Why Are USB-C Cables Frying Laptops?

On 2 February 2016, Google engineer Benson Leung reported having his laptop destroyed because of a USB Type-C cable. The ensuing media crisis prompted by this report has had people asking themselves whether using USB-C cables is necessarily safe on their own devices. The cable was designed to help pave the way for future devices that would require very versatile signalling and power transfers. But when such a cable is destroying laptops, perhaps it’s time to start looking at what could possibly cause this and suggest remedies at least for the time being.

To understand the problem, we have to understand what USB-C is a solution for. The standard USB cable comes with one head that connects to the host (the fat end) and one that connects to the client. Its communication happens only in one direction, and its design specification allows it to be plugged in only in one particular way. USB-C undoes all of this by using a design specification that lets either end of it be plugged into any of the devices being connected. The “tongue” of the connector is also designed in such a way that it can be connected without hassle.

USB-C’s specification makes it capable of delivering large amounts of power and transferring a significant amount of data (10 gbits/s). This makes it versatile enough to become the only cable you need in your arsenal. Even HDMI isn’t necessary when you have the amount of bandwidth that USB-C can push (which is more than enough for 4K video).

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USB-C itself isn’t causing problems with hardware. The specification allows it to be plugged into devices that don’t have USB-C ports by using an adapter. The problem comes when you attempt to use a faulty cable. Benson Leung tried to charge his laptop with a USB-C cable using a charger designed for USB Type-A cables. The charger wants to deliver two amps of current while the laptop is trying to draw three. This leads to a disparity that could end up catastrophically ruining the circuit board (and this was one of those cases). Faulty cables have been ruining our hardware since either has ever existed. This is one of those problems that happens when you try to adapt a new technology with an older one.

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If you want to avoid getting a faulty cable and minimize the risk of adaptation issues, I suggest you do the following:

  • Look for USB-IF certification. This organization makes an extraordinary effort to test USB cables to ensure that they comply with their specifications fully.
  • Get a cable from a brand you trust. If you bought your equipment from Apple, get your cables from them, too! You could also get a cable from another top manufacturer such as Belkin, Mediabridge, or StarTech.

As long as you’re in the market, don’t forget to make sure that the adapter you’re using isn’t shifty, either.

Do you have any other advice? What should consumers do to ensure that they won’t end up compromising their machines with faulty USB-C cables? Tell us more in a comment!

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