Is your cable up to snuff?
• How do I know if a cable is any good? It isn’t easy to tell, Greengart says. Generally speaking, you should buy cables from reputable hardware manufacturers and accessory brands, including companies such as Anker and Belkin. The cheapest cables you may find online or in convenience stores may be fragile or charge slowly. But all cables are vulnerable to the torturous yanks and tugs we put them through.
Manufacturers commonly highlight the “bend life span,” which can be an indicator of the quality and materials of the cable. The larger the bend life span, the longer the cable should theoretically last. Anker, for example, offers cables that have life spans of between 10,000 and 40,000 bends.
If you are looking to charge an iPhone, MFI-certified cables or accessories (Made for iPhone/iPod/iPad) designate products that have Apple’s blessing and should be trustworthy. Non-MFI certified cables can get hot during charging and may damage the phone, tablet, laptop or other device and, in the worst-case scenario, cause a fire, an Anker representative says. You can also look on the packaging or the cable itself for a certification logo from USB-IF, a nonprofit made up of companies that developed the Universal Serial Bus specification.
The length of a cable is important if, say, you want the cable to stretch from a connector on your console to a passenger’s phone in the back seat of a car or reach an out-of-the-way power outlet. Pay attention to the materials on the cord and around the head that plugs into a port, which may be metal or plastic. Some nylon braided cables may provide more protection than flat plastic, and silicone-coated cables are softer to the touch and tangle-free, compared with other materials.
If your phone has a case, make sure the cable you plan to use can be fully inserted. While different materials may help with a cable’s durability, they should not affect the cable’s power delivery and data transfer speeds.
But don’t get completely hung up on the cable or cord itself. “The critical thing to look for is the wattage output of the power supply,” says Wayne Lam, Los Angeles–based senior director of research in the Americas at CCS Insight, a market research firm in London that focuses on mobile. For instance, a 5-watt power adapter will charge your phone relatively slowly, he says. Apple sells a 20-watt USB-C adapter for $20 that it says will charge your iPhone 8 (or later version), iPad Pro or iPad Air faster.
Larger devices such as laptops typically require more power to charge them; both the charger and the cable should be rated to handle the highest power requirement needed from the device, Anker advises.
Dongles aren’t going away
• Will we have to live with dongles much longer? It seems so. Accessory dongles and portable docks with additional connectors may not be the most elegant solution, but if you do need to connect legacy USB devices to a computer with, say, USB-C, they may be your only option. USB-C-capable docks for computers may supply other needed ports, including slots for memory cards, Ethernet cables and HDMI or display connectors required to hook up an external monitor.
You may also need a Lightning or USB-C dongle if you’re still using wired headphones, since the once-standard 5mm headphone jack on phones is heading toward extinction.
• How long will cables matter? Aren’t we going wireless anyway? There’s certainly a major push to do away with the cords altogether. We’re seeing that with headphones and with wireless charging. The newest flagship phones support a wireless charging standard known as Qi, though not every phone is there yet. There’s also the matter of speed. “Wireless chargers tend to offer a lot of convenience, but they are much slower and less energy-efficient,” Greengart says. “We will probably continue to have wired connections on our phones for at least another couple of years.”
• What about the connectors in cars? There’s a high probability that your car has one or more USB-A ports that occupants use to charge devices, and people routinely leave a charging cable in the vehicle. But relatively few new models have USB-C.
“Unlike consumer electronics, where the product life cycles are relatively short, cars tend to stick around for nearly a decade, so this problem will be with us for quite a while,” Lam says. “We will have to live with this cable madness for some time before things become better with the convergence to USB-C.”