This problem is like playing a broken record. The USB Promoter Group improves the USB-C computer standard, but at the same time adds more unresolved confusion to the lack of cable labeling. You’d think by now they could get it right!
I know…you’ve heard this all before. But it is astounding that the USB governing body can’t seem to solve this problem. It is not a complex engineering issue, but a simple communications issue.
Of course, USB has come a long way since its humble beginning in the 1990s. Everyone agrees on that. Data transfer rates have increased dramatically, allowing users to run dozens of peripherals. The small reversible USB-C connector was a good choice. For the most part, USB-C has been a good standard.
Which is Which?
The problem is not the USB-C technology or the physical connector—it’s the idea that the standard is universal. As any computer user now knows, USB-C is not plug and play. It is hard to tell which cable is which and the cables are not identified. After all this time, the problem is still not being solved and about to get worse with the introduction of USB4, Version 2.
The USB4 v2.0 specification enables up to 80 Gbps of data performance over the USB-C cable and connector and is designed to unify the USB and Intel Thunderbolt standards. Updates are also being made for higher available bandwidth for USB 3.2, DisplayPort and PCI Express (PCIe) data. All of the new specification updates are expected to be published in advance of a developer conference planned for November.
“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 Brad Saunders, USB Promoter Group chairman. “Solutions seeing the most benefit from this speed enhancement include higher-performance displays, storage and USB-based hubs and docks.”
Here’s the gotcha. To get the promised 80 Gbps speed, users again need an active cable. There are no markings for the human eye to determine if a USB-C cable is capable of USB 2.0, USB 3.0, USB 3.1, USB 3.2, USB4 or USB4 v2.0 speeds. This lack of labeling ranges from 480 Mbps to 80 Gbps. When we look at the rat’s nest of cables many of us have stuffed away in a drawer over the years, how will we know what cable does what?
Throw into this confusing mix the relatively new 240W charging maximum for USB-C. It still needs a cable explicitly rated for the specific application. Forget being able to figure out what speed or how much power a cable can carry by simply eyeballing it. Most cables won’t be labeled.
When speed, Thunderbolt vs. USB, active vs. passive and charging capability are considered, there are about 60 different combinations of USB-C cable. This is ridiculous and overwhelming!
The idea that end users have no idea what a USB cable is capable of is absurd—it’s not that the UBS standards group hasn’t tried to correct the problem. The USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) attempted to force labeling on cables and accessories. In 2021, it created a system of logos in its “Certified USB Logo Program.” The group wanted to “voluntarily” mandate labels on USB-C cabling.
Of course, no one is enforcing anything. In the real world, there are virtually no labels. All we see are periodic Thunderbolt icons, which still don’t say whether a cable is active or passive. And there is nothing about charging power. Again, it is the “Wild West” as to guessing what a cable is capable of handling.
The technical standards of USB-C are
not the problem. It is truly amazing that with all this technical genius, no one has come up with a standardized and enforceable way of communicating what a cable is capable of.
As for now, the problem will continue. Users will still have to guess what a cable can do. It will be hit and miss. How many of us have used the wrong cable for an application and been stumped when it won’t work? I know I have. The problem is mind-bendingly annoying.
Some users have purchased a cable tester and their own labels to determine what a USB-C cable does and then manually label it. Without this, a cluster of old cables becomes a minefield of problems.
Sadly, USB4 v2 is going to make things worse. It looks like we are going to have to live with this problem for years to come. It is all so unnecessary.
Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.
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