Points in Focus Photography

A Rant: USB Type-C is Such a Mess


Okay, maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic. The USB-C connector itself is not a bad idea, in fact, I really like the connector. A reversible, highly reliable connector is a great thing not just for mobile devices but for pretty much everything.

However, that’s about the end of where I find the situation tolerable. I understand the USB working groups desire to make it the connector to end all connectors.

The problem with USB-C is that it breaks a fundamental part of good design: discoverability. That is, it should be immediately obvious to users what is supported without having to either guess, or plug something in and find out if it works, doesn’t work, or works at some reduced level of functionality.

I was worried when they announced all of the potential alt modes (TB3, HDMI, DisplayPort, etc.) that it would become confusing for consumers. I thought, at the time, that I would be able to keep things straight.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen at all. Most consumers, in my experience at least, have no clue about what’s going on with their USB-C ports, and even less of a clue why stuff does or doesn’t work when they plug it in. Never mind that thanks to its use on laptops in lieu of dedicated (and in some cases better, such as MagSafe) connectors it’s basically becoming a glorified charging cable in many respects.

Worse, for me at least, I’m more confused and annoyed than ever. Moreover, it doesn’t help that some manufacturers seem hell bent on exploiting this confusion in their marketing.

So to call out the first manufacturer of confusion, Transcend.

I’ve written a lot recently about traveling and one of the things that has become a founding principal for me is standardization. I don’t want 10 different types of USB cables in my bag. More things using the same cable means first, that I can carry fewer cables, and second that I have a level of redundancy if I lose or break a cable.

If the USB group is to be believed, the type-C connector is the future connector of the USB interface. It’s already making substantial inroads in Android phones for power and sync. It’s also starting to become the standard interface for camera gear — Blackmagic Design, Canon, Nikon and Sony are now using it on their newest cameras.

In addition to it being the connector going forward, it’s already something that I’ve got devices using. So it seems like USB-C would be a natural thing to move to. Sure I can’t go pure USB-C, my 2014 MacBook Pro only has Type-A ports. But USB-C devices (e.g. card readers or portable hard drives), can be connected with just a Type-A to Type-C cable. The point is to get all the devices on USB-C, since changing from a Type-A computer to a Type-C computer is just a matter of replacing a few inexpensive cables.

Which brings me back to Transcend.

Transcend sells a “USB-C” card reader, the RDC8. But instead of actually producing a piece of hardware that has a USB-C port on the back, they just slap a USB-C to USB3 Micro-B connector in the box, and call it a day.

In fact, Transcend’s solution is especially galling as the card reader that comes with a Type-C cable, is a generation out of data compared to the standard readers (the RDF9 which ships with a Type-A to USB3 Micro-B cable, supports UHS-II SD cards, and the cable can be replaced with a Type-C to USB3 Micro-B cable for a couple of dollars).

Transcend isn’t alone here either, I found an Xcellon reader on B&H, doing the same thing. It ships with both Type-A to USB3 micro-b and Type-C to USB3 micro-b cables and therefore is a “USB-C” product.

Maybe, I’m just asking too much or something, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask for devices marketed as USB-C devices to have USB-C ports and not just a different cable

My second gripe is the way that USB-C cables feel to me like charging cables, not actual USB cables. A large part of the reason I feel like this is the difficulty I’ve had in finding Type-A to Type-C cables that support USB3.1 Gen 1 Super Speed (or faster) connections. The vast majority of the cables I kept coming across on Amazon were USB2 only cables intended for charging a phone or tablet with only USB2 connections.

This is another problem with the type-c standard. The only thing that’s required in a USB-C port, and cable, is USB 2 capabilities. USB 3.1 super speed isn’t a requirement, especially if you’re terminating the cable with a Type-A connector on the other end.

Manufacturers don’t need to make a Type-A to Type-C cable with the 8-pin Type-A connector that’s needed for super speed operation. For the vast majority of devices, especially phones that often only implement USB2 speeds anyway, this isn’t a problem. Moreover, it saves a couple bucks as the 4-contact USB2 Type-A connector is cheaper than the 8-contact SuperSpeed cable one.

I could go on. There’s the alt modes for things like Thunderbolt and DisplayPort, where you have no idea what any given USB-C port will support. Or the lack of Type-C hubs that aren’t basically docking stations for your mac laptop. Or how Apple has moved to USB-C for their computers, but their phones and tablets still use their proprietary Lightning connector. But I won’t, at least not now.


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