Has Apple reached its maximum potential?

USB-C vs. Lightning: What the Appropriate Interface is

Martyn Casserly

Ports don't exactly get your heart rate up, but they're an integral part of smartphones and laptops. We compare the two main interfaces Apple currently offers - Lightning and USB-C to determine which are the best.

It has been several years, and therefore generations of devices, that Apple replaced the old-fashioned connections on iPhones and iPads with the smaller Lightning version. Today, Lightning's main competitor is the USB-C connector, favored by Android smartphones and the tech industry as a whole.

In fact, the potential of USB-C is so great that it will appear as the only port on the Macbook (from Spring 2015) and Macbook Pro (from Fall 2016), raising the question of whether we'll see this on iOS devices as well.

So what are the differences between the two applicants? We take a look at USB-C and Lightning to see how they put together.

Were USB-C and Lightning both designed by Apple?

A few years ago the story circulated that Apple developed both technologies. It's not really true. While Apple was working on the USB-C design, a large number of other companies - including Google, HP, Intel, Lenovo, Microsoft, and Samsung - also collaborated under the common name of the USB 3.0 Promoter Group.

Rumor has it that Apple grew impatient that the technology standards were taking too long to pass and instead decided to go their own way with Lightning. So far, this has served the company well, as the proprietary nature of Lightning means accessory companies must license it from Apple, which provides an additional stream of income from Lightning headphones and the like.

Lightning also gives Apple the freedom to implement new features whenever it wants without waiting for approval from other parties. The truth is, Lightning doesn't seem to have changed much since it was introduced on the iPhone 5 in 2012.

Are plugs and sockets symmetrical?

Indeed they are. One of the joys of using either type of connector is that you no longer get to be "the wrong way round" like the previous USB-A design. Plugged in like this ... oh wait, no, no, that's not right. The other way round .... oh, it doesn't fit that way either. Back to the first alignment ... now it's in. What kind of magic is that ?!

There are minor differences in approach. The Lightning cable has a "male" connector, which means that the pins are on the cable itself and not on the port.

With USB-C, there is a piece protruding from the cable, but the pin section is in the socket - the pins go into the opening on the cable head.

That sounds pretty bold, but in real life the result is that both are easy to insert and remove.

Is USB-C faster than Lightning?

The real difference between the two connectors is what they can do and how fast they can do it. USB-C is actually just the style of plug and port, the actual power supply comes from the USB 3.1 technology used, which can deliver 100 watts of power and the Superspeed 10 Gbps data transfer rate. It can also support full DisplayPort A / V performance with up to 8K resolutions at 60 Hz. It's also backwards compatible with VGA, DVI, USB 2.0, and HDMI, provided you have the right adapters.

The whole point of USB-C (USB 3.1) was to create a single style of plug and port that could handle pretty much anything. However, a USB-C port doesn't mean it will run at those super fast speeds. As mentioned earlier, USB-C refers to the style of the port and connector, not the technology inside. That has surprised some people recently.

The OnePlus 3 was one of the first Android phones to feature a USB-C port, but it was later found to only use USB 2.0 speeds. Conversely, the USB-C ports on the new Macbook Pro models are powered by Thunderbolt 3, so they actually have a maximum data transfer rate of 40 Gbps, which is four times the USB 3.1 standard. When looking at USB-C, you have to make sure what technology is under the hood, and not just look at the shape of the connector.

Apple hasn't released all of the Lightning specs as such, but tests on the standard cables show that the speeds match those of USB 2.0. This is equivalent to 480 Mbps, which is a far cry from USB 3.1. With the introduction of the iPad Pro in 2015, we found that the device could support USB 3.0 speeds. That pushes rates to a far impressive 5 Gbps, but that's still only half the capabilities of USB-C.

To make things a little more complicated, the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X support fast charging, which allows batteries to go from empty to 50 percent in 30 minutes. To do this, you'll need a USB-C charger and a USB-C to Lightning cable (both are not included). This suggests that Lightning can at least take advantage of USB-C power.

Will USB-C be on the next iPhone or iPad?

This is more difficult to answer, as we may only learn part of the truth at the iPhone keynote on September 12th. Lightning ports are a bit smaller than USB-C's, which can be a deciding factor when it comes to size and thinness - Apple is quite obsessed with that. Thus, iPhones are more likely to stay with Lightning, while the iPad Pro, which is expected at a later date, could switch to USB-C.

A year ago, Apple already had the option to switch to USB-C with the iPhone X, and the Wall Street Journal reported in February 2017 that this could be the case. But when the model was finally revealed in September 2017, Lightning was still the order of the day. Also this year there were rumors about USB-C in the new iPhones.

With iPhones now supporting wireless charging, it might even be more likely that the port will disappear entirely on future models. It would certainly be a bold move, but that seems to be in line with Apple's current sentiment. Knowing if it would be right for consumers ... that's another matter.

What is better?

USB-C, paired with USB 3.1 or Thunderbolt 3 technology, is faster, more powerful and offers more versatility than Lightning, at least in its current form. It is also now widely used as the port of choice for much of the consumer technology landscape.

So it wasn't much of a surprise that Apple chose USB-C as the only port type offered in its premium laptops, albeit in fewer quantities than most would wish.

Although the new standard is now an integral part of Android phones, it is still questionable whether we will see it on all upcoming iPad or iPhone versions. We'd like it because it would at least rid us of some of the dongles that mess with laptop bags these days, but let's not forget that Apple sells quite a lot of these too.