It’s one of the laws of technology that you can never find the right cable when you need it. What should be simple — pretty much every device you plug into 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 horribly long names. I have a huge pile of USB cables that I have given up on ever organizing; instead I randomly pull out cables until I find the one I need.
Fortunately, a new standard is trying to clear up this confusion. USB4, the makers hope, will bring order to this chaos by standardizing everything to a single cable. But such a claim has been made before, for the original USB cables, for Firewire on Macs, for Thunderbolt, and for many other types of connections. So, is there any reason to believe in USB4? Will it really clear up all the confusion?
My Prediction: Yes, but it takes time – and you’ll still have to keep a pile of cables handy.
Havens of confusion
Let’s step back and look at history. USB stands for universal serial bus, a standard created in 1996 by a group of computer companies to replace the serial ports and proprietary cables that connected devices such as 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 companies in the group have changed, but it remains where they come together to set the standard.
Over the years, their standard has evolved. The year 2001 brought USB 2.0, which added the ability to send enough power across the connection to charge a small device. USB 3.0 added several types of connectors in 2008 that were more suitable for small and thin devices such as phones: Mini Type B and Micro-B. USB 3.1 added larger connectors in 2013, called Micro-A SuperSpeed and Micro-B Superspeed, with more pins, providing more bandwidth and power capacity.
This haphazard evolution meant there was a bewildering variety of possible connections 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. That’s how I got my huge pile of cables: I never know when I’ll need a Micro B SuperSpeed cable for a portable hard drive or a Mini-B cable for a cell phone.
Meanwhile, as USB ports had limited power to charge the devices, companies came up with their own additions to improve USB charging times. But these only worked if both the computer and the device supported the same standard. Qualcomm QuickChargefor example, a phone could charge many times faster than a standard USB port, but only if you plugged the phone into one of the orange USB ports that supported QuickCharge.
Inside the computers it was no better: for USB version 3.2 in 2017, the USB Implementers Forum (the group that oversees the 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 rate in Gigabits per second.)
To keep costs down, computer manufacturers built computers with one or two of the fastest SuperSpeed USB 20 Gbps ports, while the rest were equipped with the cheaper, slower types. Laptops usually have a 20 Gbps port on one side and a slower one on the other, with a small logo by the port to indicate which was which.
Finally (and more confusingly) another standard hit the scene with Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt, made by Intel and Apple, really took off outside the Mac world until version 3, which used a USB Type-C port. However, that didn’t mean it was compatible. You can plug a Thunderbolt device into a USB port and it will work, but the reverse isn’t true: manufacturers had to pay licensing fees to Intel to use Thunderbolt 3, and many didn’t to save money.
So many offers made for a predictably confusing result.
You might buy an expensive portable hard drive and wonder why it took so long to copy files to it before realizing that your SuperSpeed USB 20Gbps drive was connected to a SuperSpeed 5Gbps port. You would plug your cell phone into a USB port and it would charge incredibly slowly until you realized you had it plugged into a USB port that could only deliver 7.5 watts of power, while the QuickCharge 3.0 next to it could charge up to 36 watts. deliver Watts of power, charge your phone four times faster.
One cable to control them all
The solution lies in simplicity. The new Thunderbolt 4 and USB4 standards only support one type of connection, the USB Type-C. This connection can do it all: each port can supply or receive enough power so you can charge your laptop via a power adapter, then use the same USB4 port and cable to charge your phone. Each port can carry data at up to 40 Gbps, or 80 Gbps in version 2. Each port can drive multiple 8K or 4K monitors, making it easier to connect your laptop to external monitors. Plus, it can do all of these things at once: the same cable can carry video from your laptop to a monitor while your laptop is charging.
The cables for Thunderbolt 4 and USB4 are also much simpler. Both ends are identical, and the USB Type-C plug is symmetrical, so don’t worry about plugging it in the wrong way or upside down—it works the same anyway.
The ports are also backwards compatible. To connect a USB 3.2 device, you only need to purchase an adapter for the physical port.
So your next laptop comes with Thunderbolt 4 USB4 ports that can do it all. You may already have it: Apple switched all their laptops to them in 2021, while Dell offers it on their high-end XPS laptops, but not yet on their workhorse Inspiron line, which uses older USB 3.2 ports. In the long run, however, they will, as offering one port that does it all becomes easier and cheaper for them and for you.
Personally, I’d be very happy to get rid of that knot of USB cables. 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.