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CES 2023 | USB Forum: About performance values instead of version numbers and missing Apple certifications

USB logos to displace version numbers. (Image: USB IF)
USB logos to displace version numbers. (Image: USB IF)
USB 7.1a version 3, Gen5 2x2? It shouldn't actually get that far with USB, because the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) primarily wants to see the performance data "out there" with the clientele and even places extra advertising for it to move the industry in the right direction. NotebookCheck also spoke to the forum about upcoming 240 W power supplies, cables with displays, certifications, and Apple's stubbornness.

If the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) has its way, there are really no discussions around version numbers of the USB standard. As members of the USB-IF told NotebookCheck in Las Vegas, they are aware of rants and rumblings in the trade press, but this is largely irrelevant for the customers who buy the devices.

However, the forum did admit that things are different for IT professionals. Nonetheless, the standard now takes a more meaningful direction hopefully. This is why the USB-IF has been using logos for a long time, which are supposed to avoid the problem of unrecognizable cables, connectors, and versions mentioned in the tech press.

Instead of version numbers, cables, and connectors (host/client, not power supplies), the nomenclature should now show clear performance values. USB 5 Gbps, for example, is written on a cable or connection with 5 GBit/s data transfer rates. USB equipment manufacturers can also select 10, 20, 40, and 80 as numbers next to a USB logo. This covers all but two exceptions: USB cables that only support 480 Mbps will not get a speed logo since there is a high risk that customers may rate 480 MBit/s better than the GBit cables.

For hosts and clients, only the speed specifications for logos apply. (Image: USB IF)
For hosts and clients, only the speed specifications for logos apply. (Image: USB IF)

The second exception concerns the asynchronous mode, where one of the data lanes points in the "wrong" direction. In this, 120 Gbit/s are possible in one direction and 40 Gbit/s in the other. Since this is a special case that is covered by 80 GBit/s cables and ports, there is no need for a logo here from a technical perspective but rather a basic knowledge of the USB4 2.0 specification.

While the cables are clear in theory, it is unfortunately not the same on the operating system side. Finding out at what speed a connection is being negotiated is not trivial. However, according to the USB-IF, there are provisions for the operating system to display the corresponding values. Whether this is done in an easily accessible way or not is another matter.

3 A and 5 A cables

From a technical perspective, things get interesting with the logos for the electrical power attached to the USB cable. Only two values are provided here: 60 W and 240 W, which become part of the speed logo. Voltage and amperage should not matter here. The power limits are based on the amperage. With a 3 A cable, 60 W can be transmitted over the 20 V rail.

5 A cables, on the other hand, are something special — 100 W were previously possible, which has now increased to 140 W thanks to 28 V rails. The maximum power here is 5 A @ 48 V, which is 240 W.

Ideally, if it weren't for the different USB speeds that put ten different cable types for USB Type-C, there should only be two cable types on the market.

Cable rules are not to be confused with USB power supply rules. (Image: USB IF)
Cable rules are not to be confused with USB power supply rules. (Image: USB IF)

On a side note, the USB-IF does not think much of display cables and the forum is unaware know of any that have been certified.

However, they are not completely averse to the idea and used exactly such a (non-certified) cable in a USB-C demo. According to the forum, the power that the cable has to carry for the display is not without problems. However, they still feel this can be implemented cleanly without violating the USB specification. According to the USB-IF, no cable manufacturer for displays has submitted one for certification yet, so this cannot be guaranteed at the moment.

Based on our own experience, there can be negotiation problems between the host and client similar to intermediate plugs in measuring instrumentation. Therefore, these cables can often only be used for verifying certain functions of the host but not to ascertain a non-function at the host or client side as the fault could very well lie with the cable.

Cables for displays still have advantages, though. It is otherwise impossible for end users to determine whether the 240 W cable or connection is really being operated at maximum voltage and current, perhaps has problems, or is only transmitting 0.5 A @ 5 V.

The USB forum already created a framework for all the logos upon arrival at CES in Vegas. Large, illuminated advertising on digital signage systems near the bakery stalls pointed visitors that they should pay attention to logos. Apparently, this campaign has been running since around 2015 but digital advertising started only from CES 2018.

Large logos of the USB Forum at Harry Reid Airport in Las Vegas. (Photo: Andreas Sebayang/Private)
Large logos of the USB Forum at Harry Reid Airport in Las Vegas. (Photo: Andreas Sebayang/Private)

The logic behind the logo ambitions is understandable. In fact, this system offers some clarity for most use cases, which the version numbers lack. For the technically inclined, however, the USB standard remains complicated due to version numbers and other technical descriptions.

By the way, the HDMI Licensing Administrator (HDMI LA) had to tread a similar path as well as they did not want to see version numbers on cables and had some rough dealings with some cable manufacturers at trade shows in this regard. Like the USB-IF, the HDMI LA has great difficulties in convincing the big players of the industry, especially with Hi-Fi devices that are often inaccurate due to lack of compulsion. Analogously, Apple is the problem when it comes to computer manufacturers.

Apple likes no USB certifications

There was restrained criticism from the USB-IF and also from other market participants at the CES regarding Apple since the company will continue not to have its USB hardware certified. However, technically speaking, Apple is actually doing everything right even though the hardware is not submitted for certification. This also saves Apple from logo obligations. The Cupertino-giant, which otherwise pays much attention to usability, apparently still doesn't want to make it clear what a cable, the connector, or the power supply actually does.

Finding out what a USB cable from Apple can actually do is sometimes only possible with testing. With power supplies, at least good eyes or a camera can help when light gray font on a white background has to be read.

That being said, it remains to be seen whether the USB logos will also spread to the devices from PC manufacturers. Unlike Apple, cable and power supply manufacturers are comparatively weak market players against which the USB-IF can definitely show some strength although a large PC manufacturer, who may still be a USB-IF member may do an Apple and make things somewhat difficult.

First 240 W power supplies by the end of the year

Meanwhile, on the CES show floor, we see quite a large number of 140 W solutions with USB Power Delivery (PD) support. Stronger power supplies are at best available via a higher power budget distributed over several ports. Though we could not find more than 140 W, it does not rule out the possibility that somewhere in Las Vegas a white label manufacturer might have shown a corresponding device.

Talking about 240 W, the current maximum supported power via USB PD, the USB-IF expects the first 240 W power supplies for Christmas this year. An intermediate rating between 140 W and 240 W is not expected. However, we haven't seen any finished power supply prototypes with 240 W USB PD yet.

NotebookCheck took a look at the first 240 W power supply prototype at CES 2023, which was hardly bigger than a 140 W Apple MacBook power supply. This is just a prototype at the moment, and it will take some time before it becomes a comparatively complex PD standard along with several Type C ports.

Correspondingly, the first certified 80 GBit/s cables should also be on the market by then. The certification should start in the middle of the year, according to the USB-IF.


USB Implementers Forum at CES 2023

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> Expert Reviews and News on Laptops, Smartphones and Tech Innovations > Reviews > USB Forum: About performance values instead of version numbers and missing Apple certifications
Andreas Sebayang, 2023-01-27 (Update: 2023-01-27)