It’s 2022, so why is USB-C still so damn complicated?

If you have two similar USB-C to C cables, chances are you can’t tell anything about their capabilities just by looking at them. The USB-C standard can handle a lot: charging, data transfer and audio and video streaming. But not all USB-C cables are created equal.

When I bought my M1-powered MacBook Air, I was excited about carrying just one charger to charge all my gadgets. I put the standard USB-C Apple charger in my bag and expected it to charge my laptop, phones, power bank and earbuds.

My colleague Napier has beautifully captured how the USB-C standard has changed the lifespan of the gadget. But the simplicity ends with having a USB-C port.

Choosing the right cable and knowing what kind of port you really have is a different ball game.

As such, given the complexity of USB standards, you may need to buy many different cables to do whatever you want with your devices. Plus, you need to know if the USB-C port on your device supports all of those. Because there is no mandate for a USB cable/port to do all of the above.

USB-IF (USB Implementers Forum) is an organization looking to standardize USB for hardware manufacturers worldwide. We spoke to them about how they maintain labels and why companies don’t really care about putting them on their products.

The complexity of USB-C

USB-C is confusing because for every capability — power, data, and video — there’s a specification you need to know. You can’t just grab a USB cable and expect it to do all these things.

So how the hell would you correctly identify a cable or a device’s USB capabilities? That story consists of two parts. First, you can look at your cable’s packaging or the cable itself to see if there are any USB-IF approved logos, that’s how the regulatory body wants things to be.

Not everyone in the industry follows this convention and just wants to include different specifications for data, power and display in the spec sheet of the device.

Before we talk about the clash between these two ideologies, let me talk about the mental illness, the set of data and charging standards within the USB-C standard itself, and why you’d probably need a degree to correctly identify cables.

Facts

Data is probably the most complex standard, given its name (or numbered). USB-IF has recommended logos and labels for three versions: USB 2.0, USB 3.2 (which also includes the old USB 3.1 standard), and the new USB 4.0 standard.

But since most companies don’t care about following them, you’ll still see differences, such as USB 3.1 being listed in new product specs – when ideally it should be USB 3.2. Then there are other complexities.

For example, the theoretical data communication rate of USB 2.0 is 480 Mbits/sec (60 Mbytes/sec). However, with USB 2.0, data can only flow in one direction, so you actually get maximum transfer speeds of 30 Mbytes/sec.

When someone mentions USB 3.2 (or 3.1) on the datasheet without additional information, it can mean that transfer rates range from 5Gbits/sec to 20Gbits/sec. See the table below for more info. Don’t worry if you can’t remember. No one can.