On a recent episode of the podcast Robot or Not? co-hosts John Siracusa and Jason Snell explained why calling plugs “male/female” is antiquated and why we should call them plugs and ports or jacks and sockets instead. They also talk about the design of Apple’s Lightning connector versus the newer USB-C connector that’s rapidly become a part of our daily lives, and which one is the better physical connector:
When you stick the USB-C plug in there, it’s so well contained that even if you, like, yank the USB-C cable, you’re more likely to break the cable or the connector before you’ll break off that little tongue thing. So I think USB-C is actually a pretty well-designed connector, and it does have advantages over Lightning.
Ever since the Lightning connector came out in 2012, the internet commentariat argued that Apple had designed a connector where the more delicate spring contacts were in the expensive device while the solid, more durable pin contacts are on the cable. The theory is that springs wear out relatively quickly, but pins do not. Hand-waving ensued, and conspiratorially-minded commenters believed that Apple had done it to make people replace their phones more often—never mind that the then-prevailing micro USB-B connectors were hot garbage.
In practice, however, one of the biggest complaints about Lightning for its first few years was that one pin would “turn black” and prevent the phone from charging. What was really happening was that the pin responsible for charging was corroding. It wasn’t some black schmutz building up on the cable, the pin was literally evaporating into the air.
This happened to me too for awhile. I think by around 2018 this was totally fixed—I don’t recall if Apple changed the material they were using, or if they added more protective circuitry and/or software. Anyway, I had to replace three or four Lightning cables between 2016 and 2018, but after that this never happened to me. I’ve never had to repair a Lightning port on a device.
So what about USB-C? It turns out that the physical design of USB-C is a lot like a reversed version of Lightning. If you look inside the end of a USB-C cable, you’ll see 20 springy pins arranged like teeth in a set of jaws. If you look in a USB-C port, you’ll see a “tongue” sticking out at you.
It turns out that the “tongue” in a USB-C port is designed a lot like the older Lightning plug, while the USB-C cable connector is designed a lot like the older Lightning port. How do I know that? Last September my just-out-of-warranty MacBook Air started having trouble charging via one of its USB-C ports. Looking at iFixit it was very clear that it’s easy to replace just the USB-C ports, and the part itself only cost €10. Taking out my laptop’s USB-C ports was a total déjà-vu moment:
When I pulled out the faulty USB-C port “tongues” from my MacBook Air, one of them had corrosion that was a lot like the corrosion I saw in my old Lightning cables! Even the design of the pins was remarkably similar.
I want to be clear here: I don’t think this happens a lot. I think this happened to me when I spilled some water nearby and some splashed into the port. However, I do want to argue that, again, it was the pins that corroded here, not the spring contacts in the cable. The “durable pins/delicate springs” theory of connectors sounds good, but maybe needs some rethinking.
I still like USB-C a lot as a physical connector. If you look at how USB-C ports are put together, you can also see that the “tongue” inside is designed to withstand some lateral wiggling, and that this is a relatively solid bit of plastic that’s very well bolted to the laptop case. Each tongue is a well-built metal sleeve that surrounds a circuit board with connectors printed on each side. If you step back and look at the port as a whole, you can see that a lot of the support is the case of the laptop itself, which braces against the outer sleeve of the cable.
Unfortunately, not every USB-C port is so well designed: we put a lot of trust into the makers of our devices to build this right, and to make it so that the whole USB-C port is easily replaceable. If that USB-C port had been soldered on to the main computer board, I would have been toast. The whole debate in the EU over device charging standards ignores the fact that a lot of USB-C ports are poorly built and are themselves not replaceable: Apple is actually way ahead, IMHO.
I love USB-C because it’s ubiquitous, it does tons of stuff, and, in principle, I only need to carry around one charger and cable for all of my devices. I guess it’s a well designed connector, but it’s also a complicated one. As a physical plug, I’ll always like Lightning for its direct simplicity, and because the part that I tended to break was the the easily-replaced cable.