All About USB-C: Power Delivery

USB-C eliminates proprietary barrel plug chargers that we’ve been using for laptops and myriads of other devices. It fights proprietary phone charger standards by explicitly making them non-compliant, bullying companies into making their devices work with widely available chargers. As a hobbyist, you no longer need to push 3 A through tiny MicroUSB connectors and underspecced cables to power a current-hungry Pi 4. Today, all you need is a USB-C socket with two resistors – or a somewhat special chip in case the resistors don’t quite get you where you want to be.

You get way more bang for your buck with USB-C. This applies to power too; after all, not all devices will subsist on 15 W – some will want more. If 15 W isn’t enough for your device, let’s see how we can get you beyond.

Reaching Higher

USB-C power supplies always support 5 V and some are limited to that, but support for higher voltages is where it’s at. The usual voltage steps of USB-C are 5 V, 9 V, 15 V and 20 V ; 12V support is optional and is more of a convention. These steps are referred to as SPR, and EPR adds 28 V, 36 V and 48 V steps into the mix – for up to 240 W; necessitating new cables, but being fully backwards and forwards compatible, and fully safe to use due to cable and device checks that USB-C lets you perform.

A charger has to support all steps below its highest step, which means that 20 V-capable chargers also have to support 5 V, 9 V, and 15 V as well – in practice, most of them indeed do, and only some might skip a step or two. You can also get voltages in-between, down to 3.3 V, even, using a PD standard called PPS (or the AVS standard for EPR-range chargers) – it’s not a requirement, but you’ll find that quite a few USB-C PSUs will oblige, and PPS support is usually written on the label. Continue reading “All About USB-C: Power Delivery”

All About USB-C: Resistors And Emarkers

If you’ve been following along our USB-C saga, you know that the CC wire in the USB-C cables is used for communications and polarity detection. However, what’s not as widely known is that there are two protocols used in USB-C for communications – an analog one and a digital one. Today, let’s look at the analog signalling used in USB-C – in part, learn more about the fabled 5.1 kΩ resistors and how they work. We’ll also learn about emarkers and the mysterious entity that is VCONN!

USB-C power supply expects to sense a certain value pulldown on the CC line before it provides 5 V on VBUS, and any higher voltages have to be negotiated digitally. The PSU, be it your laptop’s port or a charger, can detect the pulldown (known as Rd) because it keeps a pullup (known as Rp) on the CC line – it then checks if a voltage divider has formed on CC, and whether the resulting voltage is within acceptable range.

If you plug a device that doesn’t make a pulldown accessible through the CC wire in the cable, your device will never get power from a USB-C port, and would only work with a USB-A to USB-C cable. Even the smarter devices that can talk the digital part of USB-C are expected to have pulldowns, it’s just that those pulldowns are internal to the USB-C communication IC used. A USB-C port that wants to receive power needs to have a pulldown.

This part is well-known by now, but we’ve seen lack-of-resistor failures in cheap devices aplenty, and the colloquial advice is “add 5.1 kΩ resistors”. You might be afraid to think it’s so simple, but you’d be surprised. Continue reading “All About USB-C: Resistors And Emarkers”

All About USB-C: Illegal Adapters

Let’s be clear – it’s not enough to have USB-C to USB-C cables. There’s a lot of cables that we might want to acquire for our day-to-day use, perhaps, for a transition period while we still own some amount of devices not adorned with a USB-C connector. However, the USB-C specification only accounts for a limited amount of kinds of cables, explicitly or implicitly excluding a range of cables that you might want to buy or make.

It’s my firm belief that, as a hacker, you should be able to buy any USB-C contraption that you could ever need. Hackers don’t need restrictions driven by marketing – they need understanding of how a piece of tech can or cannot be used, based on how it operates internally. I would like you to provide with such understanding, so that you can make informed decisions.

On the other hand, USB-C is designed to be used by less-than-skilled people, even if it often fails at that. (Cable labelling, anyone?) Clear definitions of what complies to a standard can help enforce it. Here’s the notorious story of a USB-C cable that killed a Chromebook, and launched a career of explaining USB-C specifics online for [Benson Leung]. There’s many such failure stories, in fact. Today, we’ll go through USB-C contraptions which might or might not fail you, depending on how you use them. Continue reading “All About USB-C: Illegal Adapters”

All About USB-C: Connector Mechanics

There’s two cases when hackers have to think about USB-C connector mechanics. The first is when a USB-C connector physically breaks, and the second is when we need to put a connector on our own board. Let’s go through both of them.

Clean That Connector

What if a socket on your phone or laptop fails? First off, it could be due to dust or debris. There’s swabs you can buy to clean a USB-C connector; perhaps adding some isopropyl alcohol or other cleaning-suitable liquids, you can get to a “good enough” state. You can also reflow pins on your connector, equipped with hot air or a sharp soldering iron tip, as well as some flux – when it comes to mechanical failures, this tends to remedy them, even for a short period of time.

How could a connector fail, exactly? Well, one of the pins could break off inside the plastic, or just get too dirty to make contact. Consider a device with a USB-C charging and data socket, with USB 2.0 but without high-speed pairs – which is to say, sadly, the majority of the phones out there. Try plugging it into a USB-A charger using a USB-A to USB-C cable. Does it charge, even if slowly? Then, your VBUS pins are okay.

Plug it into a Type-C charger using a Type-C cable, and now the CC pins are involved. Does it charge in both orientations? Then both of your CC pins are okay. Does it charge in only one orientation? One of the CC pins has to be busted. Then, you can check USB 2.0 pins, used for data transfer and legacy charging. Plug the phone into a computer using a USB-A to USB-C cable. Does it enumerate as a device? Does it enumerate in both orientations? If not, you might want to clean D- and D+ pins specifically, maybe even both sets. Continue reading “All About USB-C: Connector Mechanics”

All About USB-C: Cable Types

USB-C cables and connectors: these are controversial topics, and rightfully so – I don’t want to pull any punches. I will also show you that things don’t have to be that bad for you, as long as you’re willing to apply a few tricks and adjust your expectations.

Wild West of Wiring

You might have a bunch of USB-C cables, and they all might look exactly the same, but you’ve likely experienced that they’re not the same internally, and often there’s not a label in sight. Yes, it’s pretty bad, and one could argue it’s getting worse.

I’d like to clarify that I’m only talking about USB C male – USB C male cables here. While cables like USB-A to USB-C are popular, they are quite simple; you get USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 data and 2 A of current at most, and the USB-C plug is usually hardwired as “host, will supply five volts”, which is defined by a pullup resistor. Also, while cables like “Type-C to DisplayPort” might look like cables at a glance, they are adapters with a meaningful amount of active circuitry in them.

Purely following the specification, there used to be six types of USB-C to USB-C cables out there. Then, it became eight. Now, I’m afraid, there’s twelve of them, purely following the spec, and there’s way more when counting all the out-of-spec cables. Good news is – for most of the time, majority of these cables will be suitable for simple tasks like charging and data transfer, and situations where you need a very specific cable are going to be rare enough. Still, let’s go through it, and you’ll see that they’re easier to tell apart than it might look. Continue reading “All About USB-C: Cable Types”

All About USB-C: Introduction For Hackers

We’ve now had at least five years of USB-C ports in our devices. It’s a standard that many manufacturers and hackers can get behind. Initially, there was plenty of confusion about what we’d actually encounter out there, and manufacturer-induced aberrations have put some people off. However, USB-C is here to stay, and I’d like to show you how USB-C actually gets used out there, what you can expect out of it as a power user, and what you can get out of it as a hobbyist.

Modern devices have a set of common needs – they need a power input, or a power output, sometimes both, typically a USB2 connection, and often some higher-speed connectivity like a display output/input or USB 3. USB-C is an interface that aims to be able to take care of all of those. Everything aforementioned is optional, which is a blessing and a curse, but you can quickly learn to distinguish what to expect out of a device based on how it looks; if ever in doubt, I’d like to show you how to check.

Continue reading “All About USB-C: Introduction For Hackers”