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Should You Fear Your USB Cable? (4)
Jun 19, 2018

The cutoff switch

Here's where the experts disagree. Aren't laptops designed to protect against damage like this?

Dell says their laptops are. Jason Lee, the company's lead engineer on XPS notebooks, says that not only are Dell's USB ports protected against voltage drops and short circuits, but they will also automatically restart themselves as soon as they cool down. No need to restart your computer.

And HP's Atkinson says such protections aren't just limited to Dell; they're standard practice for the computer industry. "With everything I've ever seen -- and we've been shipping USB-A since 1997 -- if there's a short circuit, the port just shuts off. That's existed forever." Atkinson points out that even with previous versions of USB, a cable could get damaged, and the industry adopted overcurrent and overvoltage protection circuits to keep the computers safe.

Today, "If you threw molten metal into the connector itself, it'd essentially just shut down," he says.

But Saunders, chairman of the USB-IF standards body, says he's not aware of any protection against a completely miswired cable like the one that struck down Leung's Chromebook Pixel. "That was something that the circuits of his notebook can't protect against," he says.

And UL -- one of the organizations " throwing the molten metal," as it were -- doesn't seem to think that these protection circuits are truly an industry standard.

"If all of them did, that would be one thing," UL's Drengenberg tells me. If there were a single shared safety standard, he explains, he'd be able to tell me how it works -- but because there are a variety of proprietary ways that manufacturers meet the UL's requirements, he can't say any more.

By the way, the UL doesn't fail a computer if it gets damaged during the short-circuit test. "As long as the computer didn't create a shock or fire hazard, that would be a successful completion," Drengenberg says.

I'd wanted to ask Google engineer Benson Leung whether his Chromebook Pixel had those protection circuits, but he directed me to Google's PR team. Google didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.


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