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USB? USB-C? Lightning? Making Sense of Connectors

European Commission calls for one style as standard for phones, games, tablets

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

Basak Gurbuz Derma/Getty Image

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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.

If only it were that simple. You may not know a USB-C cable from a Lightning connector. And you may be wondering whether all those cords and adapters stashed away in a drawer from older electronics will work with the latest tech gear. That's especially worth asking given that the power brick or adapter you plug into the wall is no longer automatically included with the latest phones.

Mixed bag on Apple devices

a lightning to u s b connector used for apple products

John Crowe / Alamy Stock Photo

A USB-A (or simply USB) connector, left, with an Apple Lightning connector.

The short answer is maybe, and it depends on the device. If you have an iPhone, the answer could be yes, since the phones still employ Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector, which has been a staple on the company’s handsets since the iPhone 5 was released in 2012 (that’s when Apple replaced the 30-pin dock connector that had been on prior models).

But the answer can also be no. Apple supplies a Lightning-to-USB-C cable with the latest iPhones. The increasingly popular slim, oval-shaped USB Type-C connector is popping up on all kinds of devices. But there’s no power adapter in the box. And USB-C is smaller and not to be confused with the familiar rectangular USB-A port that may be on your older power adapter, meaning the cord in the box won’t fit that adapter. USB-A is better known without the “A” suffix; it’s just USB or regular USB to the average person.

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

Equally confusing on Android

two u s b connectors on the left a white one from apple and on the right a black corded one

Chris Wilson / Cronislaw / Alamy Stock Photo

USB-C connectors

This cord-connector conundrum afflicts Android, as well. Many Android phones, even those just a few years old, have so-called mini-USB or micro-USB cables and ports, and while both are also smaller than regular USB, they are different from each other. But the latest top-tier Android phones have mostly migrated to USB-C, though the same can't be said about lower-cost handsets, a situation that should change as the cost of USB-C falls. For now, smartphone penetration for USB-C is around 50 percent, according to the London global research firm Omdia. It is important to note that while a USB-C cable is backwards compatible with the other varieties of USB, the different connecting form factor means you will need a dongle or adapter to plug it into one of those ports.

And then there are PCs

It’s a similar story on laptops, where USB-C is getting much of the love these days, rather than the regular USB ports that have been on the machines for years. Omdia puts laptop penetration for USB-C at 82 percent. If you still rely on regular USB to connect printers, memory card readers and other “legacy” peripherals and accessories, again, an adapter or dock may be required.

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, though the inevitable design compromises mean that these may not be the thinnest or lightest computers.

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

Efforts at unification

There are efforts at unification. Manufacturers are embracing USB-C worldwide. To cut down on consumer frustration and help tackle e-waste, the European Commission recently called for a mandate to make USB-C “the standard port for all smartphones, tablets, cameras, headphones, portable speakers and handheld video game consoles” in the European Union within 24 months from the date the proposal is enacted, assuming it will be.

Some 420 million mobile phones and other portable electronic devices were sold in the EU last year, according to the European Commission, with consumers owning, on average, at least three mobile phone chargers, two of which they use regularly. Nearly 4 in 10 people report having experienced problems at least once because they could not juice up their phones due to incompatible chargers. The wild card here: Will Apple play along and design an iPhone with USB-C instead of Lightning?

"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,” says Steven Yang, founder and CEO of Anker Innovations, a global producer of charging technologies. He adds that the annual waste from disposed mobile chargers and cables is estimated to be 300,000 tons per year.

Issues that still need detangling

• Why is USB-C emerging as the modern choice for many phones and laptops? 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,” notes Avi Greengart, president of Techsponential, a New Jersey–based technology research firm.

USB-C is generally faster, too. And because it’s being adopted on phones, computers and other devices, the promise is that you can use a single charger for all these devices.

“Where it gets tricky is that USB-C can support faster charging and faster data transfers," Greengart 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 backwards compatible with USB-A unless you add a dongle or adapter.


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Is your cable up to snuff?

• How do I know if a cable is any good? 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. But all cables are vulnerable to the torturous yanks and tugs we put them through.

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

If you are looking to charge an iPhone, MFI-certified cables or accessories (Made for iPhone/iPod/iPad) designate products that have Apple’s blessing and should be trustworthy. Non-MFI certified cables can get hot during charging and may damage the phone, tablet, laptop 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 connector 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. While 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 completely hung up on the cable or cord itself. “The critical thing to look for is the wattage output of the power supply,” says Wayne Lam, Los Angeles–based senior director of research in the Americas at CCS Insight, a market research firm in London that focuses on mobile. For instance, a 5-watt power adapter will charge your phone relatively slowly, he says. Apple sells a 20-watt USB-C adapter for $20 that it says will charge your iPhone 8 (or later version), 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 may not be the most elegant solution, but if you do 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? Aren’t we going wireless anyway? There’s certainly a major push to do away with the cords altogether. We’re seeing that with headphones and with 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.”

• What about the connectors in cars? There’s a high probability that your car 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 models 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.”

Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is the author of Macs for Dummies and the coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies

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