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Should You Fear Your USB Cable? (1)
Jun 07, 2018

Cables seem simple. Just plug them into the matching ports, and let the electrons flow. If you think of them as dumb copper wires, they seem completely interchangeable.

Maybe not. As two people found out in recent months, the wrong cable could potentially fry your laptop.

Benson Leung, a Google engineer, and Dieter Bohn, executive editor at The Verge, wound up frying their notebooks after plugging in USB cables they bought at Amazon. Leung's laptop, a Chromebook Pixel, wouldn't boot afterward. Bohn told me his notebook, a MacBook Air, no longer has working USB ports.

The two incidents only have one thing in common: both men were using a USB Type-A-to-USB Type-C cable. It's designed to connect a device with the old full-size USB jack that comes standard on most computers (Type-A) to the fancy new reversible Type-C one. (Type-C is reversible, smaller, can charge devices faster and can deliver far more data.)


The cables looked like the obvious culprit. The thought was that in the excitement and confusion around the new USB-C standard, cable manufacturers got sloppy, cut corners, and these two computers (and owners) paid the price. At least, that's what reporters seemed to think at the time. In a widely shared editorial for The Verge, Bohn took both the USB-C standard and Amazon to task for failing to create a safe buying environment.

But after speaking to a variety of USB experts over the past couple of weeks, I'm not quite sure whether USB-C is to blame. Do you in fact need to fear your USB cable? The answer is a bit more complicated than you might think.

Unprecedented

When have you ever heard of a cable frying a computer? Not a charger, not a power surge, but just a simple wire?

Chris Apland, who ran the Monoprice cable business for five years, says he's never heard of such a thing. "I've seen cables with little to no shielding, soldering that looked like it was pretty much done by a kid in elementary school," Apland recalls. "I've seen cables instantly spark and melt." But though Monoprice ships 1.6 million cables a month -- inexpensive ones, too -- he couldn't recall a single instance of a bad cable frying a computer.

Neither could John Drengenberg, the longtime director of consumer safety at Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or Brad Saunders, the chairman of the USB-IF coalition that develops the USB standards to begin with, or Lee Atkinson, an HP engineer who's been working on USB ports since they were a brand-new idea. Atkinson had a one-word answer: "Never."

Clearly, this sort of damage is rare; perhaps even new. Maybe this sort of thing never happened until USB Type-C came along. Or maybe there was something wrong with these two laptops.

Letting the smoke out

You should probably know that Benson Leung isn't just a Google engineer -- he's also a crusader for the USB-C standard. Over the past several months, he's reviewed over 100 different USB-C adapters on Amazon in his own free time. He dissects the cables to see if they meet the official USB spec, and leaves 1- and 2-star reviews for manufacturers who failed. He's rejected more than half of them so far.

And thanks to Leung's newfound expertise about the quality of USB-C cables, we have a pretty good idea why a bad one could potentially damage a laptop.



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