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Thursday, May 16, 2024

The iPhone Is Finally Getting USB-C. Here’s What That Means

The first devices with the USB-C charging port arrived in 2015. Now, USB-C is everywhere—Android phones, laptops, wireless earbuds, mirrorless cameras, gaming consoles, PC monitors, and even electric scooters. Well, almost everywhere. The longest holdout has been the iPhone—despite adding USB-C to every new MacBook and iPad in the past few years, Apple has opted to stick with its proprietary Lightning connector for its smartphone. Every iPhone since 2012 has used Lightning … until now.

Apple has already confirmed the iPhone's Lightning port will be replaced with a USB-C port, but numerous rumors indicate it will begin with this year's iPhone 15 lineup. Apple is expected to unveil the new iPhones at its annual event on September 12 in Cupertino, California. Here's everything you need to know about the transition.

Why Is Apple Changing the Port Now?

Remember the 30-pin connector on old iPhones and iPods? That was introduced in 2003. Nine years later, Apple swapped it to the Lightning port, which was smaller, reversible (you could plug it in any direction), and created more space within the device to allow for other components, like bigger batteries. Now, 11 years later, Lightning is going away in favor of USB-C.

Apple has gradually added USB-C ports to its other hardware over the past few years. It was the first to put USB-C on a laptop in 2015. Then iPads started the transition from Lightning to USB-C. You can say the iPhone was inevitably going to be next in line, but Apple has been collecting licensing fees from third parties that make accessories utilizing the Lightning port through the company's Made for iPhone (MFi) program. Why lose out on all that cash? Apple's hand was forced by the European Union, which passed a law in 2022 requiring phones, tablets, and cameras sold in the region to come equipped with a USB-C port by the end of 2024.

What’s the Benefit of Switching to USB-C?

The transition comes down to convenience—everyone can use this universal port to recharge and transfer data, no matter the device. This means you can use the same charging cable across multiple devices. Imagine being able to plug in your MacBook's USB-C cable to recharge your iPad and your iPhone. If your friend has an Android phone (yes, we can coexist), they can finally use the same cable to top up their device when they're at your place.

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“As USB-C is conquering the world, I don’t even think anymore about, ‘Do I have a Micro-B charger? Do I have a Lightning charger?’” says Bernie Thompson, founder and chief technology officer of Plugable Technologies. "The world is standardizing on a single connector and its flexible negotiated power standard that can power devices at their fastest rate safely.”

Having a single connector to handle everything will ideally cut down on electronic waste, as there will be less of a need to buy different kinds of cables and chargers. Apple has used this reasoning in the past as to why it doesn't include a charging brick in the iPhone's box. Thankfully, you can expect to see a USB-C to USB-C cable in the box with the iPhone 15.

USB-C allows for potentially faster charging and data transfer speeds, though much of this depends on the standards Apple decides to follow. The Lightning port is capped at 480 megabits per second for data transfer, but USB-C can theoretically move up to 80 gigabits per second with the latest spec set by the USB Implementers Forum (which Apple is a part of).

Apple is rumored to limit the base iPhone 15 models to the USB 2.0 standard, which sticks to 480 Mbps. However, the iPhone 15 Pro models may get support for the USB 3.2 or Thunderbolt 3 standard, which could be as fast as 20 to 40 Gbps. Most people may not take advantage of anything near those transfer speeds, but it opens up the doors to new workflows especially as the world continues to revolve around video consumption. Transferring video files from your iPhone via a cable might be much quicker than before.

Similarly, iPhone 14 models have an official charging limit of 20 watts, but Apple could bump this a little higher in the iPhone 15 as the USB-C spec supports a higher wattage and current to allow for speedier charging on par with flagship Android phones. The iPhone 14 Pro Max takes roughly an hour and 40 minutes to fully recharge, but the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra can top up in just under an hour. When you're at the airport and your phone's nearly dead, faster charging can mean the difference between being able to watch Dune in its entirety or just a quarter of it.

Another perk? USB-C can be used to connect devices directly to external displays. If the devices support DisplayPort over USB-C, you can use the same cable you use to transfer data and recharge your iPhone to hook the phone up to a bigger screen. You'll just need to make sure you use the right cable that supports video.

What Are the Downsides to USB-C?

You may have run into this before. Ever bought a cheap USB-C cable and found it doesn't do the thing you want, whether that's data transfer or video output? There are so many different standards for USB-C that it's not easy to tell exactly what kind of speeds you can expect out of a cable by just looking at it.

“The connector is capable of all of these optional things, so as a consumer, you don't know which of those things—your device on either end or even the cable in between—is going to support,” Thompson says. “It's confusing for consumers because it's one connector to rule them all, but every device gets to fuse which parts of the functionality they're going to provide.”

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It's rumored that Apple may try to recoup its lost Lightning licensing fees by implementing a Made for iPhone program for USB-C accessories. Apple would have to approve each accessory, offering a way for consumers to buy a cable knowing precisely what it will be capable of doing. However, Apple may penalize people who use cables that are not part of the program—they may not work all that well, even if they are technically compatible.

What About My Lightning Accessories?

Well, the first question is whether you need to upgrade to a new iPhone at all. Is your iPhone working just fine? Then hold onto it! If you are going to upgrade, you'll have to use USB-C to Lightning adapters to continue using your old accessories. Ideally, you can hand over your Lightning accessories to folks who aren't making the switch just yet (and prevent these gizmos from becoming e-waste).

It's worth noting that a few accessory makers I spoke to from Satechi, Nomad Goods, and Plugable seem to be excited about the transition to USB-C, whether or not they will still have to pay into Apple's MFi program. Brock Guclu, cofounder and president of Satechi, says the transition will streamline its development process.

“Presently, most of our products cater to USB-C devices, while iPhone-specific products have been exclusive due to the Lightning connector," Guclu said in an email statement. "Adopting USB-C will eliminate the need for multiple product SKUs and enhance cross-compatibility across diverse devices and ecosystems.” Brian Hahn, cofounder and chief operating officer of Nomad Goods, and Plugable's Thompson echoed these sentiments.

Where Does MagSafe Fit Into All of This?

With the iPhone 12, Apple introduced a system to connect accessories to the iPhone: MagSafe. It's a magnetic ring on the back of the phone that enables accessories to magnetically stick to the back of the device. You can pop on a MagSafe battery pack to wirelessly top up your iPhone. Or stick a MagSafe wallet to carry around a few credit cards. The world of MagSafe has exploded into various categories over the past few years, like MagSafe car mounts and tripods.

The addition of USB-C is separate from MagSafe. It will still have a place as wired charging is faster than wireless charging, and USB-C allows for data transfer whereas MagSafe does not. But it's worth noting that there is a new standard emerging.

The Wireless Power Consortium, the body that manages the Qi wireless charging standard, will begin certifying devices for the new Qi2 standard later this year, according to Paul Golden, the organization’s marketing director. This standard introduces the Magnetic Power Profile, a MagSafe-like implementation that more efficiently transmits power from a charger to a device with the help of magnetic alignment, improving wireless charging speed at the same time.

You can expect most new Android phones in 2024 to have a similar MagSafe-like charging coil on the back because of this new standard. MagSafe accessories should be able to work just fine with these devices, though at slightly slower charging rates until Apple adds Qi2 support to MagSafe. Either way, with USB-C and magnetic wireless charging on most new handsets next year, Android phones and iPhones will have a kind of parity between accessories not seen before.

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