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Micro USB / USB Type C / Apple Lightning: Everything you need to know about Smartphone Cables


smartphone cables

Wireless charging technology has gone viral in recent years with the speed of adoption that no one would ever have envisaged.  If you were to couple this with the general move to cloud services for things such as data backups, then this type of functionality can help when there are no cables available. 

But, let’s just be absolutely clear here, cables are not obsolete, they are still the most common method to charge your phone, transfer data or just back up and they have a number of benefits that wireless technologies can’t quite match, yet!

However, not everything in the world of cables is harmonious.  Sadly, there is confusion, and while there are standards, we still have 3 competing types, micro-USB for Android devices, lightning for Apple devices and the latest USB, type-C which provides even more convenient charging methods and functionality.

Unfortunately though, they’re not interchangeable, and because of this, it’s important to know the differences between each format to help you identify what to get for your devices to make sure it operates at peak efficiency.

So, first things first, let’s look at the basics of these three types of connector.

1. Micro USB / Type-C / Lightning - what are they?

Here’s a quick test for those who are looking to buy one of these cables, can you pick the right one at first glance? Check the picture below:

micro usb/type c/lightning cable

A) The Micro USB

Micro USB is a miniaturized version of the USB(Universal Serial Bus) interface developed for connecting compact and mobile devices such as your smartphones, MP3 players, GPS devices, photo printers and digital cameras.  It’s almost a universal connector; I say ‘almost’ because even with this particular version, there are 3 variants, micro-A, micro-B, and micro-B v3.0.

Micro USB

They are all reasonably easy to identify and come with black-colored receptacles and feature a compact 5 or 10 pin plug. Just don’t mix it up with the mini USB, which is slightly larger in size.

Micro usb vs mini usb

B) The Lightning

As you are probably aware, Apple is famous for pushing forward with standards, and they did this when they implemented a new cable format, the Lighting to USB cable (an 8-pin connector) as the old one (the 30-pin connector) was much wider and took up too much room on the device.  Like its predecessor, the Lightning connector was not designed to be compatible with other types of connectors, which caused some controversy when it was first introduced, although it is a more convenient cable for Apple users.  The new connector is 80 percent smaller, much sturdier in design, symmetrical and therefore reversible, which means that you don't have to worry about which side is the top or bottom when you plug it in.

Lightning port

Apple would like you to believe that you should only use their own cables, but hang on though, what if you want to use the cables made by other manufacturers?  Simple, make sure that the cable has passed the MFi (Made for iPhone/iPod/iPad) certification tests, and you are good to go.

C) The Type-C

The USB-C, also known as USB Type-C, is a 24-pin USB connector system, which connects to both hosts and devices, replacing various USB-B and USB-A connectors and cables with a standard, which is meant to be future-proofed.

Type C

As you can see, it's actually a reversible plug which is very similar to the Lightning cable, with one very visible difference, the type-c cable receives the pins from a tab built into the port in your phone/device, whereas a lightning cable uses a tab with exposed pins that plugs into a socket on the phone.

It should be noted at this point that some of latest Apple devices (MacBook, iMac, etc.) are only equipped with Type-C ports (Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) or USB-C) and no other connectors, this is because it is so versatile.  However, because of this, you then need to buy a suitable adapter to connect older USB devices to these computers.

MacBook Type C

It’s around this point that you might be wondering: which cable design offers the better feature set? And importantly, which connector is going to last the longest? 

2. The battle of smartphone cables

Do you remember when we talked about the competing wireless standards that have slowed down the adoption of wireless charging technology?  Well, sadly for us, this type of competition is also present within the standards established for smartphone cables, each competing with the other to try and be the number one.

What we can do is to compare them, analyze the different aspects of each type, and thereby predict which one ‘might’ be the winner in the long term.

1) Which cable offers better durability?

This is probably the number one problem with cables and I hazard a guess that everyone has suffered this at least once, cable durability (or have you got a spare cable as mine has just broken – again!):

cable damage

Am I right? Putting aside any quality matters with the cable, this problem usually happens when the cable is misused, and normally when you are plugging or unplugging it. 

For example, unplugging the cable from a socket by pulling on the cable, like this:

Wrong way of unlugging

Incidentally, to avoid damaging your cables and help them last as long as possible; it is better to hold the cable by the actual plastic plug instead of the cable. 

Ok, let's get back to the point I was trying to make earlier about durability.

I mentioned that type-C cables receive the contacts from a tab built into the port of your phone whereas with a Lightning cable, the cable itself has the tab with exposed pins.  So, which one is more durable?  Actually, these two designs mark a significant difference where damage may occur.

Take a close look to the tab inside this phone, which has a type-C port.

Type C port

Even though the type-C design protects the pins and connectors on your cables, you can see that the internal tab in the phone’s socket is quite thin and because of this, it’s possible that over time this could become weakened or damaged.  Let’s put this another way, this design might be safe to use now, but over time, as a cable is inserted and removed countless times, the thin tab may become damaged.  Unfortunately, I have first-hand experience of this as it has already happened to me.

Meanwhile, while lightning cables do not suffer from this potential problem, they have issues with the exposed pins becoming dirty or the wiring becoming damaged.  However, they are less likely to experience stresses on the cable that will lead to a damaged phone port that you might find with the Type-C.

Lightning cable

So, what about the micro USB cable, how durable is that?  Well, its design is very similar to the type-c cables, there is a small tab within which means that they too are more likely to experience damage in a similar way as the type-C cable.

So at this point, the Apple lightning design is better than the Type-C or the Micro USB designs.

2) Which one has a faster power transfer speed?

OK, so we have established that the lightning connector appears to be better regarding its durability, but what it’s ability to handle high current and it’s ability to transfer power swiftly?

USB power standard

The Micro USB cable’s ability to transfer power varies from device to device which can be seen in the above table, whereas the maximum current of USB Type-C cable is 3A, which means that it can deliver up to 100w of power and it is capable of a SuperSpeed 10Gbps data transfer rate.

MacBook Type C

Interestingly, the USB-C ports on the new MacBook Pro models are powered by Thunderbolt 3, so they actually have a maximum data transfer rate of 40gbps, which is four times that of standard USB 3.1.

OK, so what about the Lightning cables, how fast can they go?

Apple hasn't released the full specifications of the Lightning cable as such, but independent tests carried out on the standard cables show that the speeds are similar to that of USB 2.0, which equates to 480mbps, which is a long way short of the speeds attainable through USB 3.1. 

What about the Micro-USB?  Unfortunately, as far as speed goes, Micro-USB is quite limited in what it can do, and it can only support a limited amount of power for charging.  Check out the article published on The Loop where Apple Engineer Rainer Brockerhoof explains Apple's choice of connector and why the micro-USB is just not up to the job.

So at this point, Type-C outweighs both the lightning cable and the micro USB cable when it comes to the power transfer efficiency.

3) Which one will be the future-proofed standard?

Ok, by this point you are probably wondering: will we ever have a standard that will rule the cable world like the wireless charging Qi standard?

The answer is, ‘Maybe’.  Apple has a lot invested in the Lightning connector, but Type-C is incredibly flexible, so much so that the connector is even able to pull double duty to support Thunderbolt connections, which is why there isn’t a simple answer.

It might be that this is never fully sorted out and in fact, it might be that cloud technology and wireless charging may improve to the point where we are not concerned about which cable we use for our phones and tablets.  

We might even find another, alternative competitor shakes things up, but for now, I’m on the Type-C side as it is incredibly versatile, capable of fast high-speed charging and it is also very convenient, not to mention Apple, who tends to be a strong driving force are now trying to comply with the current trend around Type-C.  

So, what do you think? Do you agree with me?

3. Tips on buying the right smartphone cable.

I think it is worth going through a few tips on how to buy the best type of cable for your device(s).

1) Know what cable you need

OK, it’s an obvious one, but it’s the first thing you should do when looking for a cable.  Check its shape and the basic specifications, don’t just go for a ‘compatible with the device’ you have, try to look a bit deeper at the cables specification.

For example, you can judge the specifications of the wires used by checking American wire gauge (AWG) statistics.  You will find that the bigger the AWG, the higher the resistance your wire has.  Also another useful tip is to check (if you can) things like the diameter, transfer area resistance/length, etc. as these will all affect the performance of the cable.

Part of the Tables of AWG wire sizes

(part of the Tables of AWG wire sizes)

OK, I know you might be now reading this wondering how to pick the smartphone cable with best AWG?  Well, usually the cables are made with stranded wires, and the AWG gauge of a stranded wire represents the sum of the cross-sectional areas of the individual strands.  For example, a 22 AWG 7/30 stranded wire is a 22 AWG wire made from seven strands of 30 AWG wire. (Though it can be made with different strands of wire, only if the sum of the cross-sectional area is the same).

You may have noticed that the smaller the number of AWG, the more strands a cable has.  

So what are the most commonly used specifications for a smartphone cable? Have a look at the following AWG(s) diagram:

Phone-gauges

There is quite a difference between the thinnest (28AWG) and thickest (10AWG), so which specifications should you care when you want to fast charge your phone?

The amount of power your cable can carry is determined by the size of the 2.5V wires inside, a standard cable is 28 gauge and is capable of about 0.5A, this is the standard charge rate. A faster charger cable has larger internal wires (mostly 24 gauge) that can carry larger currents of 2A or more.

So, be sure to check your cables are also ready for your latest device and charger: check that your device and adapter are capable of fast charging and that you have a charger capable of supplying the faster rate.  Finally, check the original cable that came with your device.

2) Buy from an established brand

We've all seen the ultra-cheap USB cables online or at the drug store and were tempted to buy them.  Nevertheless, you don’t know what current/voltage these cables can handle, or even the quality of the materials used to make them.  Consequently, you might be at risk of damaging your device when using them or worse, causing a fire.

My advice is always to be wary of companies that you have never heard of, stick with brand named cables that are well known and generally trusted.  This is the best way to make sure the cable is of good quality, using the appropriate size wires inside, the connector is properly constructed and the correct resistance is being used.  All three of these things are important when you're sending more current over very fine wires, and cheaply made cables are not appropriately designed and do not use quality components which can be dangerous.

In conclusion

I think it is safe to say that good quality, well-made Phone cable is still a must-have gadget for charging, data transfer, and data management no matter how wireless charging has changed the way we do things.

For now, Micro USB, USB Type-C and Apple Lightning are the most commonly used cables and they all have their place in the battle of a united standard: Micro USB is the most widely used; Apple Lightning is the key cable for Apple devices and USB Type-C ‘might’ be the only cable in the foreseeable future.

But when you look for a cable in the market, there are two things need to care: know what cables you are going to buy and if possible, buy from an established brand to avoid unnecessary risk.

PITAKA have made a cable that is not only guaranteed to charge your device but also made from high-quality components to ensure that it is reliable.  It is, of course, compatible with the existing car phone mount MagMount Qi, a great combination and one, which you will never be disappointed with.

 

Lily

About the Author

Lily, not just a blogger of PITAKA but also an aficionado of science fiction and fantasy. From books such as Harry Potter to movies such as Interstellar. One of her greatest interests in her daily life is discovering the coolest inventions from various fields especially electronic products.



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