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Why the iPhone 8 deserves USB-C

Published Feb 28th, 2017 3:08PM EST

By every account, the iPhone 8 is going to be a big deal. If the rumors are to be believed, it will be a bezel-less, button-free monster of a smartphone, coming to raid our bank accounts and our free time.

That’s all well and good, but a new Wall Street Journal report has everyone freaked out over a seemingly minor detail: Apple might ditch the Lightning connector in favor of USB-C. That might seem like a particularly courageous move on Apple’s part — Lightning only came into being in 2012, so we’re not really due a change in connector yet — but I’m here to tell you why it makes a tremendous amount of sense.

To begin, I’d like to name and then ignore the obvious benefit of USB-C, namely that it’s a universally accepted connector. That’s true, and a rather wonderful thing, but it’s also irrelevant. Apple doesn’t really care what connector you use on your other, non-Apple devices, because in Apple-land, there are no other non-Apple devices.

Sure, a USB-C iPhone 8 would charge with the same connector as all the Android phones out there, which would be mighty convenient for people who make cars or stereos or cases or charging cables. But Apple doesn’t really care about any of that. In its mind, the Lightning cable is already a universal connector, because it’s the connector Apple universally uses on phones and accessories.

So let’s forget about that, and focus on the differences between USB-C and Lightning on a technical level. In a lot of ways, they’re similar: high data throughput, reversible connector, similar-sized jack on the ends. But in one important respect, USB-C is far superior: power.

Apple doesn’t publish how much power the Lightning connector is theoretically capable of supporting, but it’s likely not much more than the microUSB connector, or other parts of the USB standard. That’s limited to 5V and a max of 3A, so even the fanciest quick-charge solution delivers a max of around 15W.

That’s pathetic when compared to USB-C, which can happily handle 100W. Now, a phone won’t ever be drawing 100W of power in use — that’s higher than most laptops — but the total amount of power that a charging connection can handle will affect the speed that the battery charges.

The iPhone 7 is already one of the slowest-charging flagship phones out there, taking a little over two hours to juice up fully. The Galaxy S7 is about an hour and a half, but expect that to fall with the next-gen Galaxy S8. Android manufacturers are already using USB-C, which means they’re limited by battery technology, not the power of the charger. Meizu has already demonstrated a tech that charges a phone battery in just 20 minutes, and you can bet it’s not running on Lightning.

So sure, Apple will take a hit by changing to USB-C. There will be the usual round of complaints about switching cables, and Apple will also lose out on some of the revenue it currently makes from licensing Lightning technology.

But think of the potential downside for Apple if it doesn’t change right now. Fast charging is quickly turning into an important feature, especially for Android manufacturers who are looking for any edge over one another in a crowded marketplace. If everyone else’s phones can get a half-charge in five minutes and a full charge in 20, which Apple is still stuck on a two-hour charge, you can bet the iPhone 8 will be looking a lot less revolutionary.