It’s one of the laws of technology that you can never find the right cable when you need it. What should be simple – almost every device you connect to your computer or phone uses a USB cable, so you’d expect there to be a universal cable – is instead a complete train wreck.
USB is a confusing scrabble of different port types, cable speeds, and terrifyingly long names. I have a huge pile of USB cables that I’ve never given up on organizing. Instead, I just randomly pull out cables until I find what I need.
Fortunately, a new standard is trying to clear up this confusion. USB4, its creators hope, will bring order to this chaos by standardizing things on a single cable. But such a claim has been made before, for genuine USB cables, for Firewire on Macs, for Thunderbolt, and for many other connection types. So, is there reason to believe in USB4? Will it really remove all the confusion?
My prediction: Yes, but it will take time – and you’ll still have to keep a bunch of cables on hand.
Ports of confusion
Let’s take a step back and look at history. USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, a standard created by a group of computer companies in 1996 to replace the serial ports and proprietary cables that connected devices like MP3 players to computers. The first cables were simple: a rectangular Type-A connector for the computer and a square Type-B connector for the device.
This group of companies is now known as the USB Implemeter’s Forum, the USB-IF. The group companies have changed, but it remains the place where they come together to set the standard.
Over the years, their model evolved. 2001 brought USB 2.0, which added the ability to send enough power through the connection to charge a small device. USB 3.0 in 2008 added different types of connectors that were more suitable for small and thin devices like phones: Mini Type B and Micro-B. USB 3.1 in 2013 added larger connectors called Micro-A SuperSpeed and Micro-B Superspeed with more pins, providing more bandwidth and power capacity.
This fortuitous development meant that there was a bewildering variety of possible connections that a device could use. Each device may require a cable with a Type B, Type B SuperSpeed, Type-C, Mini-A, Mini-B, Micro A, Micro A Superspeed, Micro B or Micro B SuperSpeed plug. This is how I ended up with my huge pile of cables: I never know when I might need a Micro B SuperSpeed cable for a portable hard drive or a Mini-B cable for a mobile phone.
Meanwhile, because USB ports had limited power to charge devices, companies created their own plug-ins to help improve USB charging times. But these only worked if both the computer and the device supported the same standard. QuickCharge from Qualcommfor example, it could charge a phone several times faster than a standard USB port, but only if you plugged the phone into one of the orange USB ports that supported QuickCharge.
Things inside computers were no better: For USB 3.2 in 2017, the USB Implementers Forum (the group that oversees USB standards) created different USB speeds. There were three versions: SuperSpeed USB 20Gbps, SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps and SuperSpeed USB 5Gbps. (The number is the data speed in Gigabits per second.)
To keep costs down, computer manufacturers built computers that had one or two of the faster SuperSpeed USB 20Gbps ports, while the rest were equipped with the cheaper, slower types. Laptops will usually have a 20 Gbps port on one side and a slower one on the other, with a tiny logo next to the port to indicate which was which.
Finally (and even more confusingly) another standard came on the scene with the Thunderbolt. Created by Intel and Apple, Thunderbolt didn’t really take off outside of the Mac world until version 3, which used a USB Type-C port. But that didn’t mean it was compatible. You can plug a Thunderbolt device into a USB port and it will work, but not the other way around: Manufacturers had to pay a license fee to Intel to use Thunderbolt 3, and many didn’t to save money.
So many offers created a predictably confusing result.
You might buy an expensive portable hard drive and wonder why it took ages to copy files to it until you realize that the 20Gbps SuperSpeed USB drive was plugged into a 5Gbps SuperSpeed port. You’d plug your phone into a USB port and it would charge incredibly slowly until you realized you’d plugged it into a USB port that could only deliver 7.5 watts of power, while the QuickCharge 3.0 next to it could deliver up to 36 watts of power, charging your phone four times faster.
One cable to rule them all
The solution comes in simplicity. The new Thunderbolt 4 and USB4 standards support only one type of connection, USB Type-C. This connection can do it all: Each port can supply or receive enough power that you can charge your laptop from a power adapter and then use the same USB4 port and cable to charge the your phone. Each port can transfer data at up to 40 Gbps or 80 Gbps in Version 2. Each port can drive multiple 8K or 4K displays, making it easy to connect your laptop to external displays. What’s more, it can do all these things at once: the same cable can transfer video from your laptop to a monitor while charging your laptop.
Cables for Thunderbolt 4 and USB4 are also much easier. Both ends are identical and the USB Type-C plug is symmetrical, so you don’t have to worry about plugging it in the wrong way or upside down: It works the same way.
The ports are also backwards compatible. If you want to connect a USB 3.2 device, you just need to buy an adapter for the physical port.
So your next laptop will have Thunderbolt 4 USB4 ports that can do it all. You might already have it: Apple made the switch on all of its laptops in 2021, while Dell offers it on its high-end XPS laptops, but not yet on its Inspiron line, which uses older-style USB 3.2 ports. They will in time, though, because offering one port that does it all will be simpler and cheaper for them and for you.
Personally, I’d be thrilled to be rid of that tangle of USB cables. However, while Thunderbolt 4 and USB4 may improve the situation, we’re not there yet. So, I’ll hold the rat’s nest a little longer.