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SCIENCE AND TECH

4 MIN

How to Make USB Cables Way Less Annoying

Companies are finally bringing innovation to the realm of the USB cable

If you own a smartphone, you have one. If you own a tablet, you have one. If you own a digital camera, photo frame, iPod, external hard drive, backup battery, and the hundreds of other devices that now occupy so much space in our lives, you probably have tons of them. We’re talking about the USB cable, the unsung hero of our high-tech lives. Without it, we couldn’t recharge our phones or transfer data from our hard drives to our laptops. Yet despite the enormous innovations it enables, the USB cable itself has seen virtually no enhancements since it started to gain acceptance some 15 years ago. But thanks to a handful of small companies, that’s about to change.

Goodbye to cable confusion

Easily the biggest annoyance when it comes to using USB cables (other than having to keep them handy), is figuring out which way the tips need to be oriented so that they fit into your device. It would be nice if the industry had settled on a standard -- something like “the USB logo always faces up” -- but alas, each and every phone orients its Micro USB port (that trapezoidal slot) in a different direction. Sometimes it points toward the screen, sometimes away from it. If you use the same phone and cable every day, you can get used to it. But change the cable and you’ll be right back to examining the tip to make sure it’s facing the right way.

Apple, not surprisingly, was the first company to acknowledge this problem and replaced its long-running 30-pin Dock connector cable with the Lightning cable on the iPhone 5. Though the shift away from the widely supported 30-pin standard was met with criticism from some corners of the tech world – especially amongst those who had hoped Apple would embrace the widely adopted Micro USB format – thanks to its reversible design, the Lightning cable has become the gold standard for ease of use. But what about non-Apple users?

Ian Kogan, VP of marketing at Winnergear thinks his company has the answer: The $19 MicFlip cable. It’s the first cable on the market to do for Micro USB what Apple did with the Lightning cable. In fact, Kogan tells Billy that the Lightning was Winnergear’s inspiration for the MicFlip. Just like Lightning, the MicFlip uses a device-side tip that is fully reversible. Thanks to its hexagonal shape, it can slide into your phone’s Micro USB port regardless which side is “up.”

Of course, the device-side isn’t the only part of a USB cable that results in a mental coin-toss each time you use it – so too does the rectangular, computer/wall-charger side. Neither the Apple Lightning nor the MicFlip can help on this front – both use traditional USB plugs – but soon this too will be a thing of the past. Kogan says that “by the end of 2016,” there will be a new version of the MicFlip that is reversible at both ends. If you want to buy a Lightning cable with a reversible USB connector, try the Moopti Dio. It uses a “naked” design, which eliminates the metal rectangular housing (something you see on a lot of USB thumb drives these days), giving it greater flexibility.

Help for mixed-device households

Having a reversible USB cable is handy and, frankly, something that should have been made standard long ago. But a bigger frustration exists for many folks: Remembering to pack cables for both Apple products and those that use Micro USB (pretty much every other device). For these people, having a single cable that can service both ecosystems represents a far greater upgrade than being able to plug-in without thinking.

That’s where the LM Cable comes in. Available for US$15 as a Kickstarter pre-order, this USB cable appears to achieve the improbable: A single cable with a tip that services Lightning-based iOS devices when facing one way, and all other Micro USB devices when facing the other. If it works as well as its creators claim (always a bit of a risk with crowdfunded projects), then the LM Cable truly is the one cable to rule them all – even if it still requires some thought when inserting its two ends.

It’s worth noting however, that any cable that hasn’t been certified by Apple may not work with the company’s products in the future. Apple has been known to render them useless with software updates; buyers of cheap Lightning cables have been burned by this practice in the past. Neither the LM Cable nor the Moopti Dio claim to be Apple certified, so buyer beware!

Sometimes, simple is best. A quick search on Amazon reveals several Apple certified cables that have multiple tips: One for Lightning and the other for Micro USB, like this one from Yellowknife or this one from Cable Creations. They’re both under $20 and guaranteed to survive any software updates Apple might issue. They might not be reversible, but they’re the ideal one-cable solution for a one-car family that routinely drives around with multiple devices.

Lightning or Micro USB. Why Pick?

Crazy as it may sound, we could be looking at a future that embraces a single, reversible, and common cable standard for all of our devices. It actually exists right now. It’s called USB Type-C and it sports the reversibility of Lightning while being a non-proprietary technology that any manufacturer can implement. Some have already started. The just-released LG G5 has it, as do both of the new Nexus phones: The 5X and 6P. Curiously, Apple itself has adopted USB Type-C but not on its phones – it’s one of only two ports on the new MacBook laptop.

Kogan welcomes the idea of a single cable standard but doesn’t think we’ll be shedding our reliance on our existing cables any time soon, saying, “There’s a high chance we’ll still be using the Micro USB until 2018 at least.”

So while a single-cable nirvana might still be out of reach, at least there are some innovative options to help us cope with our increasing cable clutter.

Published Tuesday, April 5th 2016

Header image credit: Courtesy LM Cable

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