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Apple iPhone 15's move to USB-C is good in the long run, but will inevitably cause confusion among the general population, mainly due to the continued development of USB-C connectivity itself.
The problem here is not the early adopters, like most people reading this editorial. We have already purchased USB-C cables or purchased them along with other devices. Or we don't use cables at all anymore, preferring to use MagSafe to wirelessly charge our devices.
But the move to USB-C in the iPhone 15 will likely create chaos, at least in the short term, for millions of other customers who will find the new connector yet another complication when it comes time to upgrade or replace theirs. iPhone.
For the last decade, these people have been buying Lightning-equipped cables and accessories. They've invested, for lack of a better term, in connectivity, and they're only reluctantly going to introduce a new connector that makes their existing hardware obsolete. Those with truly long memories will remember the noisy transition from the 30-pin dock connector when there were far fewer iPhone users.
New connector every decade
Although USB-C didn't appear in the iPhone until this year, Apple was actually quite early on in its adoption of the standard. Apple introduced USB-C to the Mac eight years ago with the 2015 MacBook, just a year after the standard itself was completed.
Apple will eventually add USB-C ports to the MacBook Pro, iPad, and iPad Pro. But Apple has stubbornly stuck with Lightning for the iPhone until this year.
Apple has been slow to change peripheral connectors, although it manages to do so about once every decade. The 30-pin dock connector appeared on the third-generation iPod in 2003 and lasted until 2012, when Apple introduced the iPhone 5.
At the time, Apple Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller promised that Lightning would become iPhone connector that will last another ten years. He was right — Lightning lasted 11 years before being replaced by USB-C.
When it comes to the iPhone, Apple appears to be under pressure from the European Union. Last year, the EU mandated USB-C to become the standard for most small electronics, including cell phones. While this rule won't go into effect until 2024, the iPhone product cycle begins in September, so now is the time for Apple to make changes.
EU lawmakers saw USB-C as an opportunity to reduce waste and save consumers money. A report commissioned by the EU in 2021 claims that such standardization would reduce the amount of annual e-waste produced by European consumers by 11,000 tonnes and save them more than a quarter of a billion dollars.
So, ultimately, the iPhone's move to USB-C is about consumer convenience and savings. You can use the same cable to charge your Mac and iPhone, and the same cable can charge, transfer data, and display video.
In theory, this means fewer cables to take with you when you travel, as well as fewer power adapters cluttering your home, office, and backpack. Or at least that's how it's supposed to work.
USB-C is good in theory, but not so good in real implementation. It's not at all obvious at first glance whether the USB-C cable you buy supports the fastest possible data transfer speeds or fast charging.
It's not the connector's fault. In fact, the USB-C connector is quite good and much better than the one that preceded it. If we never see another micro USB cable, it will be too soon.
USB-C is reversible, like Lightning, and is also quite durable. Cables with USB-C plugs are already plentiful, can be found almost anywhere, and device manufacturers have been quick to adopt them.
But the term “USB-C” only tells part of the story.
Common connector, different cables
It's not obvious by looking at them to know which cable has which functionality, because “USB-C” just tells you which physical connector is being used. The same connector can be used for many different cables, providing different data rates and having different functions.
A USB-C cable can support data transfer rates from 480 megabits per second (Mbps) to 80 gigabits per second (Gbps), depending on whether the cable is active or passive , and whether the host controller is USB 3.2 or 4. Further adding to the confusion is the fact that the USB-C connector is used for Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 — although Thunderbolt cables are marked with a stylized lightning bolt, which makes them fairly easy to recognize.
We're going to skip the full discussion of active and passive issues here because it's not very important, but we've talked about it before.
Another potential confusion stems from rumors that Apple will vary data transfer speeds on different iPhone 15 models. Pro models are reported to get faster data transfer speeds of up to 20 Gbps, which exceeds the USB 2.0 limit of 480 Mbps. s that Lightning allows, and more than what the base iPhone 15 and 15 Plus models are expected to support.
Trust No One
The USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) deserves some blame for this . USB-IF members, including Apple and Intel, have created a positively byzantine set of “certified logo” programs to describe the various capabilities of USB, programs that are paper tigers that are, for the most part, completely unenforced. Cable manufacturers can ignore these recommendations with impunity, and many do.
If money is no object, you can buy a USB-C cable tester – a specialized multimeter that you can get detailed specifications about the capabilities cable. Assuming the cable uses a built-in E-Mark protocol controller, that is, many do, but some don't.
On Amazon and elsewhere, we've even seen cables with tiny LED displays that tell you what power level the cable is charging at and whether USB Power Delivery (USB-PD) is supported. But these are expensive options, and for the vast majority of consumers they are truly overkill.
So, any advice for people who are just now exploring the USB-C territory? Don't assume that all USB-C cables you receive are the same.
Do not put USB-C cables in the same box or desk drawer as other cables. Keep track of the cable that came with your device using labels, even improvise with a piece of masking tape if necessary.
And we hope that despite almost a decade of continuous development and evolution, Apple can find some sense in this USB-C madness. But given how confusing their own cable nomenclature has become, we wouldn't count on it.