USB-C cables are playing Russian Roulette with your laptop

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Over the past year or so, one of the biggest tech stories has been about one of the smallest things: a USB plug. Specifically, the new USB Type-C plug and port, which promises to become the single thing that we can use to connect all our devices, from monitors to phones to computers to whatever we dream up next.

USB-C has the support of the biggest companies in the tech industry. Apple and Google released the first laptops to use it, and now it’s showing up on computers, tablets, and phones all over the place. USB-C is reversible and can deliver huge amounts of both power and data very quickly. Importantly, it’s also backwards-compatible so that adapters and cables can get us through the awkward period between now and when it actually becomes the universal standard.

It’s that last bit that has USB-C in trouble. Right now, if you aren’t very careful, a USB-C cable can destroy your laptop. If you just go to Amazon and buy any pack of USB-C cables you find, you could end up with a wire that can destroy your machine in a flash.

That’s what happened to Google engineer Benson Leung, who, in the course of testing a USB-C cable, destroyed his Chromebook Pixel. It happened instantly. It also happened to me — I used a cheap cable I found on Amazon to charge my Nexus 6P and it drew too much power from my MacBook Air’s USB ports. Apple did a remarkable job engineering the MacBook’s ports — they shut down temporarily to protect themselves — but when they came back online, they only worked intermittently.

The problem is that when you plug a USB device in, it starts drawing power. If it tries to pull too much power, the device that supplies it can burn out. It’s not the Nexus’ fault that my MacBook got fried — it was just doing what it was supposed to do: ask for as much power as it can get. It’s not the MacBook’s fault either — its ports weren’t designed to handle delivering that much juice nor to know that they shouldn’t even try. It is the fault of the cable, which is supposed to protect both sides from screwing up the energy equation with resistors and proper wiring. This kind of failure is possible with any cable, but older kinds of USB devices didn’t draw this much power.

The solution should be simple, then: just don’t buy cut-rate USB-C cables. But "just buy the more expensive one" is a really crappy solution. Right now, if you want to buy a safe cable, you have to know Leung is the only person vetting them in a broad way on Amazon. Here’s the process you have to go through:

  1. Know that this is an issue in the first place.
  2. Know that this one helpful Google engineer is the only person testing and reviewing USB-C cables.
  3. Go hunting for Leung’s reviews on Amazon (or, alternately, discover this spreadsheetor this website created by redditors to aggregate his reviews).
  4. Buy a cable.
  5. Pray.

This process is insane, and it shouldn’t be this way. In fact, I believe this failure should have been obvious to everybody involved in the creation of USB-C. Apple and Google helped design the spec, but a little-known industry group called the USB Implementers Forum is in charge of maintaining and propagating it. It does have a certification process for approving cables. When I asked about this issue, the USB-IF noted that it has certified 61 cables so far and that it "continually meets with the major retailers in North America, including Staples, Best Buy, and MicroCenter to educate about the importance of compliance and certification."

It also pointed me to its logos that certify safety, which look hilariously outdated:

USB-IF Logos

But the real problem isn’t the logos, it’s that you can’t find them anywhere on the biggest electronics retailer on the internet: Amazon. If you want to buy a cable on Amazon — where you already shop — you will need to go through that five-step process above.

When hoverboards started exploding, the industry reacted. Amazon pulled sales, manufacturers stepped up their standards, and ultimately we got to a place where UL started certifying boards as safe. We’re not at the danger-to-human-life-and-limb stage with this USB-C problem, but nevertheless, we need a similar solution now.

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