USB Type-C is great, but the standard isn’t perfect yet

USB Type-C is a forward-thinking I/O standard that aims to bundle both ease of use and versatility in one universal package. Not only is it becoming popular in the mobile device market, but it’s also finding its way to the game console and portable notebook markets among others.

If you own any of Apple’s new MacBooks or MacBook Pros, then you’re likely already accustomed to the USB-C life. While it takes a little bit of getting used to at first, it can be a smooth transition after some time. Nevertheless, I have a beef with the USB-C standard; at least in its current form.

A fragmented market

As the current market would indicate, no two USB-C cables are created equally. The market is incredibly fragmented, so while one cable might be better for situation A, another will be better for situation B.

Potentially the biggest problem I have as an owner of a 2017 15” MacBook Pro is trying to find the perfect all-in-one cable that supports three essential things:

  • Optimal 2-meter or longer cable length for device charging
  • 100W power delivery to keep up with the OEM 87W power adapter
  • Zippy USB 3.1 Gen 2 data speeds (10 gigabits per second) for peripheral connections

While it’s possible to find USB-C cables that do one or two of the things listed above, finding one with all three features is a discouraging venture, and I have yet to discover one. More alarmingly, it looks like things could stay that way for a while.

In conversations with several manufacturers, who shall remain anonymous as not to tarnish any reputations, they’ve relayed to me that the emerging USB-C standard is still limited by current technologies and poorly-written guidelines. As a result, their engineers are finding it challenging to produce the ideal USB-C cable with the limitations at hand.

Most USB-C cables supporting 100W power delivery on the market today are limited to USB 2.0 speeds (480 megabits per second), a far cry from USB 3.1 Gen 2’s 10 gigabits per second. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to send a speedy data signal this great length without first developing a more efficient data chip.

Many longer cables that support faster data rates are limited to 60W power delivery or less, which isn’t enough to keep up with the power-hungry 15” MacBook Pro when performing various hardware-intensive tasks. These might include Bootcamp usage or hardcore gaming, among other things.

Some brands, like Anker and Belkin, are only beginning to tease 1-meter length cables that support 100W power delivery and USB 3.1 Gen 2 speeds, but even this isn’t the ideal length for charging a MacBook Pro because it’s shorter than the OEM cable.

From these details, we learn that USB-C isn’t quite as “versatile” as it sets out to be. While it’s getting there, it’s not quite there yet.

A problem for some, but not for all

Whether this is a problem really depends on your usage habits. In my case, I use so many peripherals with my 2017 15” MacBook Pro (especially on the go), that I need a cable fit for a power user. For others, the current market might work just fine.

While Apple‘s USB-C cable supports the full 87W charging speed of my MacBook Pro, it only sports USB 2.0 data speeds. This isn’t ideal for attaching external solid state drives (SSD), or other high-speed devices. As a solution, I usually carry two USB-C cables around with me everywhere I go – one for charging, and one for data performance.

I’ll be the first to say that it’s annoying when you have several USB-C cables slipping through your fingers during your daily commute; mainly when you rely on a minimalist notebook sleeve like this one by Picaso Lab and don’t have a lot of room to store those extra cables or peripherals. Ideally, I need one cable that does everything so that I don’t have to carry two.

Then again, everyone uses a different setup from the next guy so your mileage may vary. Herein lies perhaps the most significant problem, and fuels the lack of motivation for companies to develop said “perfect” cable.

Those using the smaller 13” MacBook Pro get a 61W power adapter, so a 60W USB-C cable isn’t far from the mark and can still produce zippy data speeds. Likewise, MacBook with Retina display users get a 29W power adapter so the same cables would be perfect for them too. Even smartphone and tablet users are unlikely to find fault with the USB-C cable market, as these kinds of devices rarely require USB 3.1 Gen 2 speeds and charge at much slower speeds.

Because everyone doesn’t need 100W power delivery in a high-performance USB-C cable, and because most devices operate in the 60W or lower power range, it’s unlikely that we’ll see any breakthroughs in this sector for a while to come. Chances are, things could stay that way, at least until more high-power notebooks start adopting the USB-C standard and it becomes a necessity.

No matter how I look at it, the current market leaves a lot to be desired by myself and others who’ve opted for Apple’s most power-hungry notebook. Hopefully, however, that will change at some point in the near future.

Are you in the same boat with USB-C? Discuss your experience in the comments below and let us know what your ideal USB-C cable would be.