/ Technology

Should all phones use the same charging cables?

Should Apple abandon its Lightning connector and adopt USB-C instead? I’m wondering how much easier life would be if all phones used the same cables.

A couple of weeks back, a story emerged that Apple’s Lightning connector’s days could be numbered, thanks to the European Commission’s push to adopt a standardised charger. 

With more and more of our digital lives powered through USB cables I think it makes some sense to have a common charger for everything.

There would be no need to worry about adaptors or ask around to borrow one that works on your model of phone.

But Apple has responded strongly, saying that that dropping the Lightning connector ‘would create an unprecedented amount of electronic waste‘.

Do you agree with its concerns?

A long history of cables

The world of charging cables was a very different place when we first asked this question nearly 10 years ago

“We have the type A, the type B, the micro A and the micro B, and also the mini A and the mini B, plus there are 8- and 5-pin varieties of the mini B. And then there are still all the manufacturer’s own models (think iPhone USB connection)”

The EC’s efforts to standardise were born from this massive cable tangle of more than 30 different types of connectors on the market. 

And these efforts paid off, with a voluntary approach that reduced the number of connectors down to three, and also separated the actual charging cable from the USB socket converter, enabling them to be reused beyond the original device. 

E-waste and innovation

It may seem like a good idea in principle, and certainly your comments back in 2011 reflect taking this idea even further to standardising batteries or even power supplies in general.  

Put simply, there are billions of cables out there, and even with the best intentions a great many of these would end up in the growing pile of global e-waste. 

Another argument is that innovation would be stifled by products having to be designed around a single interface, rather than to be designed for what’s possible.

Could that then outweigh the benefits for the consumer or the environment?

Is this actually a problem?

To power my digital life I tend to carry one of each type of cable with me to power my devices. Were there to be a single standard, I’d still carry three cables – though I’d have to buy two new ones.  

What do you think? Would having the simplicity of one cable be beneficial to you in any way?

Would you support making USB-C the mandatory cable for all mobile phones and digital gadgets?
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Would you worry about the environmental impact disposing your old cables might have? Or maybe you’re a step beyond already and making use of wireless charging?

Comments
Jack says:
29 January 2020

Could they not ship new phones with a practical and simple adapter for lightning to USB-C so users can still use their existing cable and not throw them away? I was an iPhone user in a home of micro USB and USB-C ports and it was such a pain. Universal connections for all!

I have been very happy with the Lightning connector on my iPhone. It has the advantage that it is compact and will fit in the socket either way round, unlike the connectors used on most phones made in recent years.

USB-C is also reversible and will probably become standard on laptops and many other devices but is too thick for thin phones. Maybe mobile phones are unnecessarily thin.

The reason I don’t support the use of USB-C on phones is because some of the cheap USB-C phone adaptors sold for phones are a fire risk if used to charge larger devices like laptops. (A laptop needs a more powerful USB-C charger.) I had bookmarked reviews of different phone chargers on sale on Amazon where reviewers had reported overheating and near-fires but the products and reviews have now been removed.

Tom Barry says:
2 February 2020

I have had USB C phones for some time and it simply isn’t true that the connector is to thick for thin phones. My OnePlus 7 is the same thickness as an iPhone 11 – both are 8.1mm. The USB C connector is narrower than these phones – where is the problem?

The comment about fire risk chargers is also spurious. There are many chargers (advertised on Amazon and elsewhere) for Apple products which are dangerous and do not comply with EU safety standards. This doesn’t make The Apple standard connector dangerous – it just means that dodgy products are dodgy whatever and however they connect.

This is just Apple fan boy rhetoric trying to go against the obvious logic of standardising like products to a common base.

Aftermarket 3 in 1 cables for micro USB, USB-C and Apple are readily available.

So all I need is a charger that will take one of those cables.

USB-C is now used to charge some phones. But, as wavechange noted, USB-C is also used to supply completely different voltages when charging laptops, so you should probably not attempt to charge one of those with a phone charger.

I presume that it won’t be long before wireless charging replaces charging cables for phones. I had to replace my phone after Christmas – a month before it reached its sixth birthday. 🙁 It seems that the new on can be charged wirelessly. I will use the supplied charger and Lightning cable for the time being, and now have a spare charger and cable from the old phone.

Maybe mobile phones of the future won’t have charging sockets, but if would be worth making sure that all wireless phone chargers are interchangeable.

Oops. That was not intended as a reply to your post, Derek.

I presume that if you have decent USB-C phone and laptop chargers no damage will occur if they are accidentally swapped. The specification for USB-C is very complex and I have seen warnings that using substandard cables can cause damage to connected devices.

From what I’ve seen of wireless charging for iPhone 8’s, it has some downsides from a design perspective, e.g.

The charging pad has a similar are to the phone, so is not as compact as charging cable.

A cable is still needed, between the pad and its mains adaptor.

To enable efficient electromagnetic coupling, phone backs are now made of glass, so can fail and crack rather like phone screens .

Relative to an iPhone 6, an iPhone 8 is much harder to repair.

As far as I know, wireless charging is not as fast as using a cable and there will be energy losses.

Having had a look at the battery replacement procedure it certainly looks like fun, but Apple is not the only manufacturer that glues the screen in place these days.

I presume that a charging pad will generally remain in one place, so there is less risk of damage to the cable. It is amazing how many people unplug their charger by yanking at the cable. 🙁

The new phone is tucked away in a leather case that protects the front and back. Old-fashioned I know but it works.

If the same power supply is used in a less efficient manner, then I’d also expect wireless charging to take longer.

I also think wireless charging will be useful for intensive phone users, as their phones will need continual recharging.

From what I have read, wireless chargers don’t generally charge as fast as ordinary cable chargers. That’s partly down to reduced charging current and partly because of the heat produced, as in inductive coupling in a transformer.

A conventional phone charger has a DC output whereas a wireless charging pad is operating at very high frequency to improve coupling efficiency. I cannot find details of the power supplies used for the charging pads but would be surprised if they use conventional phone chargers. My phone’s thick leather case will protect the phone from damage but it may reduce the charge rate or even block wireless charging.

It looks as if phone manufacturers are going to standardise on one type of wireless charger – the Qi charger.

With wireless chargers operating at high frequency, there is the possibility of radio interference.

From the intro:
But Apple has responded strongly, saying that that dropping the Lightning connector ‘would create an unprecedented amount of electronic waste‘.

That is a very poor argument.

As far as I know, every new phone comes with a new charging cable and plug. Standardisation would mean phones could be sold without charging cables so you only buy them when you need them.

That is what would cut down on electronic waste.

I think the original goal of being able to sell phones without chargers has not succeeded. Most, if not all, phones do indeed seem to come with chargers and cables.

One of the issues here is that, at least in theory, a cheap, sub-standard, charger might damage or degrade a phone, so it makes sense for manufacturers to supply a charger of a known acceptable quality for each phone.

I think the best way to minimise electronic waste would be for manufacturers to produce durable phones and then support them with easy availability of parts and software upgrades. For example, I think the iPhone 6 is a good example of a phone for which parts are readily available and for which repairs can be undertaken without specialist skills or equipment (etc.).

Normally I would agree with what you say, Alfa, but the problem is that many of the cheaper third party chargers are not safe: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2019/09/killer-chargers-travel-adaptors-and-power-banks-rife-on-online-marketplaces/ In addition to the risks mentioned, a dodgy charger can wreck a phone, resulting in more electronic waste. At least genuine chargers are safe and likely to be durable. If Apple would reduce the ridiculous prices for their phone chargers, fewer cheap ones would be sold.

Edit: I agree with the comments made by Derek.

I see your point as people naturally look for the cheapest.

The only way around that would be only phone manufacturers could sell charging cables. I can’t see that working either.

I doubt it but consider the motor industry, where third party parts approved by the manufacturer are cheaper and of equal quality to the OEM parts.

Where people complain about the cost of Apple and Samsung chargers I suggest they buy another well known but cheaper brand such as Belkin.

I normally think of Belkin as an expensive brand for phone accessories, but then I’m not an iPhone user.

I have bough a couple of 2nd hand iPhones for family members who suffer from that addiction – and even those cost me far more than I’ve ever spent on brand new phones for my own use.

I mentioned Belkin because it’s a well known brand that seems to produce decent products, which are often discounted. My Belkin phone charger is rarely needed to charge the phone but I use it to charge a sat-nav. Apple sells some Belkin products.

Part of this problem would be addressed if we could deal with the sale of fake products, and of unsafe products. I consider that if there were substantial penalties imposed on any distributor / retailer selling these deficient goods we would much reduce the consumer detriment; that includes marketplace operators. There is nothing wrong with third party products – indeed they are essential for a healthier market – but I want to know that when I buy a Samsung or Belkin product it is exactly that.

Warnings about cheap dodgy phone chargers have appeared many times over the years. Here is one from 2014: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-27390466

We need a choice of chargers but not hundreds of them, especially when many are not even branded. Perhaps the online marketplaces should be required to have products tested before putting them on sale. The cost of doing proper tests would soon restrict the number of models they stock.

I have Apple and Samsung at home, and the lightning connector used by Apple seems to be more sturdy and strong, with a better fit into the socket

Samsung’s USB3 connector is a bit loose or wobbly, seems thinner and less strong. I think it will wear out or break before the Apple one

If Apple had been allowed to keep making its own designs, maybe they could have made an even stronger connector. I think the EU decision is wrong

Also none of you are talking about the cancer risk from wireless charging

DerekP says:
3 February 2020

Hi wev, my experience is that the children in my family tend to destroy Apple Lighting connectors much more readily that other forms of charging connector. That said, they do get through micro-usb ones as well.

Thankfully it is now possible to buy decent quality replacement Lighnig cables without having to pay Apple prices.

Finally, I doubt that there is a cancer risk from wireless charging, just as I don’t think there would be one from hifi loudspeakers.

Kids need to learn to handle small connectors carefully and not yank the cable. I have used a charger and cable with a Lightning cable for about six years. At Apple prices I would not want to have to replace them.

Wev – It is extremely likely that there is any health risk associated with using wireless chargers. They would be better referred to as inductive chargers because the range is so short that the thickness of a phone case can interfere with their operation.

Mobile phone systems and wireless routers bathe us in radio waves, so are much more likely candidates to cause us harm but despite great efforts they have not been shown to be a health risk.

wavechange – at paragraph 2, line 1, did you mean to say “unlikely”?

Well spotted, Derek. I guess the context gives it away.

I’m likely a lone voice here thinking that to standardise on effectively an unfused power cord across devices of varying demand is inherently unsafe?

If a cord (from a wallwart presumably) is capable of delivering several amps, then the device should be capable of receiving that current and dealing with it safely.

Analogy: IEC plugs are standard (or almost so). However, one powering a kettle will be fused at 13A, but one plugged in to a 17″ monitor should likely have a 1A fuse in it.

Roger, that is an interesting point.

As a general rule, UK mobile phone and tablet chargers are not fused, but almost all laptop chargers are. The one exception I have is the charger for my cheapo GeoBook 1 netbook. It is rated at 240VA on its mains side, with an output of 12V, 2A.

In homes that are festooned with cables and wires feeding electrical devices, any chargers plugged into fused extension leads will at least gain the protection of a fuse there (but usually only a 13A one). Otherwise the only protection will be upstream at the consumer unit.

Your comment also prompted me to check the rating of my monitor. It was, of course, only visible after the removal of the VGA plug and was 1.2A. As I usually use PC “kettle leads” interchangeablybetween PC’s and monitors, I’d normally want mine fused to cover either duty. Even so, I think 3A fuses ought to cover anything I currently own. I believe some of the more powerful digital convector heaters, er sorry gaming PC’s, need power supplies rated at 750W, so probably need 5A fuses.