Using Industrial CT To Examine A $129 USB Cable

What in the world could possibly justify charging $129 for a USB cable? And is such a cable any better than a $10 Amazon Basics cable?

To answer that question, [Jon Bruner] fired up an industrial CT scanner to look inside various cables (Nitter), with interesting results. It perhaps comes as little surprise that the premium cable is an Apple Thunderbolt 4 Pro USB-C cable, which sports 40 Gb/s transfer rates and can deliver 100 Watts of power to a device. And it turns out there’s a lot going on with this cable from an engineering and industrial design perspective. The connector shell has a very compact and extremely complex PCB assembly inside it, with a ton of SMD components and at least one BGA chip. The PCB itself is a marvel, with nine layers, a maze of blind and buried vias, and wiggle traces to balance propagation delays. The cable itself contains 20 wires, ten of which are shielded coax, and everything is firmly anchored to a stainless steel shell inside the plastic connector body.

By way of comparison, [Jon] also looked under the hood at more affordable alternatives. None were close to the same level of engineering as the Apple cable, ranging as they did from a tenth to a mere 1/32nd of the price. While none of the cables contained such a complex PCB, the Amazon Basics cable seemed the best of the bunch, with twelve wires, decent shielding, and a sturdy crimped strain relief. The other cables — well, when you’re buying a $3 cable, you get what you pay for. But does that make the Apple cable worth the expense? That’s for the buyer to decide, but at least now we know there’s something in there aside from Apple’s marketing hype.

We’ve seen these industrial CT scanners used by none other than [Ken Shirriff] and [Curious Marc] to reverse engineer Apollo-era artifacts. If you want a closer look at the instrument itself, check out the video below

77 thoughts on “Using Industrial CT To Examine A $129 USB Cable

  1. It sure can’t compare to the cheapest cable, these are really nice cables. but it still definitely do not worth the price tag… not when you compare some other cables… I got some for like less than 6$ with all bell and whistle including a screen showing the mode of charge and the power currently transmitted all in the plug… selling these more than 30$ by comparison is really abused…

    1. Depends what you’re plugging in, I’d guess. Most of the time we don’t need 100W or the full thunderbolt-4 speed, so a cheap cable won’t make much difference. But if you’re moving gigs of video files, it’s probably worthwhile – and a reasonable expense.

      Problem with the $30 cables (and etc; this applies to so many things now) is you’re never sure if they’re worth $30 or if they’re a $3 piece of junk with a bigger markup.

    2. Worth noting that this cable is *three meters* long, and is fully Thunderbolt *4* certified. There’s not actually any similar cables that I can find. The closest are *two* meter TB4 cables, which are around half the price. The Thunderbolt 3 spec is easier to reach, so TB3 cables are a lot cheaper.
      I’m sure there’s a bit of ‘Apple tax’ added to the price, but it’s not unreasonable that making a three meter cable, that can reliably pass 40GB/s of data, is twice as difficult as making a two meter cable

      1. Yes. And since a 3m TB4 cable is something of a power user – tooI only, I guess that Apple doesn’t sell too much of them. It’s not really a mass market product, and thus not “cheap”.

    3. They are apple-spomsered shills so of course they are going to compare apples to oranges so their apple product appears far supior, to justify the retail price.

      I have a.$60 cable that would have been a better comparison, but a $60 cable would likely only have very minor differences, making the apple cable appear not so glamorous.

      1. What does your $60 cable look like inside?
        Have you used it to transfer full TB4 bandwidth of data (spoilers: you haven’t)?
        Can you provide evidence for Hackaday being Apple shills other than “they don’t irrationally hate Apple like it’s 2008”?

        1. I have the 2m Anker TB4/USB4 40 GBit/s cable, it was like 35€ in sale…
          So far it works great, not sure what you are after, but I have no idea why a 60 USD cable would not work either.

        2. Spoiler neither did they, probably for a reason, they wouldn’t want you to know their $130 cable is comparable to a $60 cable so they picked the cheapest they could fine to make theirs look better.

  2. I watched the video simply to find out how/why the CT images were colored. I’m impressed by the industrial CT equipment. I’ll be asking our chief radiologist when to expect such things in the medical world. Perhaps it already is and my hospital is too small to afford such equipment.

    1. AFAIK, medical images are in B&W because changing them to colour would require to re-train the doctors. Not because they wouldn’t be able to interpret them without training, but due to legal requirements. So I don’t think that we will see medical CT in colour neither in the near, nor in the medium future.

          1. I was going to say, I had the hospital put my CT on a CD and it is colorized. So I can see those punctate kidney stones forming. Reminds me, I need to get some water to stay hydrated (they hurt much less if they pass when small, dehydration makes the crystals grow)

      1. Really? I changed industries early on and didn’t keep up, but about 30y ago I developed a 3D medical analyzer/imager as my thesis, that allowed users to zoom, move and dynamically color based on data properties. Heck I had to build the specialized CPU/GPU from scratch back in those days, but can’t imagine this isn’t available as standard nowadays

        1. All I could think of is how stupid it is to put the complex electronics in the cable which is the first thing to break, especially Apple cables that have horrible jackets and strain relief. Please manfacturers keep the smart stuff in the port and keep the cable simple please.

    1. Well in this case they compared a Thunderbolt 4 cable to a bunch of USB 2 options so actually quite a lot. Higher data transfer to anything that speaks the spec, higher power both in amperage and voltage. Overall it’s just not a fair comparison.

      1. “Higher data transfer to anything that speaks the spec, higher power both in amperage and voltage”

        None of that should require an entire controller built into the plug. If it does, the spec sucks.

          1. @spaceminions have you seen what a 40GBe network card and switch costs? They make the Apple cable look like a bargain, and contain the same sort of signal conditioning hardware in the SFP connectors that they use to adapt to copper.

        1. Its more than 4 PCIe lanes worth of bandwidth over a little USB cable. You need to understand that takes special cables.

          I honestly hope Occulink (Oculink?) takes off. Seems much less constrained by licensing etc. it possibly won’t do 2 or 3 meters, but I can get and M.2 Oculink to PCIe slot breakout for only $36. And all it requires is a spare M.2 x4 slot, not drivers from Intel that may or may not work.

      1. Except that they designed a dogshit-stupid rectangular plug at the outset, and then churned out more connector designs over time… meaning that they compounded their initial stupidity by ignoring what they should have learned from the SCSI connector fiasco.

  3. To be fair, when scammy audiophile cables are compared to normal ones, some of the things they claim are legitimate ways to make a better quality cable. So if you compare one to a regular cable, you’ll have to acknowledge that the expensive scam has got ultra high conductivity wires and contacts, extreme amounts of shielding, etc – it’s just that in actuality there is no need for such things when you’re talking about normal audio signals.
    In this case, I think I remember someone said a cable that also supported the same speeds and functions as this one starts at about 1/3 the price. That is more in line with typical apple pricing than the oddball comparison to almost the cheapest possible cables with the same connector.

      1. Well, Thunderbolt or USB-C can support DisplayPort, so you can easily saturate it with data by connecting some 8K super high refresh rate 3D monitor to it. The standard goes up to 80 Gbps.

        1. Or PCIE devices such as external GPUs, or one of those one-cable-does-everything laptop docks with some high bandwidth combination of monitors and network and usb devices.

      2. You can make buy or make a thunderbolt NVMe drive for $100 these days ($80 for a thunderbolt enclosure, and $20 for a 1TB NVMe). If you routinely transfer large files the reduction in transfer time might be worth it to you.

        Or you could get adapt an HBA card to thunderbolt and make a storage device out of 4-8 SAS drives.

    1. Supports the same speed and actually delivers the speed are different things… as we saw a day or so ago even FPS rates on cameras can’t be trusted now.

      These cables are intended for people shooting ProRes on the iPhone 15 and similar.

  4. I’m a bit confused, if a usb cable complies with the spec shouldnt it be able to do whatever speeds and power transfers are in the spec? Why the need for more expensive cables? Are there different incompatible usb cable versions?

    Also i hate twitter and microblogging, splitting a long post into a dozen smaller posts is so dumb, microblogging is the devil

    1. Hardware-wise there’s 4 revisions.

      USB: Power & data (USB-2 is the same)
      USB-OTG: USB + ID pin (ID is only on the connector, not a wire)
      USB-3: USB + 2 more data channels
      USB-C: USB-3 + power delivery (PD) + double the wiring to make it reversible

      For non USB-C, there’s various plug shapes, but that’s mainly “can we make a smaller one?”

      USB-C cables have data speed & power ratings, but that’s just length & thickness.

      They’re backward compatible, so you can make a USB-C cable with just power & data (original USB). Or just add the power delivery lines so you get fast charging but slow data. Not to spec, but it’ll work.

      You can get USB-C sockets with just the original USB power lines, good for DIY projects where you only need 5v but want to use a USB-C cable.

      Everything else depends on the devices you are using. Simple!

      For example you have quick charge (QC), which doesn’t need the PD wires USB-C has, so it’ll work with USB / USB-3. Mainly so you get fast charge with USB-micro phones. That’s a protocol, not a cable thing. (USB-OTG also supported faster charging, but that got mostly ignored.)

        1. The cable pinout & wiring stays the same though. There’s really no such thing as a Displayport, Thunderbolt etc USB-C cable, that’s the entire point.

          The OP was about the cables, not what you’re plugging them into.

          You should have mentioned that USB-C doesn’t double the wiring to make it reversible, it just mirrors the pins in the plug.

  5. And that is why I really don’t like USB-C.

    Everything fits everywhere and maybe it works or not. And with Thunderbolt it is even worse. But you can surely not expect to get a Thunderbolt cable for 3$.

    1. I think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill, a little.

      The vast majority of USB-C devices you interact with function perfectly fine with the Power Delivery SPR range (up to 100W) and USB 2.0 data transfer rate. That supports fast-charging your phone, synching a couple of photos or files, as well as charging most any handheld appliance which uses USB-C for charging.

      You can buy an IKEA cable for £6 which offers all but the fastest SPR charging speeds, and USB 2.0 data, with 1.5m length and a nice braided finish. Stick it in your pocket and you have the perfect cable for 99% of situations in your daily life.

      If you do need to transfer Terabytes of data to an external HDD, or charge a gaming laptop at 240W, chances are the manufacturer has provided a special cable. Just fork out the extra cash and buy it. No need to scrimp on accessories if your device cost a few K.

      If you carry that cable in your pocket, you will never need another one again. USB standards are quite annoying and flawed in places, but the fact they’ve persisted for 25 years tells us maybe they got something right. I think a lot of the hate is just baseless contrarianism that doesn’t actually reflect what the average joe thinks.

      1. The problem isn’t that you can probably use USB2.0 and the lower power USB-PD of a not e-markered cable, or that for most folks that is all you would need or anything like that. The problem is that cable looks EXACTLY THE SAME as a cable that actually does support displayport, the faster connection speeds, etc and the same is true of the devices.

        So now you have that highly annoying situation where everything can plug into each other, but the odds are great it won’t work the way you want. It was annoying enough to find a charging only cable with no data lines for the simple supposedly 4 wires of USB<2 or a supposedly USB 3 device that actually only had USB 2 (but at least USB 2 is nothing but slower than USB3), and this just makes it heaps worse.

        Even knowing this to be a potential problem doesn't make your life any easier, try the few cables that are handy and whatever feature you wanted likely still doesn't work, so go get your one full fat does everything stupidly expensive cable you always dig out for testing and know worked last time you used it. So what happens when you still get nothing – you can't be sure if your previously known good cable has since been damaged or one of the devices themselves is the problem. Making this 'universal' port entirely garbage as it outright lies about being 'universal' and in the process makes cables way stiffer more fragile and stupidly expensive.

        1. Oh and for extra good measure the spec mandating putting brains in the cables means your simple x-ray is not even close to enough to spot the Rubber Ducky like security risks – the cables are supposed to be full of extra junk now. And stuck inside the plastic cable you can’t really verify it isn’t non-destructively, even this CT scan has limits

  6. The USB4 specs basically mean you will never be able to get a cheap cable doesn’t it? it has minimum requirements that make it impossible.
    As for if a $129 cable is worth it? Well if you for instance bought a $3500+ apple headset you could argue it makes sense to not get a non-speced cable I suppose.

    It’s just a pity that they make specs that require cables that are basically too expensive, and probably will still be even if it all takes off and the chips inside of them become much cheaper. Especially since now the investment banks/people not only pushed copper prices through the roof but then seemingly started on alluminium, so that now the chinese switched from copper clad alu to copper(-like material) clad iron… meaning that USB cables with 10 shielded and 10 unshielded wires will come with a price.

    It’s all part of the increasing division between the lower income class and the high income one I guess.

    On the ‘plus’ side, the regular new iphones don’t even have USB3… so people can use it with budget cables at will.

    1. Transmitting that much data over copper pairs is getting so difficult that the cables only work over a very short distance anyhow. Sooner or later they’ll have to switch to optical fiber to keep up with the bandwidth demands, and with that the whole compatibility issue with the cables will go away, since it’s just going to be a light pipe with two copper wires for power.

      1. “…since it’s just going to be a light pipe with two copper wires for power.”

        Until Monster Cable shows up with extra thick light pipes made only of the finest glass from Venice, copper strained through unicorn fur, and jacketing made of recycled passenger pigeons. The credulati (sic) will buy it – in every sense of the term – as they always have.

        1. The problem with those arguments is while the marketing departments push to make their extra shielded, pure gold plated speaker cable ‘THE SPEAKER CABLE’ there are still going to be times (for most of those cables at least) that it is the correct choice. It isn’t just the fools that buy ’em.

          Even stuff that sounds really stupid can have some merit – like gold plated fibre optic TOSlink ends, sounds really stupid and for a long time I thought it was entirely pointless. Until you want to source one for a marine environment. Salty humid air is trouble, so every cable you are running in a wall/floor probably wants to overkill on the corrosion resistant stuff – while it will suck if your device dies it is much easier to replace than a cable in an awkward conduit and the two hopefully haven’t got glued together by corrosion either…

      2. The “optical & power” for USB has been coming “real soon now” for about 15 years.

        I think the hold-up was “the cables are cheap but the TX / RX isn’t”. Maybe that bit has gotten better.

        1. As Dude says, you need to go to fiber just for the bandwidth probably, and if you combine that with the copper version now reaching a cost of the mentioned $129.- then you are at a point where fiber might become competitive in price too.
          Mind you I don’t know a lot about fiber, but if I see how they are fibering up everything over here for internet purposes, and how that seems to not require super high care/skill in terms of the fiber I think we are well on the way of fiber becoming cheap and easy.

          So now it is time for the HaD crowd to get access to cheap fiber and to start experimenting I guess.
          Just checked and it’s availble on aliexpress for quite long lengths, 20 meters 50 meters etc

          And I also see this: ‘4K 60Hz Fiber Optic HDMI 2.1 Cable 20M 30M 50M HDMI Fiber cable High Speed 18Gbps’ sold at various lengths like 25meter (about the same as yard) $43.00 and 50 meters for $65. And with all good reviews.

          So it’s odd I don’t see many fiber projects on HaD actually.

          1. You need to plug the cable into something, that’s was (or is) the expensive part.

            My only experience with fibre optic was in an aluminium smelter, copper wiring for comms had a few issues what with all the big sparks and whatnot. The cabling was nothing compared to the networks cards. I’ve heard similar stories from DIY folk.

            A quick look shows modules shows anywhere from $30 to $10k. The $30 one only does 100Mb, pretty ordinary speed these days but does do it over 20km, try that with copper.

            Yeah, I think the “plug into bits” are the hold-up still.

          2. Look at ‘Direct Attach Copper’ cables which are basically patch cables for short distances that go into the same slot that a fiber optic transciever would go into in server/networking equipment. They can do 100-200Gbit each at similar or greater lengths with just copper. The price is cheaper when you are looking at for example 3 meters at 100gbit which has for about $50. Technically short lengths and high prices can get you greater speed.

            For currently available fiber transcievers comparable to this apple cable, you are looking at maybe $40 each plus the fiber itself for a target of 40gbit, but you can reach 150 meters if you want. You might find something in between the two if you look, e.g. maybe someone has an ‘active optical cable’ in the desired length and speed.

  7. the review is pretty stupid, in compares one quite good (and very expensive) cable to a lot of cheap crappy ones.

    I have an external device that can do 1Gbyte a second on usb. I’ve found the determining factor to be the usb C cable – and I have had $5 -15 ones from aliexpress and local suppliers (all claiming to do 10Gbits or higher) do from 25Mbytes/s all they way through to other that 850Mbytes/s…

    They are all about the same price (ie $10 plus or minus $5), and all have the same online ‘specs’.

    So a more meaningful review would have been too look at some of the brand ones that can do at least 100Mbytes/s – as nobody is going to want slower than that..

    1. “the review is pretty stupid, in compares one quite good (and very expensive) cable to a lot of cheap crappy ones”

      That is literally the point of the comparison. To see if there is a difference. Answer: Yes. There is. Whether it matters to you is a different thing.

      1. His point is they’re comparing apples (lol) to oranges. The Amazon Basics is the only real USC-C cable, and they never actually bothered to test data speeds, so what’s the point?

        A Rolex is nicely made too, but a cheap digital watch keeps better time.

  8. CT is cool but I’m tired of seeing all those useless comparisons between different standards that just aim to make some publicity to apple even if they are just following thunderbolt standard.
    I really do not understand the point

  9. Where is your journalism? You don’t mention that they’re comparing two different cables entirely to justify that inflated price. Beyond that you completely neglect to mention that all but their Pro line are locked to USB2 speed and power.

    I expected more of Tested and you’ve let your readers down too. This feels like such a shill video and coverage.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.