3 ways to make USB easier to live with

Can't wait for USB 3.1? Here's how to simplify life with plugs until it arrives.

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
3 min read

This end up. Photo by Rick Broida/CNET

Here we are in 2015, and USB plugs still aren't reversible: You have to plug them in exactly the right way. That's always fun when you're trying to connect something to a tower PC case or inconveniently located USB port in your car. Usually it starts with a lot of contortions, continues with searching for a flashlight and ends with a least a little cursing.

Stop the madness!

New USB standards -- most notably USB 3.1 and Apple's just-announced USB Type-C -- will make the pluggable life a lot easier, as the new ports and connectors have no "right side up": They work much like Apple's current Lightning ports and plugs, which is to say everything's reversible. As it should be. As it should have been 10 years ago.

That's great for all the gear you're going to buy in the future, but what about now? Are we doomed to live with difficult USB for all our current cables and devices?

We are not! Here are three ways to make today's USB less of a hassle.

1. A dab'll do ya

The fastest, easiest, cheapest way to "fix" any USB device is to break out the nail polish. A little dab of red on the up-facing side of the connector (not the metal part that actually goes into the port, but the plastic casing behind it) will show you at-a-glance which way the plug goes.

Indeed, just remember "red side up." You can accomplish the same thing with a Sharpie marker or the like, though if it's a cable or device with a black casing, nail polish is better.

Why don't cable manufacturers just paint on a red dot for you? Because not all USB ports are oriented the same. And it's worth noting that this trick may backfire if you need to plug a "tagged" cable into a different port, which may well be "upside-down" relative to the one you use regularly.

2. Replace your cables with reversibles

Either end up. Tripp Lite

File this under, "Didn't Know It Existed." But it turns out you can already enjoy reversible USB, provided you buy new cables. Tripp Lite offers a variety of reversible USB cables, including A-to-A, A-to-B and, of particular interest to Android users, A-to-micro-B (aka Micro-USB).

Prices vary depending on where you shop, but just for sake of example, Newegg carries a 1-foot Tripp Lite type-A-to-Micro-USB cable for $5.99. That's a pretty inexpensive upgrade.

Just one catch: For the moment, all of Tripp Lite's reversible cables are limited to USB 2.0.

3. Add an adapter to your current cables

Tripp Lite's cables won't help you with, say, an iPhone, a Pebble watch or any other device you have that uses a non-standard USB cord.

Enter the Ryo Adapter, which promises to convert any existing USB plug to a reversible one:

Ryo Tech

That's the good news; the bad news is it's currently a Kickstarter project not due to ship till September. But it'll be reasonably priced at $18.99 for a three-pack, and early backers can still get in for $15.

Also, the developers note that a reversible USB 3.0 plug is not possible, which helps explain Tripp Lite's similar limitation. Looks like anyone hoping for reversible USB for an external hard drive will need to wait for USB 3.1.

In the meantime, if you've found any other tips or products that can minimize USB hassles, share them in the comments!