Don't Get Burned by Bad Cables

It can be hard to ante up for a quality Lightning or USB-C cable when just a little searching reveals cables that cost only a couple of bucks each. “Surely,” you might think, “the cheap cables might not be as good, but so what if they wear out sooner?”

Points for frugality, but this is one place you don’t want to skimp too far. With some types of cables, the worst that could happen is that the cable would stop working. But with any cable that carries power, like Lightning cables for iOS devices, a short could cause sparks, smoke, and even a fire. This isn’t a crazy concern: there have been numerous reports over the years of fires started by charging smartphones, both iPhones and models from other manufacturers. Apple even has a page that helps you identify counterfeit or uncertified Lightning cables.

If you have a MacBook or MacBook Pro with USB-C ports, fire hasn’t been an issue, but bad cables have been. In 2015 and 2016, Benson Leung, an engineer at Google, made it his mission to identify out-of-spec USB-C cables after a bad USB-C cable fried his Chromebook Pixel laptop. To summarize his findings, stick with cables sold by name-brand manufacturers like Apple, Anker, and Belkin—others may be fine, but you’ll need to do research to be certain. We personally sell Moshi, a product we love as they fit in well with the sleek Apple products, and of course, Apple-branded cables.

With Lightning cables, the same advice applies—buy cables only from well-known manufacturers like the ones mentioned above. You’ll pay a little more, but the cables will not only likely last longer, they’ll be less likely to damage your iPhone or iPad, or burn down your house.

That being said, any cable, if sufficiently mistreated, can short out and cause problems. Follow this advice to protect your devices from cable-related issues:

  • When coiling your cables, avoid wrapping them tightly around something. A tight wrap can cause kinks that will degrade the wires inside.**
  • Don’t create sharp bends in the cable, especially near the connector. Sharp bends can eventually break the insulation and reveal the wires inside.
  • When unplugging your device, pull from the plug instead of the cord. That avoids stress near the connector.
  • Keep the Lightning connector’s pins clean and away from liquids; crud or a drop of water on the pins could cause a short circuit. USB-C cables are less susceptible to such problems because of their metal jackets, but still be careful.
  • If a cable’s insulation ever breaks such that you can see the wires inside, wrap it with electrical tape right away, and replace it as soon as you can.

Don’t freak out about cable safety—although there have been problems, hundreds of millions of people have never experienced any trouble at all. But it’s still worth buying quality cables and taking good care of them.

**To help prevent the wear and tear on your laptop chargers, we love the JuiceBoxx! We have these available in store to help extend the life of your chargers.

Dongles, Dongles, Dongles

Apple’s new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar models rely on a new kind of connection port: Thunderbolt 3. Unfortunately, while this switch is great from a technical standpoint, it has caused confusion in the Mac world. Let’s sort it all out.

The root of the confusion is the fact that Thunderbolt 3 uses a different physical connector than Thunderbolt 1 and 2. They relied on the physical Mini DisplayPort connector, which made sense since they are commonly used to connect monitors. Thunderbolt 3 instead relies on the reversible USB-C connector that has previously appeared in the Mac world only on the 12-inch MacBook, where it replaces USB-A.

Here’s the key fact to remember: All USB-C devices, cables, adapters, and chargers should work when plugged into a Thunderbolt 3 port, but Thunderbolt 3-specific peripherals will not work when plugged into the USB-C port of a 12-inch MacBook. In short, Thunderbolt 3 is a superset of USB-C.

The only visible difference between a Thunderbolt 3 cable and a USB-C cable is that a Thunderbolt 3 cable is labeled with the same lightning logo used on previous Thunderbolt cables. USB-C-only cables may be labeled with SS+ for SuperSpeed+.

If you buy a new MacBook Pro and want to connect it to older devices that lack Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C ports, you’ll need a special cable, adapter, or dock. Apple makes a number of these, and more are available from numerous independent manufacturers. The two most important adapters to get are Apple’s Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter and a USB-C to USB-A adapter.

With those handy, you can connect to any Thunderbolt device (including many older Macs and Apple’s Thunderbolt Display) and any USB device. You can also add Apple’s older Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet Adapter and Thunderbolt to FireWire Adapter to connect to Ethernet networks and FireWire hard drives.

Connecting to other displays requires additional adapters, which are specific to the different video standards. Apple makes adapters for USB-C to HDMI and VGA, but not for USB-C to DisplayPort, Mini DisplayPort, and DVI, so you’ll have to turn to another manufacturer for displays that rely on those last three standards.

The practical upshot of all this is that if you have a new MacBook Pro with Thunderbolt 3, you may need to get a couple of adapters to be able to migrate data from an older Mac, connect to your existing accessories, and drive external displays and projectors. (Macworld has a nice guide to all the possibilities.) That’s an unfortunate fact of life right now, but in a few years, once most peripherals support USB-C and new Macs come with Thunderbolt 3, there will be one cable to rule them all.