The Terrible State of USB-C

Marco Arment recently posted about the myriad of frustrations surrounding USB-C:

I love the idea of USB-C: one port and one cable that can replace all other ports and cables. It sounds so simple, straightforward, and unified.

In practice, it’s not even close.

As he points out, USB-C ports can vary drastically in their capabilities, and it’s impossible to tell their capabilities by looking at them. For example, USB-C can carry data via both USB and Thunderbolt protocols, but you can’t tell by looking at a port or cable which protocols are supported. You can sometimes use it for charging your laptop, but there are different power delivery standards and, again, it’s hard to tell which of those are supported. Microsoft mentioned this confusing mess of supported standards and capabilities as one of the reasons why they didn’t include any USB-C ports on their Surface Laptops:

Kyriacou points out many of the issues anybody who’s used USB-C has run into. “What happened with USB-C is the cables look identical, but they start to have vastly different capabilities. So even someone in the know, confusion starts to set in,” he argues. Some cables support 3 amps, some 5, some Thunderbolt, some not.

Microsoft has since gone on to include a USB-C port in their new Surface Book 2 (one that doesn’t support Thunderbolt, in case you were wondering), but the problems surrounding USB-C haven’t been solved.

This mess reminds me of an old desktop PC that I had in the 90s: It featured two PS/2-ports on the back, one for plugging in a mouse, another for plugging in a keyboard. Problem was, those two ports were completely identical looking, so you never knew which cable should be plugged into which port without resorting to trial and error. Some PCs back then solved this problem with iconography or color coding, but mine didn’t.

This was bad design 20 years ago, and it’s still bad design today. The design principle of consistency states that things that are the same should look the same, but the inverse is also true: things that are different should look different. USB-C is clearly in violation of this principle. The only solution to this problem that comes to mind is for USB-C to support a uniform and consistent set of features. Unfortunately this will certainly take some time to come to fruition. In the meantime I’m sticking with USB-A.

Advertisements