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iPhone’s Shift Brings USB-C Closer to Becoming Connector for All Devices

European Commission’s standard — dropping USB-A, micro, mini, Lightning cables — likely to be worldwide

spinner image from left to right are shown an original u s b type a connector a lightning connector used with apple products a micro u s b connector and finally a u s b c connector
USB-A, Lightning, micro-USB-B and USB-C connectors are among several confusing types of cables for electronic devices.
Basak Gurbuz Derma/Getty Image

Here’s the untangled truth about the cables and cords you use to power up your devices: One end goes into the charger; the other plugs into your phone, computer or another device.

The European Union (EU) wants it to be that simple. And Apple on Sept. 12 in effect acknowledged that trying to fight the issue doesn’t make fiscal sense.

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You may not know a USB-C cable from Apple’s soon-to-be-retired Lightning connector. But you may be wondering whether all those old cords and adapters in your drawer will work with the latest tech gear. That’s especially worth asking because the power adapter, sometimes called a brick, that you plug into the wall is no longer automatically included with the latest phones.

The alphabet soup of USB and other connectors is enough to drive even tech-savvy users bonkers at times.

Connectors remain a mixed bag on Apple devices

Will your old cables and adapters work? The short answer is maybe. It depends on the device.

Lightning. For more than 10 years, Apple phones — starting with iPhone 5, released in 2012, up to the iPhone 14 models that debuted in 2022 — came equipped with Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector.

spinner image a curled usb-c cable connector on a red and black field
USB-C connector

30-pin connectors. Before that, Apple used a 30-pin connector to attach a charging cable to its iPads, iPhones and iPods.

USB-C. But the newest phones from Apple — the 2023 iPhone 15, 15 Plus, 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max that the company unveiled — ditch Lightning for USB-C.

If you have an iPad, it may have a Lightning port. Then again, on some recent tablets, Apple abandoned Lightning for USB-C, meaning that one end of the cable goes into the USB-C port and the other into a USB-C power adapter, which is still supplied.

“It’s a big move for Apple and the industry, and it also brings us into a level of standardization across all kinds of products,” Chairman Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies, a tech analysis firm in San Jose, California, said of iPhone 15s with USB-C.

The increasingly popular slim, oval-shaped USB Type-C connector is popping up on all kinds of devices. A USB-C opening is smaller than the familiar rectangular USB-A port that may be on your older power adapter, so the cord in the box won’t fit your old adapter.

USB-A is better known without the “A” suffix. It’s just USB or regular USB to the average person.

Android smartphones have equally confusing roots

spinner image a close-up of a mini usb on a yellow background
Mini USB connector

This cord conundrum afflicts Androids as well.

Mini- and micro-USB. Many Android phones, even those just a few years old, have so-called mini-USB or micro-USB cables and ports. Both are smaller than a regular USB but are different from each other.

USB-C. The latest top-tier Android phones have mostly migrated to USB-C. But lower-cost handsets may not have made the switch, which should change as the cost of USB-C falls.

For now, smartphone penetration for USB-C is around 70 percent, according to the London global research firm Omdia. Though a USB-C cable is compatible with other varieties of USB, the different connecting end means you will need a dongle or adapter to plug it into one of those ports.

Some PCs give you USB-A, USB-C options

USB-A. On laptops, USB-A ports that have been on the machines for years are on the way out. Omdia puts laptop penetration for USB-C at 95 percent. If you still rely on regular USB cables to connect printers, memory card readers and other “legacy” peripherals and accessories, an adapter or dock may be required.

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USB-B. If you’re curious, USB-B connectors have a more square end and often have been used to attach larger devices, such as printers and scanners, to a laptop or desktop computer. A USB-A connector generally sits on the computer end. 

USB-C. To help with the changing of the guard, some laptops are equipped with both USB-C and USB-A ports. That’s a welcome development given all the proprietary and incompatible charging solutions laptop manufacturers have foisted on consumers for years, but the design means that these may not be the thinnest or lightest computers.

The European Union chooses USB-C

Worldwide, manufacturers are embracing USB-C. To cut down on consumer frustration and tackle e-waste, in June 2022 the European Commission established USB-C as “the common charging port for all mobile phones, tablets and cameras” in the European Union by fall 2024. Computer mice, earbuds, e-readers, handheld video game consoles, keyboards, laptops, portable navigation devices and portable speakers are also covered under the EU rules.

Some 420 million mobile phones and other portable electronic devices were sold in the EU in 2020, according to the European Commission. 

Consumers there own, on average, at least three mobile phone chargers, two that they use regularly. Nearly 4 in 10 people report having experienced problems at least once because they could not juice up their phones because of incompatible chargers.

The European mandate forced Apple to go all in on USB-C on the newest iPhones. Selling iPhones in the U.S. and elsewhere with the Lightning connector while producing USB-C versions that meet the European mandate would have been an extra cost for Apple.

“We support this initiative from the EU and believe it will have a positive impact on both consumer convenience and the reduction of e-waste,” Founder and CEO Steven Yang of Anker Innovations, a global producer of charging technologies, said in a statement to AARP in October 2021. He added that the annual waste from disposed mobile chargers and cables is estimated to be 300,000 tons a year.

Issues that still need detangling

Why is USB-C emerging as the modern choice? Versatility and convenience, for starters. Much like Lightning, USB-C has a symmetrical connector you can plug in any which way.

“That’s great for everyone, but especially for people with limited dexterity,” says Avi Greengart, president of Techsponential, a New Jersey–based technology research firm. USB-C is generally faster, too. Because computers, phones and other devices are adopting it, the promise is that you can use a single charger.

“Where it gets tricky is that USB-C can support faster charging and faster data transfers,” he says. “But not all USB-C cables are created equal — and there’s no way to know what a cable can do just by looking at it.” What’s more, USB-C isn’t compatible with USB-A unless you add an adapter.

Is your cable up to snuff? It isn’t easy to tell, Greengart says. Generally speaking, you should buy cables from reputable hardware manufacturers and accessory brands, including companies such as Anker and Belkin. The cheapest cables you may find online or in convenience stores may be fragile or charge slowly. All cables are vulnerable to the torturous yanks and tugs we put them through.

Manufacturers commonly highlight the “bend life span” as an indicator of cable quality. The larger the bend life span, the longer the cable should theoretically last. Anker, for example, offers cables that have life spans of 10,000 to 40,000 bends. 

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If you're looking to charge an iPhone, MFI-certified (Made for iPhone/iPod/iPad) cables or accessories designate products that have Apple’s blessing. Non MFI-certified cables can get hot during charging and may damage the phone, laptop, tablet or other device and, in the worst-case scenario, cause a fire, an Anker representative says. You can also look on the packaging or the cable itself for a certification logo from USB-IF, a nonprofit made up of companies that developed the Universal Serial Bus specification.

The length of a cable is important if, say, you want the cable to stretch from a plug on your console to a passenger’s phone in the back seat of a car or reach an out-of-the-way power outlet. Pay attention to the materials on the cord and around the head that plugs into a port, which may be metal or plastic. Some nylon braided cables may provide more protection than flat plastic, and silicone-coated cables are softer to the touch and tangle-free, compared with other materials.

If your phone has a case, make sure the cable you plan to use can be fully inserted. Though different materials may help with a cable’s durability, they should not affect the cable’s power delivery and data transfer speeds. But don’t get hung up on the cable or cord itself.

Adapter’s wattage important for charging speed. “The critical thing to look for is the wattage output of the power supply,” says Wayne Lam, formerly Los Angeles-based senior director of research in the Americas at CCS Insight, a market research firm in London that focuses on mobile. He’s now service director at TechInsights of Ottawa, Canada, which focuses on the semiconductor industry.

A 5-watt power adapter will charge your phone relatively slowly. Apple sells a 20-watt USB-C adapter for $19 that it says will charge your iPhone 8 or later, iPad Pro or iPad Air faster. 

Larger devices such as laptops typically require more power to charge them. Both the charger and the cable should be rated to handle the highest power requirement needed from the device, Anker advises.

Dongles aren’t going away

Will we have to live with dongles much longer? It seems so. Accessory dongles and portable docks with additional connectors aren’t the most elegant solution to linking cables and devices, but if you need to connect legacy USB devices to a computer with, say, USB-C, they may be your only option. USB-C-capable docks for computers may supply other needed ports, including slots for memory cards, Ethernet cables and HDMI or display connectors required to hook up an external monitor.

You may also need a Lightning or USB-C dongle if you’re still using wired headphones, since the once-standard 5mm headphone jack on phones is heading toward extinction.

How long will cables matter? A major push is on to do away with cords altogether. That’s true with headphones and wireless charging. The newest flagship phones support a wireless charging standard known as Qi, though not every phone is there yet. There’s also the matter of speed.

“Wireless chargers tend to offer a lot of convenience, but they are much slower and less energy-efficient,” Greengart says. “We will probably continue to have wired connections on our phones for at least another couple of years.”

And with the wires, cable confusion lingers. New iPhones come with a USB-C 2.0 cable in the box. But you’ll have the option to invest in a USB-C 3.0 cable that will support faster data transfer speeds on the 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max, useful to move a lot of photos and videos off the phones.

What about the connectors in cars? Your car likely has one or more USB-A ports that occupants use to charge devices, and people routinely leave a charging cable in the vehicle. But relatively few new vehicles have USB-C.

“Unlike consumer electronics, where the product life cycles are relatively short, cars tend to stick around for nearly a decade, so this problem will be with us for quite a while,” Lam says. “We will have to live with this cable madness for some time before things become better with the convergence to USB-C.”

This story, originally published Oct. 11, 2021, has been updated to reflect Apple’s changes on USB-C.

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