The Cables And Connectors To Care About In 2017

We hate to break it to you, but the traditional USB ports you've used to connect your cameras, controllers and other gizmos for the past 20 years aren't long for this world. The whole squad's getting replaced by a few great alternatives, though they each come with their own pros and cons. If you're thinking of upgrading your devices this year, here are the ports you'll need to get familiar with to keep up with today's tech.

Image credit: Aaron Yoo/Flickr

USB-C

A USB-C cable next to a MacBook's USB-C port. (Image credit: Maurizio Pesce/Flickr)

USB-C is a smaller, reversible iteration of the traditional USB port. Its connector is symmetrical, so you'll no longer have to guess which end is up. Just stick it in.

Unlike Lightning ports which are exclusive to Apple's iOS devices and Mac accessories, USB-C can be found on both mobile devices like Android smartphones and laptops and host devices like desktops, monitors and external drives. In short, it's poised to become the new way you connect everything to everything else.

Lifehacker 101: USB-C Accesories

USB-C is a great new connector, but has been somewhat slow in its inevitable march to becoming the default option. But now a range of new products from laptops to phones use USB-C, so there are a handful of accessories sporting the new plug. So what different options are there, and how much do they cost?

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In smartphones, USB-C is replacing the Micro-USB connector you'd find on the bottom of your device. Some USB-C dongles are compatible with USB-C-equipped smartphones, meaning you can plug a USB-C dongle into your Google Pixel and connect accessories like an external drive or an Ethernet cable to it.

Right now USB-C is fairly new but not exactly ubiquitous. Sure, it's in your new MacBook and latest Android phone, but most recently Microsoft decided to leave the future of connectivity off its newest laptop, claiming its choice of ports satisfied the most users.

Companies like Microsoft have been shying away from the inevitable future, opting to leave the port off their latest laptop for fear of giving users with a new port standard without the proper ecosystem in place.

Drawbacks

Detractors like Microsoft have a point. A lot of USB-C gear is of questionable quality, with manufacturers making dongles and cables that overpromise and under-deliver, and can even fry your device if you try to save a few bucks. It pays to buy from reputable companies like Belkin, Apple, or Anker when looking for quality cables or adapters, and you should be more thorough when looking for USB-C hubs.

USB-C is fairly new, so buying USB-C equipment may introduce compatibility issues with your current setup. You'll need adaptors to plug in traditional USB-A devices like your phone's charging cable or you'll have to buy an expensive dock to make sure your old electronics can still talk to your new machine.

Ask LH: Where Can I Find A Good USB-C Laptop Charger?

Dear Lifehacker, I just bought a new laptop with USB type C charging. The manufacturer's wall charger is rated 45W, and is not modular - the USB-C cable is all one piece with the power adaptor. I'd love to minimise the gear I take on the go, so ideally I'd like a wall charger that is modular so I can plug in a micro USB cable for my phone / Bluetooth headset, and a USB-C cable for my laptop.

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Thunderbolt 3

Think of Thunderbolt 3 as USB-C on steroids. Thunderbolt 2 used the Mini DisplayPort connection, but has since moved on to the reversible USB-C connector. In addition to supporting the USB-C protocol, so any Thunderbolt 3 cable can serve as a USB-C cable, it can transfer a lot more data and supports a variety of other transfer protocols. You'll find Thunderbolt 3 ports on a variety of devices like Apple's newest MacBook Pro laptops, Windows laptops like the ASUS Predator, professional-grade monitors and high-performance storage drives.

In addition to supporting USB-C, Thunderbolt 3 supports the protocols PCI Express for using external graphics cards, DisplayPort for driving multiple 4K monitors or a single 5K monitor, and Thunderbolt for daisy-chaining devices and providing transfer speeds reaching 20Gb/s, double the speed of USB-C.

Thunderbolt 3 can provide everything from power, fast file transfers, internet connectivity, and connections to external displays all at once, making a single port a multi-functional one. Its daisy-chaining support means you can link multiple devices together with Thunderbolt 3 cables and plug them into your computer using a single port. For example, a single Thunderbolt 3 port can handle an external hard drive connected to two external monitors.

Drawbacks

While it was a good move to switch from the DisplayPort connector to USB-C, you'll need an adaptor to use older Thunderbolt devices with the newer standard.

Because it can handle a variety of protocols in addition to USB, Thunderbolt 3 equipment is more expensive than the rest. Even its connectors are more costly than the competition. A 50cm cable will run you over $50 while the same USB-C-only cable costs around $20.

If you want the full benefits of a Thunderbolt 3 connection, you'll need the right cable. USB-C cables work in Thunderbolt 3 ports, but they can't utilise the other transfer protocols and turn the Thunderbolt 3 port into your average USB-C one.

Lightning

Apple's reversible Lightning connector is the sequel to its 30-pin connector used on its mobile devices from the iPod to the iPhone 4s and fourth-generation iPad.

You've no doubt seen it on iPhones and iPads, but it's in a few more Apple devices as well. Apple's own wireless keyboard and mouse use the port to both charge and connect to your computer. The Apple Pencil has a male Lightning port for charging as well, and requires an Apple-provided Lightning-to-Lightning adaptor.

You can purchase Lightning cables with USB-A or USB-C ends so you can charge your iOS devices with whatever port you prefer. Lightning has a few cool tricks up its sleeve, like a built-in digital audio converter to power headphones for better sound quality, and the ability to charge accessories.

Drawbacks

Since Lightning is an Apple's proprietary connector, you won't find it on other devices (besides Apple-manufactured accessories). Even some devices like iPhone battery cases require a different connector to charge them. In the future, when USB-C is everywhere, Apple's reluctance to adopt the standard for its mobile devices will mean you'll still need to carry a separate cable to charge your iOS device instead of a double-ended USB-C cable you can use anywhere.

Devices with Lightning connectors like headphones from Apple will only work with Lightning-equipped iOS devices. When our Managing Editor tried to connect her standard Lightning headphones to her MacBook Pro, we found it was impossible without an adaptor, an adaptor that currently doesn't exist.

What About My Micro-USB/Mini-HDMI/USB-B/etc. Ports?

No doubt you've got some devices that won't have a USB-C or Thunderbolt port, and you'll definitely acquire some more in the near future. Devices like digital cameras still have Micro-USB ports, printers rock fat USB-B ports, and I still have a normal TV with some HDMI ports in the back.

Belkin's USB-C to USB-B cable.

You can't ignore them, but you can work around them. There are USB-C cables with connectors like Micro-USB or HDMI at the end, so your old tech can work with your new devices after a cable swap. Belkin makes a USB-C to USB-B cable for connecting new devices to old printers, and Apple's own USB-C hub supports USB-A, HDMI and another USB-C cable for charging.

You can also buy small USB-C to USB-A dongles that will also give your traditional connectors some extra life until you decide to ditch them for good. In short, your old devices will continue to work with your new ones, but be prepared for the day when all ports become one.

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Comments

    I don't actually like the trend at the moment of many new devices switching to USB-C and ditching USB-A entirely. I don't mind if there's some USB-C ports on there, but I have A LOT of stuff that still uses USB-A and I still need USB-A to do many tasks. I'd rather not need to purchase adaptors.

    USB-C will replace USB-A eventually, yes, but the USB-A standard is NOT dead yet. Please for the love of mercy, provide BOTH types of ports on your new devices for the next few years to ensure backwards compatibility and to make the transition smooth and painless. Brute forcing it by removing USB-A ports completely (especially if the device actually has room for them - I'm looking at you, laptop makers) is not going to win you any fans.

      There's definitely a benefit to providing both types of ports right now, but USB-A ports will go away just like serial, parallel and PS/2 ports did.

      This should be a lot less painful though, since you generally just need a new cable to keep using the old device, and the only smarts needed in the cable is a resistor. It should also be pretty cheap to get a few USB-C to female USB-A adapters if you have a few hard to replace cables (e.g. the stupid dock cable for the original PS Vita).

    If your USB-C cable is good quality and not too long, it should be usable to connect up Thunderbolt devices. You really only need the more expensive cables to get the top speeds over longer distances.

    Also, running DisplayPort protocol over USB-C isn't necessarily linked to it being a Thunderbolt port. I'm guessing this is going to be the next big area of consumer confusion: there's going to be a bunch of devices and computers with identical ports, but they won't all work correctly when plugged together (or will degrade to a slower USB 3 mode if the host doesn't support the desired protocol).

      I believe a TB3 cable actually has active electronics in each end, thus the extra cost. So it won't work to use a USB-C cable on a TB3 connection, you'll just get USB3.1 speeds.

        There are active and passive Thunderbolt 3 cables. For cables up to about half a metre, you should be able to get full 40 Gb/s with a passive cable. For 1-2 metres, you'll probably get about 20 Gb/s with a passive cable, and 40 Gb/s with an active cable.

        The passive Thunderbolt 3 cables are just good quality USB-C cables, so you can probably get away without paying the premium in most cases.

    It is now years that thunderbolt 3 optical cables are promised. Does any one have news about them?

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