Should You Be Afraid of Your USB Cable? CNET Investigates

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CNET asked an interesting question this week: ?should you fear your USB cable?? Don?t get too carried away — we?re all going to be relying on bulk USB cables for quite a while to come. However, they did bring up some important points about the way people think about USB cables — and how destructive assumptions can be.

The average person tends to view cables as a fairly simple thing. As long as they plug into a matching part, they appear to be more or less interchangeable — just a bunch of copper wire cords allowing electrons to flow.

As several people have found out, though, this isn?t necessarily the whole truth — and by using the wrong cord, you could potentially ruin the devices you?re using. Google engineer Benson Leung and Verge editor Dieter Bohn ended up frying their laptops after plugging in Amazon-purchased USB cables. Leung?s Chromebook laptop is totally fried — it won?t boot up at all. And Bohn?s notebook — a usually resilient MacBook Air — now has unusable working USB ports.

Both men were using a USB Type-A-to-USB Type C cable. Appearance wise, it looks like your typical cable. In theory, this cable is supposed to connect an old USB cable to one of the newer, reversible Type-C cables (which can charge devices more quickly, while also delivering more data). Although both men originally assumed Amazon and faulty manufacturing was to blame, CNET says that what is actually going on may be more nuanced — and not necessarily Amazon?s fault.

Cables may be dumb, but they have some basic functioning technology going on. They should have a resistor inside that limits the amount of power a charging device can draw out. Otherwise, a phone that?s capable of charging, say, 3 amps, when plugged into a computer only capable of providing up to 1 amp is going to pull too much power, causing the voltage inside the computer to drop — and potentially frying it. Apparently, this is indeed what happened in the case of the Amazon cables — although the USB spec demands a 56k ohm resistor, Bohn?s cable only had a 10k ohm resistor.

Leung, for his part, is interested in pushing the industry forward and in his free time, he reviews dozens of cables on Amazon. Many manufacturers have direct chats with Leung about what changes they should make to their products.

Whether you’re buying USB 2.0 cables or USB 3 cables, you most likely have nothing to worry about — especially if you’re buying from a quality manufacturer. While Leung and Bohn’s experiences with fried laptops are concerning, CNET does note that these types of reviews are few and far between — more commonly, people simply complain that their bulk USB cables simply don’t work, or work too slowly.

Have you ever experienced a major issue with bulk USB cables? Let us know!

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