March 28, 2016

How to buy a USB-C cable that won’t fry your laptop

By Team Ventev Topic: Chargers

Turns out USB-C might be just as confusing to manufacturers as it is to consumers. Even Apple couldn’t avoid falling into a USB-C cable conundrum that led to a recall last month. Lucky for Macbook users, the move seemed more preventive maintenance than (literal) damage control.

But that can’t be said for all Type C cables.

The tech community is buzzing about a faulty USB-C cable that wrecked Google guy Benson Leung’s Pixel laptop and testing gear. So it’s important that consumers know how to tell a good cable from a hazardous one.

Problem is, it’s not so straightforward.

There’s no one feature or mark that indicates if a USB Type C cable is good quality. But a little research will go a long way in helping you find a worry-free USB-C cable.

What happens when a faulty USB-C cable zaps your computer

Mobile phones request how much power they pull from a source. These days, many smartphones (especially Androids) are charging at up to 1.8 amps – kind of a big draw if you’re pulling from a computer that gives on average a 0.5 to 1 amp max charge.

When wired properly, a USB-C cable’s resistor will tell the phone that it’s connected to a legacy USB-A device, so they “agree” to charge according to the legacy USB-A’s liking, and not necessarily the device’s.

Ventev Wallport e1100 with USB Type A port

Pictured Above: USB Type A port, used in Ventev Wallport e1100

In a faulty cable, the resistor (if there is one) sends the wrong signal, and the phone thinks the laptop is actually a high-powered charger. It tries to pull more current (amps) than the laptop can actually deliver, which can burn out your laptop and trigger overcurrent protection. If your laptop doesn’t have overcurrent protection, it can break its USB ports or permanently damage the motherboard.

For Benson, it wasn’t just a problem with the resistor. The bad-cable company had actually switched the positive and ground wires – creating a short and ruining his laptop and everything connected to it.

His case was especially surprising because it happened with a new computer. We expected there might be a few problems using A to C cables with older laptops, because any variation in spec would allow a USB-C device to pull too much power. But not even new devices are immune to the risk of the faulty cable.

And it’s really hard to tell if a cable is made well or not.

Buying a quality USB-C cable requires doing a little homework

Plenty of tech fanatics skip buying premium, long-wear cables and instead go for cheap, bundled Amazon bargains, using them as “disposables.” But because USB-C is so much more powerful, price and brand can be good indicators of a quality product.

Besides price, what else can you look for when shopping for Type C tech?

Most reputable manufacturers are members of the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF), which means they adhere to USB standards and have agreed to a code of conduct. Of course, there are some rule-breakers even within that organization, so follow these steps to make sure you buy a good USB Type C cable:

  1. Review the USB-IF members list and narrow your list of potential manufacturers to those that focus their product offerings on charging.
  2. Crosscheck the chargers and cables you’ve researched with third-party feedback, like Benson’s Amazon reviews.
  3. Contact the manufacturer and ask for info on what specs they use. You want to make sure their cables are using 56k resistors (advertised as ‘Default USB Power’) and are USB-IF compliant.

Some brands will try to sell you on the USB certification or logo. But actually, there are various other USB-C cables on the market (like Ventev’s) that are fully compliant with the specifications, even though they don’t have the logo yet. (Getting the logo means going through USB-IF’s complicated submission process, which takes a long time.) For now, don’t fret over trying to find a certified USB-C cable – just do your homework to make sure you buy one from a trusted manufacturer.

And don’t be discouraged by the bad press. USB-C is an awesome technology. Every time new technology is introduced, we have to make some compromises to make sure it works with the stuff that’s already available. That transition is always a little awkward.

USB-C is new and more powerful than what came before it, so we need to respect that.  It does have a robust safety systems to deal with a wide variety of technical challenges. Unfortunately, not all of the safety systems can be used with chargers already on the market, and that’s where this problem comes from.

When USB-C chargers and computer ports are ubiquitous in the near future, this problem will go away. In the meantime, your smartphone and laptop are worth a lot. Don’t risk the value of your premium devices with a cheap, poor-quality cable.

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