USB-C explained: How to get the most from it (and why it still keeps getting better)

USB-C is the gift that keeps on giving, with faster and more powerful ways to use it. Here’s how to make the most of the current standard and what lies ahead.

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Make a power play

USB-C’s support for the USB PD specification is a huge step forward for charging your devices. Instead of being limited to 2.5 watts like USB 2.0 or around 15 watts as with USB 3.1, current systems and docks generally top out at about 100 watts.

I spend a lot of time working out of my car, and keep a $40 Anker PowerDrive Speed+ 2 Car Charger plugged into the cigarette lighter outlet. It has both a traditional USB 3 port for powering my older iPad and a USB-C power port for charging my Galaxy S20 phone. This powerful travel companion weighs about an ounce and uses USB PD technology to deliver a total of 49.5 watts of power. The adapter’s LED ring glows blue when it’s working.

When I’m not driving, I take Anker’s PowerCore+ 26800 PD battery pack with me to keep my devices charged. It’s not light, tipping the scales at 1.3 lbs., but it has a 26.8 amp-hour lithium battery pack inside. It costs $140 and comes with an AC adapter for quickly charging its cells. When it’s fully charged, the circular charge indicator’s 10 LEDs glow. They flash when there’s less than 10% left.

usb c explained 10 anker powercore 26800 pd battery pack Brian Nadel/IDG

The Anker PowerCore+ 26800 PD battery pack can easily charge multiple mobile devices or even a laptop.

It includes a pair of USB 3 ports and a USB-C port. Plug it into a laptop, phone, or tablet, and the system’s battery icon shows that it’s charging. The PowerCore+ has nearly doubled my ability to work without access to an AC outlet for my Tab S7+ tablet from 10 hours and 40 minutes to 20 hours and 15 minutes. That’s plenty for the longest transpacific flight or a day spent working in coffee shops and office lobbies.

There’s one more USB-C power trick I use every day with my Android work tablet that makes connecting and disconnecting much easier. The iSkey Magnetic USB C Adapter is a knock-off of Apple’s MagSafe design, where one part plugs into the tablet and the other into a USB cable. Inside, these two parts have powerful magnets that snap together to make a physical and electrical connection when they’re within a couple inches of each other. Later, when it’s time to move around the office, I pull the two apart. The best part is that it costs about $20.

usb c explained iskey magnetic adapter Brian Nadel/IDG

iSkey’s Magnetic USB C Adapter imitates Apple’s MagSafe connector.

Drive a display

USB-C’s combination of faster data transfer and increased power delivery opens the way for a new class of devices that take advantage of both. For example, AOC’s I1601FWUX 15.6-in. display brings together several of the most interesting aspects of USB-C. At 9.3 x 14.8 x 0.4 in. and weighing 1.8 lb., the portable monitor lets you say buh-bye to HDMI or VGA cables, because its USB-C cable carries both power and video.

At around $150, the display is a bargain and uses Alt Mode video. According to the company, it works with Windows 7, 8, or 10 and macOS 10.12.1 or later. It worked fine with my Android-based Samsung Tab S7+ tablet and took all of a minute to set up. Just plug it in and set the I1601FWUX screen to mirror or extend the tablet’s display. It can show 1920 x 1080 and tops out at displaying 262,000 colors. 

usb c explained 11 aoc display with tablet Brian Nadel/IDG

The AOC I1601FWUX display’s USB-C cable carries both power and video.

I especially liked marking up documents or sketching items on the Tab Pro S7+ using its stylus, while viewing the action on the AOC portable display. On the downside, all the display’s power came from my Tab S7+ tablet, reducing its battery life from nearly 11 hours to just over four.

An excellent complement to a laptop, tablet, or phone for small group presentations, demos, or desk work, the I1601FWUX points the way for a generation of self-powered devices, such as bigger and, I hope, interactive displays as well as projectors.

Troubleshooting USB-C

The fact that there isn’t much to adjust or configure with USB (C or otherwise) is a testament to its technological success. New or old, in almost all cases, it just works.

When USB-C doesn’t work, though, there’s a lot you can do to investigate.

My first step is to analyze the signal with a diagnostic meter. While there are several different versions of these available online, the $20 KJ-KayJI meter I use tells me not only the voltage and amperage of the signal but the device’s resistance and a bunch of charging details.

usb c explained kj kayji diagnostic meter Brian Nadel/IDG

A diagnostic meter can test USB-C connections and diagnose problems.

I used it recently when my phone refused to charge. I slipped the meter between my phone and the AC adapter. The meter’s screen showed that no electricity was flowing, meaning the problem was with the cable, which was easy to replace.

My second step is to use Windows’ built-in USB tools. In addition to notifying me of a problem, the Settings screen in Windows 10 and 11 has a way to bring unresponsive USB devices back to life. If you’re having USB problems on a Windows 10 or 11 device, try these tips:

  1. Go to the Device Manager by right-clicking on This PC in File Explorer and then clicking Properties. Under “Related settings,” click Device Manager to bring up a list of devices. Double-click Universal Serial Bus controllers in the list to reveal the actual controller. It should read something like “USB 3.0 eXtensible Host Controller.” Give that a right-click, then choose Properties. Choose the Power Management tab and uncheck the box next to Allow the computer to turn off this device to save power to keep the port powered up. But be warned: your battery might drain faster because of this change.
  2. Updating the USB drivers, too, couldn’t hurt. You can do this by choosing the USB device that’s not working, right-clicking, and choosing Update driver from the drop-down list.
  3. Finally, check the specs of the computer, device, and cable to make sure they all match.

When all else fails, try cleaning the physical USB-C port, because dust and dirt might be preventing an electrical connection. Try using compressed air to blow out the loose stuff and then gently clean the port with a plastic toothpick. I use a CVS Health Interdental Brush & Toothpick to give the port a good cleaning. You’d be surprised what comes out.

usb c explained 14 toothpick clean Brian Nadel/IDG

You'd be surprised what detritus can collect in a port and interfere with the connection.

Hopefully you now have a clean machine, ready for work.

This article was originally published in March 2018 and most recently updated in March 2022.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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