Skip to main content

You have no idea how deep the USB-C spec rabbit hole goes

You have no idea how deep the USB-C spec rabbit hole goes


Watching an engineer at work is a true joy

Share this story

macbook pro 2016
Vjeran Pavic

Over the weekend I wrote about some of my experiences with USB-C over the past year. They are, in short, mixed. I’ve had brief glimpses of the future that USB-C promises: a single port and a single cable for all gadgets. But figuring out how to get to that future means dealing with infuriatingly bad cables and hubs and trying to understand a hilariously complicated admixture of different protocols like Thunderbolt, HDMI, and DisplayPort that also theoretically work with this one single cable (plus all the dongles it currently requires).

But friends, I have not even come close to scratching the surface. And I’m here to tell you that reading Google+ posts about USB-C charging specifications is strangely relaxing (at least when compared to following the election).

We’ve already written many times about Benson Leung, the Google engineer who tests and reviews USB-C products. But you might not know that Leung has a compatriot in testing: Nathan K. K is an engineer who unapologetically goes deep on USB-C testing, criticizing everything from random cables to Google’s Pixel to Apple’s products. Turns out the latter have not always been quite as standards-compliant as they could be.

Apple is quietly replacing one of its USB-C cables

Earlier this year, Apple began a “voluntary exchange program” for USB-C cables that were designed alongside the original MacBook. And now it appears the company is silently updating that cable with a new, better version that still has the exact same model number. According to K, the new cable comes in a rectangular box (don’t buy one in a square box) and is the “best ‘charge’ cable I've ever seen.” (It also turns out that Apple is using different cables in its stores than it’s shipping to customers.)

But I’m not going to get into the minutiae of Apple’s exchange program nor the specs of its cables and chargers: the Google+ community is doing a fine job of that. Instead, I just want to point out how much fun it is to watch an experienced engineer essentially do forensic analysis on consumer products. It’s fun even though I know that all this work is only necessary because so many of those products are legitimately dangerous to plug into your devices. Even the simplest thing — delivering a charge over a wire — turns out to be insanely complicated and filled with corporate politics.

If diving into a bunch of Google+ pages isn’t your idea of a fun distraction, can I interest you in a USB-C Reddit thread? Perhaps a spreadsheet of tested, safe USB-C cables? How about an Android Common Compatibility Document that Android Police found? It detailing Google’s "STRONGLY RECOMMENDED" suggestion that USB-C Android devices adhere to the standard and don’t mess with pin-outs or voltages. That doesn’t sound like fun to you?

Yes, this is what I’m doing instead of obsessively refreshing news on the election today and terrifying myself with electoral maps. Politics is exhausting, but USB-C forensic analysis is exhausting and a little heartening: it’s a mess, but we can fix it with science.