, but usb-c.

    (techies can be so unforgiving of these kinds of mistakes, even when they know what is meant.)

    - S
  • Reply 20 of 64
    jdwjdw Posts: 653member
    Precisely why USB-A is still all the rage today and will continue to be for the next 10 years.  Tech remains around as long as we continue to use it.  And when consumers are confused by tech, then don't end up using it.

    That's not to say USB-C or some flavor of it isn't the future.  But it is to say that Apple is stupid for not making a machine these days that bridges the needs of today with that of tomorrow.  The 15" MBP has enough space for an SD card slot and a USB-A port, in addition to USB-C.  Having all that would help cut down on dongles.
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