If you ask companies, some might say that consumer experience is among the top drivers of technological innovation. With that, they may be right, at least partially. A competitive tech market with many device variations can benefit from exponential innovation but is not so good for e-waste.
A projection of global electronic e-waste in million metric tons. Image used courtesy of Statista
This concern for a consistent user experience and the reduction of e-waste has been troubling legislators for some time. With the latest EU decision to standardize USB ports for all devices by 2024, the wind is blowing in the direction of mandatory universal USB Type-C charging interfaces for European consumers.
When implemented, the decision aims to take some of the e-waste burdens off of consumers, who may feel guilty about what’s happening with the remaining cables when they renew their device repertoire.
With this in mind, this article will unpack the rationale behind this movement and what this could mean for the industry.
The Rationale Behind USB Harmonization
The number of devices per user continues to rise, making USB charging complex and expensive. Chargers frequently break down due to negligent or improper use, so having a universal USB charger at every turn will save the dollar for replacement purchases until the single unit wears out.
However, this EU change is not only about standardizing all USB chargers to prevent prospective human-caused dysfunctionality. It might also drive forward the complete e-waste reduction cycle, including transportation and production.
Examples of USB cable and port types. Image used courtesy of ViewSonic
Transportation costs are likely to go down by pulling the breaks on the tons of waste in landfills in Africa and Asia. Currently, that is 11,000 tons, which translates to €250M (~$266M) in money spent on charger replacements annually in the EU.
Harmonized charging ports mean users won’t have to bother with future device compatibility and interconnecting devices that require adapters beforehand.
USB Type-C Lays the Ground for Enhanced User Experience
As you’re probably aware, we’re usually happiest when our devices charge fast. With USB-C common connectors based on USB-PD charging technology, the charging speed has been moved to 100 W or 3 A of power and can charge almost everything from laptops and high-res monitors to printers. Users may raise fewer “battery empty” complaints as smartphones can be charged in under an hour.
The USB-C connector is close in size to micro-USBs, symmetrical, and reversible. Such design specifications could also make future devices thinner and lighter and encourage engineers to think of new device designs.
Could Wireless Charging Technology Benefit?
Regarding the benefits of USB-C ports, they go in another direction: encouraging wireless charging technology and paving the way for adopting a universal power transfer protocol for wireless charging. Currently, there are connectivity hazards between devices. Some are even impossible to connect. By standardizing ports, designers could make technologies like WPT (wireless power transfer) more convenient and safer.
Universal Charger for All Devices
With all this information in mind, one question that arises is: which devices does the EU decision account for?
All in all, it claims to include all smaller handheld devices, for example:
- Mobile phones
- Tablets and e-readers
- Digital cameras
- Video game consoles
- Headphones and earbuds
- Portable loudspeakers
We could potentially say goodbye to wireless mice and keyboards that use a USB port and lead batteries as a power source. Portable navigation systems are also included, making travel light and easy with only one charger for all electronics that consumers decide to take on the go.
However, travel to the UK will still require adapters because UK’s current stance is not supportive of the USB universality.
The UK has never been the one to shy away from technological divergence, at least regarding sockets, plugs, and adapters (EU and Northern Ireland need to agree on a separate charging protocol after BREXIT).
The EU is relatively specific in provisioning device documentation. Consumers will need to look for an icon that illustrates whether the new device comes with a charger or not and choose between the more convenient option, potentially saving money and space on dozens of chargers that must be kept in home drawers. Device packaging will also have a label that indicates the USB charger’s performance.
How soon will consumers need to look for these symbols on the packaging?
Not before 2024, and there are two different timelines for implementing harmonization. The one that is 24-months-long includes all other devices apart from laptops. For laptops, the implementation timeline is extended to 40 months.
How Does USB-C Compare to Other Chargers?
Compared to previous USB versions, USB-C strives to significantly improve connectors, hoping to future-proof all devices based on it. Moreover, it aims to make other types of connectors such as HDMI and Thunderbolt obsolete, eliminating the need for various ports on laptops.
The compact reversible port in the type-C USB connection has versatile use, namely for laptop power, display, connectivity, and storage.
Additionally, USB-C supports USB power delivery (PD). USB PD is a single-wire protocol that lets devices “agree” on optimizing the power level for each application, thus making the device more efficient and extending the battery lifespan. USB-C has a dual-role power (DRP) port.
It can be a source and a sink and switch roles as needed.
An example block diagram of a USB Type-C source to sink without PD. Image used courtesy of Richtek
The alternate modes communicate, negotiate, and switch on and off bidirectionally. Users can share power at their disposal in any device to prioritize between devices.
Apple Unwilling to Join the Game
Overall, many major device manufacturers are on board with the decision; however, one that stands out is Apple, which is wiggling its way through the restrictions. Although most iPads and Macs operate with Type-C connectors, it is not so for iPhones. Apple’s position is that universality stifles innovation and is, therefore, not in the users’ best interest.
However, Apple is still testing the new USB charging technology in two directions. One is adopting the USB-C port standard because of its superior performance compared to Lightning chargers. USB-C outperforms the Lighting cable with data communication, power delivery, flexibility, and high speed.
A basic comparison of Lightning vs. USB Type-C. Image used courtesy of Vention Cable
Another direction Apple is future-prooving its devices is by testing an adapter for accessories compatible with the current Lighting connector.
Apple was among the first companies to test USB-C’s new charging technology as it rolled out in late 2014 when the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) first defined the Type-C cable specs. However, manufacturers often change course when considering the short versus long game of market domination.
All said and done, there might be very little choice left for Apple but to give way to the EU despite the claims that switching to USB-C would mean more e-waste with millions of Lighting connectors ending up in the trash. The USB-C charger is not backward-compatible and old devices that remain in use will need to be charged with adapters.
All things considered, it looks that consumer experience and sustainable electronics are not the only two factors at play for the USB-C harmonization push. Market control is also important to take into consideration.