USB Couldn’t Be More Screwed Up (Premium)

In theory, modern implementations of the USB standard are a no-brainer, with ever-improving capabilities. In reality, USB today is a nightmare. It couldn’t possibly be more screwed up than it is.

What’s interesting is that I was thinking about writing this up before I even saw this week’s news about the USB Implementers Forum’s ham-handed rebranding of USB 3.0, 3.1, and 3.2. So, it is amazing to me that this new change will now make things even worse. But there it is.

USB is moving inexorably to the smaller and newer USB Type-C port, which is often just called USB-C. (That this port has multiple names was the first warning sign we ignored.) In fact, the latest version of the USB specification, which I will simply call USB 3.2 because I’m not insane like the decision-makers at the USB Implementers Forum, will only be delivered over this more modern port type.

That’s good. As an early proponent of USB-C, I’ve always seen the benefits of this reversible port type and of the broad acceptance that occurs when an industry rallies around a standard. In fact, I routinely rail against Microsoft’s continued hedging when it comes to USB-C in Surface, a lack of clarity and leadership that should make anyone question the software giant’s ability to make truly premium PCs.

USB-C ports enable smaller, thinner PCs. And they enable PCs to transfer data at ever-faster speeds, too. With version 3.2, those speeds will double from 10 Gbps to 20 Gbps.

That’s good too. It’s not as good as Thunderbolt 3, of course, another modern technology that Microsoft explicitly rejects in literally all of its Surface PCs: Of those scattered few Surface models that do include a USB-C port, none support the headier capabilities of Thunderbolt 3, which include faster 40 Gbps data transfer, advanced external video, external GPU support, and more.

Thunderbolt 3 is really good. But it also represents one of the many ways in which USB is screwed up. Even on PCs that do support Thunderbolt 3 capabilities, many only do so via some of the USB-C ports they contain. So it’s up to the user to figure out which port does what. Some have Thunderbolt 3, some do not.

That’s bad. It’s really bad.

USB is screwed up on mobile, too. With most of the industry (read: everyone but Apple) moving to USB-C for power charging, data transfer, and capabilities, you’d think we’d immediately see the benefits of a single standard. But USB-C got off to a bad start on mobile because it’s not possible to tell what any given cable (or port) can do just by looking at it. And in many cases, there were cheap cables that only offered a subset of functionality or, worse, could even harm the internal components of certain PCs and mobile devices when attached.

That … sucks. But with those problems mostly solved today, we’re entering a new era of USB hell on mobile thanks to another industry-wide trend: The removal of the headphone jack from most modern sm...

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