More USB-C speed won't fix users' problems with cables

Posted:
in Current Mac Hardware edited September 2022
While it's fantastic that the USB-C governing body is improving the USB spec, the ongoing lack of a strict labeling requirement will make a bad situation worse.

A slightly worn USB-C cable
A slightly worn USB-C cable


Stop us if you've heard this before. USB-C is good from a theoretical technical standpoint, but far less than that from an actual in-person implementation standpoint.

It's not the physical connector I'm talking about, which is pretty good. It's the concept of USB-C being universal that is far from what's been promised, and getting farther away.

In case you missed it, there's another USB-C version coming. This one, non-intuitively labeled USB4 version 2.0 makes the same promises as always -- better, faster, stronger.

Specifically, more speed (maybe), better HDMI and DisplayPort specs -- and yet more cable variants.
  • Up to 80 Gbps data transfer, based on a new physical layer architecture, using existing 40 Gbps USB Type-C passive cables and newly-defined 80 Gbps USB Type-C active cables.

  • Updates to data and display protocols to better use the increase in available bandwidth.

  • USB data architecture updates now enable USB 3.2 data tunneling to exceed 20 Gbps.

  • Updated to align with the latest versions of the DisplayPort and PCIe specifications.
"Once again following USB tradition, this updated USB4 specification doubles data performance to deliver higher levels of functionality to the USB Type-C ecosystem," said USB Promoter Group Chairman Brad Saunders. "Solutions seeing the most benefit from this speed enhancement include higher-performance displays, storage, and USB-based hubs and docks."

Thursday's announcement of an 80 gigabit transfer speed sounds great -- on paper. But, just after the USB-IF did away with the need for active Thunderbolt cables for 40 gigabit per second cable runs longer than one meter, it's backtracked on that.

To get those promised 80 gigabit per second speeds, you again need an active cable. At a glance, you can't tell if your USB-C cable is capable of USB 2.0, USB 3.0, USB 3.1, USB 3.2, USB4, or USB4 version 2.0 speeds. To be clear, this ranges from 480 megabits per second to 80 gigabits per second.

Let's not forget the relatively new 240W charging maximum from USB-C. This also, still needs a cable explicitly rated for it. And with the rest of the specs, forget being able to figure out what speed or how much power it can carry at a glance.

Doing some quick napkin math, today there are about 60 different combinations of USB-C cable when you think about speed, Thunderbolt versus USB, active versus passive, and charging capability. This doesn't include the variants that will pop out as a result of USB4 version 2.0.

At a glance, users will still have no idea what cable they have in the cable boxes, go-bags, and cable racks we all have.

Labeling the way out of the problem hasn't worked

To be completely fair. the USB-IF has paid lip service to this problem. They tried to force spec labeling on cables and accessories.

In 2021, the USB-IF implemented a system of logos in its "Certified USB Logo Program." In short, the group wanted to mandate labels on USB-C cabling.

New USB-C logos
New USB-C logos


"With the new higher power capabilities enabled by the USB PD 3.1 Specification, which unlocks up to 240W over a USB Type-C cable and connector," said USB-IF President and COO Jeff Ravencraft at the time. "USB-IF saw an opportunity to further strengthen and simplify its Certified Logo Program for the end user."

Saying you want manufacturers to label cables isn't the same as enforcing it -- which is not happening. Here we are, a year later, and these labels are still not any more visible to users than a singular dust mote floating across a room when the sun is low in the sky.

In practice, in late 2022, two of the well-over 100 cables we at AppleInsider have bought and been supplied in the last year have these labels. Other than a periodic Thunderbolt icon -- which still doesn't discuss if the cable is active or passive, nor say anything at all about charging power -- it's still anybody's guess at a glance what the cable is capable of.

USB-C is present and future, but imperfect ones

We like USB-C. We prefer it for our computers, it's been great on the iPad, and most of us here want it to come to the iPhone sooner rather than later.

We still need more USB-C, just about everywhere, and the 20-year old USB-A needs to go. From a user standpoint, we still recommend embracing USB-C like we've said for six years, instead of using adapters to connect unless you absolutely have to.

We're not asking the USB-IF to stop advancing the spec. What we are asking, is a sane way that users can tell what is what, and at a glance be able to see how much data and power a cable is capable of transmitting instead of the guesswork now.

And it needs to be enforced, instead of just being guidance thrown out into the wind to see where it lands.

Users just shouldn't have guess about it, or attach a home-made label to each cable, telling us what it's capable of when we've forgotten the specifics a month after we've stored it. Over the years, the spec has expanded so much, I've purchased a cable tester and identifier to be sure that what I've bought is what I got, and to guarantee my own labels are accurate.

Until then, users need to stock up on cable label stickers -- or that aforementioned cable spec tester. Unfortunately, we're probably going to need alternate solutions for a long time.

Read on AppleInsider
dewmetenthousandthings
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 36
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 6,820administrator
    JP234 said:
    If you can't tell what bandwidth you're getting from your USB cable/device, you probably don't need to know.
    You can tell what bandwidth or charging capacity a USB-C cable can handle just by looking at it coiled up on the floor? Nice trick.
    MrBunsidescstrrfOferstompyJapheydoozydozenappleinsideruserentropysblastdoordarkvader
  • Reply 2 of 36
    "I've purchased a cable tester and identifier to be sure that what I've bought"

    What exact cable tester do you use and own?
    scstrrfdoozydozenbaconstangdarkvader
  • Reply 3 of 36
    JP234 said:
    If you can't tell what bandwidth you're getting from your USB cable/device, you probably don't need to know.
    My iPad Pro uses a USB-C cable for charging. My wife’s M1 MacBook Air uses a USB-C cable for charging. The iPad cable doesn’t work for charging the Air (and maybe vice versa). I can’t tell by looking at them which one works with which device but we obviously need to know or at least one device won’t be charging when we think it is. 
    danoxjcs2305scstrrfOferJP234doozydozenbaconstangblastdoordarkvaderspheric
  • Reply 4 of 36
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 6,820administrator
    "I've purchased a cable tester and identifier to be sure that what I've bought"

    What exact cable tester do you use and own?
    I tried a couple of early all-in-ones, and they weren't reliable or consistent. For now, for day-to-day use I've settled on:

    https://plugable.com/products/usbc-vameter3

    For charging testing and so forth. There are a few more that I'm looking at that break down things like data communication for fast charging and whatnot, and I'll get back to you when I've settled on one. My favorite of those so far is:

    https://www.avhzy.com/html/product-detail/ct3
    muthuk_vanalingamscstrrfOferdoozydozenappleinsideruserJaiOh81entropyschasmFileMakerFeller
  • Reply 5 of 36
    dewmedewme Posts: 5,271member
    The good news is that the USB "C" connector itself seems to be a fairly common point of convergence. There is still a lot of residual USB connector ugliness out there in various products like printers, hubs, IoT devices, smart speakers, rechargeable devices, etc. The list of non "C" connector implementations is shrinking but it is still not zero. Of course, even if it hits zero and "C" connectors are universal, the variations in the link, physical, and application layers that are hidden beneath cables built with the "C" connector's compatibility facade will still be there waiting to bite USB cable users in the butt.  

    The root of the problem is that USB specification generating and governance organizations have no way to enforce conformance. They can specify in great detail all of the conformance requirements, including mandatory conformance testing, that "shall" be met. They can specify all of the branding, logo, and marking requirements for every single variation in the specification. They can broadcast every imaginable "thou shalt" declaration they want vendors to follow or threaten to withhold certification when third party certification agencies are involved. But none of it matters if vendors decide to ignore anything the governance organization puts in place, if there is no way to enforce the standard or remove nonconforming products, including those lacking proper identification/labeling, from store shelves, or especially when vendors self-certify their products. 

    Can anything be done? Your mention of testing/verification tools is interesting. I'm keen to hear more about your USB tester/verifier setup. Perhaps if these testers are inexpensive they could provide some relief for individuals, and more so if they can be made available to more customers at physical point-of-sale locations like MicroCenter, BestBuy, Apple Stores, etc., or used to provide certification services by middlemen/intermediaries in online sales channels.

    For example, Amazon could offer cable certification (by a trusted 3rd party) as an add-on purchase when you purchase a USB/TB cable in the same way they offer extended warranties. Certified cables would come with a certificate that the cable meets an exact standard. If the cable fails to work in the customer's application it would be replaced with one that works in the same way that a failed product is replaced, or refunded under the warranty. None of these things would be completely foolproof or idiot-proof, but perhaps the major retailers could offer the service to customers to improve the the probability that a cable is going to work as expected. Some of these cables are very expensive, and maybe it's because you're getting what you pay for, but buying USB/TB cables at any price point should not be like navigating a mine field.
    edited September 2022 scstrrfOferbaconstang
  • Reply 6 of 36
    Despite claims here that there's nothing wrong with the USB-C connector, I find that it really sucks.

    I have Thunderbolt cables coming out of the back of my 2020 iMac 5K going to two storage units, and find that if I think about going near them they disconnect with dispiriting frequency.

    If USB plugs had a simple spade connector like lightning I think the cables would be reliable - but with that stupid female connector within a sleeve design, you just don't get a durable and reliable connection.
    tmayblastdoorlkruppnrg2
  • Reply 7 of 36
    netroxnetrox Posts: 1,410member
    The USB standard needs to take a course in UX. The logos are terrible. Confusing. Overcomplicated. 

    It should show like

    USB4 S:80 W:100

    Whereas S is speed for data transfer. W is how many watts supported. 

    That is pretty intuitive and instructive to what the cable's capable of. 
      
    for power only, it should denote:

    USB4 PD W:240

    Whereas PD is Power Delivery and no mention of S means no data. But why do we want just PD cable? It's actually promoting waste. It cannot be more economical to have just PD cable. 
     


    hexclockdarkvadertenthousandthingschasm
  • Reply 8 of 36
    netrox said:
    The USB standard needs to take a course in UX. The logos are terrible. Confusing. Overcomplicated. 

    It should show like

    USB4 S:80 W:100

    Whereas S is speed for data transfer. W is how many watts supported. 

    That is pretty intuitive and instructive to what the cable's capable of. 
      
    for power only, it should denote:

    USB4 PD W:240

    Whereas PD is Power Delivery and no mention of S means no data. But why do we want just PD cable? It's actually promoting waste. It cannot be more economical to have just PD cable. 
     



    Good start. I label all my USB C cables, otherwise it is a mess of confusion.  There are 2 more variants that need additional labeling: Thunderbolt, e.g. T3, and display protocol.

    So a complete label would be:  USB:3.1G2, T:3, W:100, D:1.4      Most active thunderbolt 3 cables (2m long) do not pass USB, and for displays, may have an echip. A simple cable for charging would be:  USB:2.0, T:No W:100 D:No  This is how I label my cables right now

    Speed marking is confusing because it depends on which protocol is being used on the cable.   This is how I label my cables right now


    tenthousandthingsnetrox
  • Reply 9 of 36
    mpantonempantone Posts: 2,024member
    Users just shouldn't have guess about it, or attach a home-made label to each cable, telling us what it's capable of when we've forgotten the specifics a month after we've stored it. Over the years, the spec has expanded so much, I've purchased a cable tester and identifier to be sure that what I've bought is what I got, and to guarantee my own labels are accurate.

    Until then, users need to stock up on cable label stickers -- or that aforementioned cable spec tester.
    I don't have a USB cable tester. I can recognize the Thunderbolt symbol but would someone else rummaging through my rat's nest of cables? This is a key point for Joe Consumer and it's not just applicable to USB-C.

    HDMI cables are the same deal. I bought probably six or seven 4K HDMI cables and two 8K HDMI cables and I labelled them immediately after I received them. Joe Consumer isn't going to do that. They are going to just use whatever cable is the right length, the nearest one first.

    There's a tradeoff here between convenience, compatibility, and better performance in terms of device ports and cable connectors.
    darkvader
  • Reply 10 of 36
    I bought an assortment of small, colored cable ties. I use a couple to indicate speed and power. If I need more info, I add a label. Works for USB-C and HDMI variations. Gotta do it when you unpack them.
  • Reply 11 of 36
    chadbagchadbag Posts: 1,995member
    Despite claims here that there's nothing wrong with the USB-C connector, I find that it really sucks.

    I have Thunderbolt cables coming out of the back of my 2020 iMac 5K going to two storage units, and find that if I think about going near them they disconnect with dispiriting frequency.

    If USB plugs had a simple spade connector like lightning I think the cables would be reliable - but with that stupid female connector within a sleeve design, you just don't get a durable and reliable connection.
    I've had a similar though limited experience.  Random disconnects of stuff just sitting there, where the connection is a USB-C type connector.  

    Also, my understanding is that USB-C does not support USB-A type hub functionality.  I can't buy a USB-C hub that plugs into my computer and had 6 or 8 USB-C connectors.  I don't want this for high speed connections but for those mundane things like keyboards (yes I use and prefer a wired keyboard) and as an iOS engineer, my 4 or 5 iPhones I may have hooked up at any one time. Anything that works in the USB-A star-like topography.  USB-C does nothing for me and my needs to hook up mundane, non speed dependent things.  
    FileMakerFeller
  • Reply 12 of 36
    hexclockhexclock Posts: 1,232member
    Well, someone should make a little box that you can plug your unknown cable into, and it will tell you what it is. 
  • Reply 13 of 36
    hexclockhexclock Posts: 1,232member
    netrox said:
    The USB standard needs to take a course in UX. The logos are terrible. Confusing. Overcomplicated. 

    It should show like

    USB4 S:80 W:100

    Whereas S is speed for data transfer. W is how many watts supported. 

    That is pretty intuitive and instructive to what the cable's capable of. 
      
    for power only, it should denote:

    USB4 PD W:240

    Whereas PD is Power Delivery and no mention of S means no data. But why do we want just PD cable? It's actually promoting waste. It cannot be more economical to have just PD cable. 
     


    Your suggestions make way too much sense. Well done. 
    darkvader
  • Reply 14 of 36
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 3,894member
    ‘One connector to rule them all’ we were promised, except the cables are all different. Now we have identical looking cables with varying capabilities and no clear way to tell them apart. The same goes for the USB C jacks on devices. They’re all the same and many are labeled but many aren’t. 

    It all sounds nice, but in reality what we have is the same situation we had before, just with cables that are indistinguishable from each other. Is this actually better? Doesn’t seem like it. 
    darkvaderFileMakerFeller
  • Reply 15 of 36
    palegolaspalegolas Posts: 1,361member
    In the meanwhile a 1000 m long Ethernet cable is looking at the current development, while operating at full speed.
  • Reply 16 of 36
    You can say what you want, but the MFI program has/had its pros. 

    And the fact that at 4.0G2 we still don’t have “one to rule them all” is telling that the ship likely has sailed for USB. 

    Just looking at the number of things you need to look at makes it complete mess for a layman. No matter what you print onto the cable. I see regularly many photographers/videographers that complain about their SD cards. It working, when the ONLY thing to look at is the speed (let’s leave out reliability for a moment), and it apparently it already too much for some. The rule is simple: if it plugs it should work. That’s consumer expectation, and I think a fair one. 

    MplsPFileMakerFeller
  • Reply 17 of 36
    hexclock said:
    Well, someone should make a little box that you can plug your unknown cable into, and it will tell you what it is. 
    A QR stamp would do.
    tenthousandthings
  • Reply 18 of 36
    The EC has the pull to lock our devices into this deeply flawed physical connector, but hasn't gone far enough to actually make it useful.

    Mandating labelling of cable ends and sockets with protocol, speed, and power capacity would've been more useful - but they're politicians and not technologists and can only pick something that's currently available and mandate its use.

    I've always found USB connectors to be deeply flawed since plug ends always have designated a shaped hollow piece of metal which is used as a channel that goes into a similarly shaped hole on the device with the plug end being female and the device end being male. This results in an unstable connection with tolerances too tight to support blind docking (mating the connectors without being able to see them).

    Common sense dictates that the plug end should be male and the socket end female. The physical connection could then sport a connection with less critical tolerances making blind docking possible. An optional lock like an ethernet cable would also be desirable since that connector may also be used for high speed or high power mission critical connections whose interruption could have dire consequences.

    Take a look at an RJ-type connector (RJ-11 phone or RJ-45 ethernet) connector to see what I mean. Those connections are relatively easy to blind dock and have locking clips so the connections are rarely interrupted.

    Now compare that to USB-C and try to insert a plug into a socket without looking and see how easy mating those connectors are - the tolerance of the sleeve is so high your practically need to have eyes on to do it easily.
    s.metcalfdewmeMplsPtmayFileMakerFeller
  • Reply 19 of 36
    What we really need is a regulatory body to get involved and investigate everyone. Maybe they’d conclude there’s some sort of nefarious collusion in misleading us consumers into buying excess incorrect cables, and the market would have to come up with a new connector altogether. I’d like to suggest USB-N (USB-not). It seems like this would be a great exercise for the EU as soon as they are done trying to stamp Lightning out of existence. (Sarcasm!)
  • Reply 20 of 36
    crowleycrowley Posts: 10,453member
    The EC has the pull to lock our devices into this deeply flawed physical connector, but hasn't gone far enough to actually make it useful.

    Mandating labelling of cable ends and sockets with protocol, speed, and power capacity would've been more useful - but they're politicians and not technologists and can only pick something that's currently available and mandate its use.

    I've always found USB connectors to be deeply flawed since plug ends always have designated a shaped hollow piece of metal which is used as a channel that goes into a similarly shaped hole on the device with the plug end being female and the device end being male. This results in an unstable connection with tolerances too tight to support blind docking (mating the connectors without being able to see them).

    Common sense dictates that the plug end should be male and the socket end female. The physical connection could then sport a connection with less critical tolerances making blind docking possible. An optional lock like an ethernet cable would also be desirable since that connector may also be used for high speed or high power mission critical connections whose interruption could have dire consequences.

    Take a look at an RJ-type connector (RJ-11 phone or RJ-45 ethernet) connector to see what I mean. Those connections are relatively easy to blind dock and have locking clips so the connections are rarely interrupted.

    Now compare that to USB-C and try to insert a plug into a socket without looking and see how easy mating those connectors are - the tolerance of the sleeve is so high your practically need to have eyes on to do it easily.
    Are you blind?  Why do you need to be blind docking so much?  Pay attention to what you're doing.
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