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USB-C power upgrade to 240W could banish some of your proprietary chargers

As new USB standards catch on, choices for cables' data rates and power levels will be less confusing, the USB industry group predicts.

Satechi 100W USB-C cable

A Satechi 100W USB-C charging & data cable

Stephen Shankland/CNET

USB-C just got a power upgrade to 240 watts that'll let you plug in devices like gaming laptops, docking stations and 4K monitors. By more than doubling power from today's 100-watt top capacity, the new USB-C standard could eventually let you toss a lot of proprietary chargers into your junk drawer.

The USB Implementers Forum, the industry group that develops the technology, revealed the new power levels in the version 2.1 update to its USB Type-C specification on Tuesday. The new 240-watt option, called Extended Power Range (EPR), should arrive in devices in the second half of 2021, USB-IF said.

"One hundred watts has served a lot of purposes, but there are markets that could benefit from more power -- things like gaming notebooks or maybe a docking station that can distribute more power to the things connected to it," said USB-IF Chairman Brad Saunders.

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USB began as a useful but limited port for plugging keyboards, mice and printers into PCs. It later swept aside Firewire and other ports as faster speeds let it tackle more demanding tasks. It proved useful for charging phones as the mobile revolution began, paving the way for its use delivering power, not just data. The 240W Extended Power Range option means USB likely will expand its turf yet again.

You can charge everything from toothbrushes to power drills with USB today, and the increase in power could help USB become an ordinary way to supply power consumer electronics devices and many other products. In USB-IF's vision, you can expect to see USB-C charging ports becoming ever more common on power strips, cars and power sockets on the wall, Saunders said.

Cables supporting 240 watts will have additional requirements to accommodate the new levels. And USB-IF will require the cables to bear specific icons "so that end users will be able to confirm visually that the cable supports up to...240W," USB-IF said in the specification document.

You can also expect a new look for lower-power cables, now called Standard Power Range, that will max out at 60W by delivering electrical current of 3 amps. Today's higher-power cable products, which can carry up to 100W of power by using current up to 5 amps, will be replaced by EPR cables.

A capacity of 240 watts is enough to run larger monitors, workstations, gaming laptops and other devices. Dell's UltraSharp 32-inch 4K monitor has a peak power usage of 230 watts, for example, the same level as HP's 17-inch Omen gaming laptop. Also eligible are all-in-one computers like Apple's iMac -- though that uses a proprietary power cord.

It isn't, however, enough for everything. Try NewEgg's power supply calculator to see how a gaming PC with a higher-end video quickly surpasses 240 watts. Laser printers can also draw a lot of power.

Several USB standards

USB-C is the relatively new variety of oval ports and reversible cables, a design that means you no longer have to worry which side is up on plugs. The design also means the same cable works on phones, tablets and PCs. The USB-C specification isn't the only one covering how USB ports and cables work. Today's mainstream USB 3.2 and brand-new USB 4 govern how data is sent over cables, while USB Power Delivery governs how devices negotiate with chargers and other devices.

The USB PD specification has been updated to version 3.1 to accommodate the 240W power level, USB-IF said.

USB's new utility has come with growing pains. It can be tough to figure out if that USB-C cable you have lying around supports fast data rates or the highest power rating, and the more power cables carry, the more worried you'll probably be about fried laptops.

But the USB standards have lots of protections, including negotiations between devices to make sure power stays at supported levels and electronic labels in the cables that tell devices how much electricity they can handle.

As the new USB standards mature and components become cheaper, the new power and data capacities will become commonplace, said USB-IF Chief Operating Officer Jeff Ravencraft. USB-IF doesn't expect mainstream consumers to have to learn terms like EPR and SPR.

"The general consumer has no clue about voltages and amps. Nobody understands any of this stuff," Ravencraft said. "We'll focus on the brands we have for chargers, and we're working on a way to identify to the consumer in very simple terms the support for this higher wattage cable."

Careful about cables

The power boost led the USB-IF to add a long section to the USB-C standard with advice about how manufacturers can prevent problems from electrical current arcing through the air between the USB-C plug and port when you unplug a device. But you can still expect some small zaps.

"The goal of arcing mitigation is not necessarily to entirely prevent arcing but to prevent damage to the connector pins due to arcing that may still occur," the document said.

One port that USB hasn't managed to displace is Intel's Thunderbolt. With USB 4, it's caught up to Thunderbolt's 40Gbps speed by actually embedding Thunderbolt technology. The two standards continue to converge, though Intel maintains separate certification program for Thunderbolt.

But USB 4 is rare, just arriving now in newer laptops, and Thunderbolt offers some reliability advantages. Thunderbolt uses a laptop's USB-C ports through a repurposing called "alt mode," but not all USB-C ports support Thunderbolt.

Alt mode also can let you plug in external monitors' HDMI and DisplayPort cables into USB-C ports. However, HDMI cables remain commonplace, and rumors suggest Apple could be restoring the HDMI port after years of offering only combination USB-C/Thunderbolt ports.