Has the EU Finally Made the U in USB-C Actually Stand for Universal?
I spoke with Robyn Bresnahan on CBC Ottawa Morning on 06-Oct-2022 about the announcement. Listen to our discussion 👇
Wrong Cable, Wrong Way
We all have that drawer or box of cables and chargers for different devices. Which charger goes with which device? Who knows. You’ll figure it out in five or six tries.
USB launched in 1996 with two connectors. The “A” rectangle we all associate with USB, the “B” square-ish end. Mini-A and mini-B followed in 1998. 2001 brought USB 2.0 with increased speeds and new connection options mini-AB, micro-A, micro-B, and micro-AB.
Each made sense in turn. They were smaller and better suited for phones and other portable devices.
But they were the start of a very real problem. The “U” in USB quickly changed meaning from universal to ungainly.
The EU Puts Its Foot Down
The EU passed a revision to the Radio Equipment Directive that includes a couple small changes that will have a very real and very large impact.
The revision pass with a 602 to 13 vote (with 8 abstaining) and can be summarized as:
- All common consumer electronic devices will use the USB-C connector for charging
- …will use a harmonized fast charging technology
- …will allow for the un-bundling the charger at time of sale
- …will provide consumers with clear information about charging performance
The biggest and most immediate impact will be with Apple devices using the proprietary lightning connector, but this directive is broader than that.
Useful, But Time To Move On
As much frustration as some users are expressing about Apple’s lightning connector, it was a big win for users when introduced in 2012. Starting with the iPhone 5, iPod Nano, iPod Touch, and 4th generation iPad, all Apple devices and accessories would use one simple connector.
Named “Lightning” it provided the same speed as the USB 2.0 spec of the time, 480 Mbps. Lightning is a perfect marketing name. The new connector didn’t provide any transfer speed boosts and, in fact, added a layer that Apple controlled in direct the ecosystem around it’s devices.
For users, the new connector did solve a very real problem. It was—and is—very simple to actually plug in.
We’ve all had that frustration with USB-A connectors where you just can’t get it oriented in the correct direction. It often takes 3 tries to pick the right orientation from the 2 choices. Lightning works in either orientation.
Click…and you’re connected.
The ripple effect that standardizing the connector had was that the user could be confident that any accessory purchases would properly connect with any of these devices and their successors for the foreseeable future.
Immediately, charging became a lot easier.
Investing in a new charger was easier to justify when you knew it was going to work for a few years. Up until this, APple and others had a bad habit of changing connector types randomly. Each time that happened, you need to either buy adapters or new accessories.
In 2014, the USB-C connector was finalized. It was formally adopted by the standard-setting body, International Electrotecnical Commission (IEC) in 2016.
This new connector type fixed the, “Which was does this connect?” problem is a small form factor and with enough capacity—pins—in the connector to allow for complex data transfers. It was, and still is, a well designed solution that solves most—if not all—physical connectivity issues.
While a bit more technically complex, this is a straight forward physical connection standard that has all of the pieces required to put the universal back in USB.
Most Android device vendors started switching over to the physical USB-C connector. Other electronics have slowing starting moving over as new versions hit the market.
It wasn’t until 2018, that Apple released it’s first non-laptop with a physical USB-C connection, the iPad Pro.
Physical Connector vs. Protocol
A quick aside, you’ll notice that I’ve been using the term “physical connector” and it’s variants throughout this post. That’s because the prootcol to run power and data over USB is different than the physical connectors.
The connectors impact which protocols can be run but not nearly as much as other factors. Fair warning, USB naming conventions are an absolutely disaster. I’ll spare you the history and tears. The easiest way to think of it is:
- USB 1.x (started at 1.5 Mbps and then was increased to 12 Mbps)
- USB 2.x (maximum speed of 480 Mbps)
- USB 5 Gbps (a/k/a USB 3.0)
- USB 10 Gbps (a/k/a USB 3.1)
- USB 20 Gbps (a/k/a USB 3.2)
- USB 40 Gbps (a/k/a USB 4.0)
As you move through the generations, each version can typically provide all of the features of the previous generations. Right now and for the foreseeable future, we’re using USB 5—40 Gbps.
This means that while physically two devices might connect (yay USB-C!), they may not be able to communicate fast enough to actually work. If you try to connect an external dock to your laptop, it might not have enough bandwidth to talk to all of the devices you connect to it.
Don’t even get me started on [Thunderbolt](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thunderbolt_(interface), which is another protocol that works over USB-C physical connectors but requires different device support and cables!
Making this even more complicated is power delivery over USB-C. Thankfully, adding clarity here is part of the EU directive. USB-C is capable of delivering up to 240W of power. That should be enough to run a modern laptop, especially with efforts there to reduce power consumption.
The latest gaming laptop from Razor comes with a 230W power supply. That is pushing the limits of the USB-C spec, but it’s also the extreme.
The top end 16" MacBook Pro, for contrast, comes with a 160W adapter. There should be enough headroom in the USB-C spec for a while. And there might be the opportunity to increase the current limit without changing the physical connector.
The EU’s move is going to have worldwide implications. No company wants to make multiple versions of it’s product with slightly different connectors. The EU market has enough weight to push this change globally…and that’s a good thing.
USB-C physical connectors will simplify a lot of things for users. There will be some confusion over the speed and power capacity of the protocol used by various devices but that’s solvable with simple labelled and clear requirements.
While Apple was resistant to this move, they have been moving to USB-C connectors for more and more of their iPad line-up. They need the added speed and power for accessories. The delay helped them wring out more value from their investment and to start scaling up the supply chain required to deliver millions of units with USB-C.
Most people won’t really notice as this directive comes into effect. It’s a smart move whose impact will be realized when you look back in five years and say, “Oh, I remember that connector…haven’t used it in years.”
- EU moves ahead with plans to standardize phone chargers by 2024 | CBC News
- Press corner | European Commission
- Apple Will Be Forced to Use New Charger After EU Votes for USB-C (AAPL) - Bloomberg
- USB-type C to become EU’s common charger by end of 2024 | News | European Parliament
- Too many chargers? This EU lawmaker is pushing for a universal solution | CBC Radio
- What Is USB-C? An Explainer | PCMag
- Lightning (connector) - Wikipedia
- Lightning to 3.5mm Headphone Jack Adapter - Apple (CA)
- USB-C - Wikipedia
- USB Changed its name AGAIN - YouTube
- USB Type-C® Cable and Connector Specification | USB-IF
- USB 3.2 Specification Language Usage Guidelines from USB-IF