Last month Amazon announced a new top-of-the-line Kindle Oasis. It has a new screen, double the brightness, and the same MicroUSB port Amazon has been using on Kindles for a decade.
It’s time for the MicroUSB port to die. With USB-C now available, and preferable in almost every single way, there’s no excuse for manufacturers using an old and mostly dead standard. That goes double for gadgets which, like the Kindle Oasis, claim to be luxurious flagships for discerning customers paying top dollar.
Why is USB-C Better?
Ask anyone who’s switched from an old MicroUSB port on their Android phone to a newer one with USB-C. The most obvious feature, the latter’s reversible oval shape, is still worth highlighting. Like Apple’s even smaller Lightning port, it can be plugged in easily even in the dark.
But that’s only the beginning. Unlike the much older MicroUSB port, USB-C can handle power, data, and video simultaneously, and its bandwidth for power and data are much, much wider. That’s to be expected with a new standard, but USB-C is also more desirable from a purely physical perspective: though it’s rated for the same 10,000 connect-disconnect cycles (plugging the cable in and out again), its wider and more stable oval shape preserves cables and plugs longer, keeping them from being easily loosened or weakened. At least that’s my personal experience.
The best part about USB-C is that, in addition to being flexible for power (100 watts maximum, enough for all but the most gigantic laptops), data and video (4K resolution even with half its lanes dedicated to other data), it’s poised to replace both the flimsy MicroUSB and the original, rectangular USB-A at the same time. Apple started things off with the MacBook, but now any new laptop that comes out without at least two USB-C ports is seen as tragically dated. Yes, I’m looking at that Surface Pro 6, Microsoft.
So Why is MicroUSB Sticking Around?
To be blunt, it’s cheap. Because of its universality starting around 2010, literally billions of MicroUSB-packing products are in use, and perhaps hundreds of millions of new ones are made every year. The economies of scale, not to mention the lower USB 2.0 requirements of most of these connections, means you can grab dozens of them for a few dollars. And that’s end-user prices: manufacturers probably get MicroUSB ports and cables for a few pennies each.
But cheapness alone doesn’t account for seeing MicroUSB ports on new high-end devices, like the Kindle Oasis, or Logitech’s MX Master 2S mouse, or the wireless mouse in Razer’s Turret (which even has USB-C charging on the keyboard!). That would make sense if we were dealing with budget devices; compare Anker’s $50 Soundcore Liberty Neo (MicroUSB) headphones with Samsung’s $130 Galaxy Buds (USB-C), for example.
No, the reason even new, high-priced devices are sticking with this older standard for charging is because they’re not entirely new. Let’s go back to that Razer mouse: it’s the spitting image of the wireless version of the Mamba mouse, a design now several years old (and one that has gone through a handful of revisions on its own). Charging the Turret mouse via USB-C, as the keyboard does, would mean Razer couldn’t use the Mamba shell, printed circuit board (PCB), or charging cable, nor most of the enormously expensive manufacturing equipment for that product line. Even on a $250 mouse and keyboard set, it simply isn’t worth the bother for a relatively niche product.
Note that, when Logitech designed an entirely new vertical mouse for the MX line, it used USB-C for charging while the rest of the line is left behind. The brand new mouse body and PCB mean Logitech can finally justify the extra expense. The same limitations are probably what’s keeping Microsoft from putting USB-C ports, instead of the cumbersome and more limited USB-A, on its Surface Pro for another product cycle. It’s infuriating to see from a consumer standpoint, but you can’t fight the bottom line.
If it didn’t seem like such a painful transition from MiniUSB to the smaller MicroUSB port about ten years ago…it wasn’t. But that was before a billion Android phones with MicroUSB hit the market, not to mention innumerable mice, keyboards, Bluetooth headphones, battery packs, and tiny plastic fans (among other things). With mobile electronics and accessories now a part of basic life for most of the adults on the planet, changing standards is slower and harder.
When Will USB-C Start Taking Over?
Soon. It’s already starting to happen, as you’ve probably noticed. The Surface line is a positive example here: when Microsoft introduced the entirely new Surface Headphones last year (alongside the woefully lacking Surface Pro 6), it was packing a USB-C port for charging. Microsoft’s designers cemented this move with the newest variation of the Xbox Elite controller, which is the first Microsoft controller to charge via USB-C. Perhaps you can thank the Nintendo Switch, which uses a single USB-C port for charging, data, and video, plus C ports on accessories like the Pro Controller and the PokeBall Plus, for this leap forward. Expect both the next Xbox and PlayStation to feature USB-C ports heavily.
Even budget devices need not be left behind. The new revision of the Raspberry Pi, despite the same tiny $35 starting price as its predecessors, uses a USB-C charger. Budget phones from the likes of Blu are on board, and you can find USB-C headphones for under twenty bucks. The ports, they are a-changing.
But it’s probably Apple that’s going to push us over the top. The company pushed USB-C for power, data, and video into the mainstream with the MacBook revision of 2015, and has recently replaced the Lightning port on the iPad Pro with USB-C for much the same reason. Rumors from the supply chain indicate that this year’s iPhone update will pack USB-C, finally closing the discrepancy between Apple’s flagship phone and laptop products, and giving us iOS and Android phones that use a unified charging standard for the very first time.
It’s hard to admit for an old Android fanboy like me, but where Apple goes, the industry follows. Wireless charging was a niche feature in 2017, with even former champion Google dropping it on their Pixel line. That is until Apple adopted Qi charging for the iPhone X, suddenly bringing wireless charging pads into every Walgreens, CVS, and mom-n-pop shop around the globe.
Once Apple commits to USB-C in the mobile space, we’ll see cables and other accessories drop by the tens of millions, finally bringing the more expensive ports to the top of the economy of scale. It might even push ports onto more resistant form factors, like monitors and full-sized PCs, at all budget levels. We can finally say goodbye to the cumbersome MicroUSB port, with perhaps a few exceptions for cheap, plug-it-in-and-forget-it devices like smart speakers.
But I won’t be buying any new gadgets without USB-C charging or any new full-sized computers without the option of a USB-C connection. Get on board, manufacturers, or get left behind.