Idle Speculation on the Widely-Assumed Switch to USB-C Ports on the Upcoming iPhones 15

Tim Hardwick, writing for MacRumors:

Apple may offer a USB-C data transfer accessory cable for iPhone 15 Pro models that is capable of Thunderbolt or USB4 speeds of up to 40Gbps. That is the latest claim made by Kosutami, who posted details of the cable on Twitter (now X). According to the leaker, the length of the cable is 0.8 meters, which is shorter than Apple’s existing Thunderbolt 4 Pro cable (1.8m), and it is said to support charging up to 150W. Apple will allegedly sell the cable separately.

Lest you think it nickel-and-dime-y for Apple to sell a Thunderbolt 4 cable separately, note that Thunderbolt 4 cables are expensive. Apple currently sells two: the 1.8m one costs $129, and the 3m one costs $159. I bought a 0.8m one made by Razor last year, with very similar feel and quality to Apple’s, that Amazon currently sells for $46. (That’s a make-me-rich affiliate link, if you’re in the market for a Thunderbolt 4 cable.) A 1m Thunderbolt cable from Monoprice (rubber, not braided) costs $30. Apple’s own 0.8m Thunderbolt 3 cable costs $39. I’m guessing this new 0.8m Thunderbolt 4 cable from Apple will cost $99. It’d be downright silly for Apple to include an expensive (and thick, stiff, and short) cable like that with every iPhone 15 Pro.

The reason to even offer such a cable, and to offer Thunderbolt 4 performance on the phones, is for data transfer, specifically video. The single biggest frustration regarding iPhones sticking with Lightning until this year is that 4K video files are very large, but USB 2.0 data transfer is very slow. iPhones have been capable of shooting 4K video since the 6S models in 2015, and as their image quality has improved each year, the data transfer limitations of Lightning has seemed more and more incongruous.1

I ran into this twice, when we used iPhones to shoot the COVID-era episodes of The Talk Show Remote From WWDC in 2020 and 2021. The footage looked great, but it took hours to transfer it off the phones. Heretofore, iPhones have offered pro-quality video cameras limited to decidedly consumer-level data transfer rates.

Speaking of “pro”, though, faster data transfer speeds might literally be capital-P Pro features this year. Hardwick continues:

Speculation therefore remains rife about the USB-C port capabilities of the iPhone 15 lineup, and nothing is certain beyond the switch from Lightning. Rumors suggest the cables supplied in iPhone 15 boxes are limited to USB 2.0 data transfer speeds at a rate of 480 MBps, which is the same as Lightning.

In contrast, the iPhone 15 Pro models are expected to be supplied with cables capable of USB 3.2 or Thunderbolt 3 transfer speeds, as per Kuo’s original claim. Images from ChargerLab suggest that some iPhone 15 models will include a Thunderbolt/USB 4 retimer chip, seemingly confirming the rumor of higher-speed data transfer for the Pro models.

Each iPhone 15 will include a braided USB-C charging cable in the box that is thicker (i.e. more durable) and 50% longer than the Lightning cable that comes with current iPhone models, according to reports. The cables are also rumored to be color-matched to possible new iPhone colors, coming in at least black, white, yellow, blue, and orange.

Even most Pro-model iPhone buyers never transfer data over a cable, so differentiating the iPhone 15 Pro models from the non-pro ones in this way feels fair. Including color-matched braided cables with all new models would be a nice touch (and lines up with other recent products, like the M1 iMacs and M2 MacBook Airs, that ship with color-matched braided cables). But the fact that some of these phones (the non-pro ones) might support only USB 2 speeds (480 Mbps), while others (the Pro models) will support up to Thunderbolt 4 (40 Gbps — roughly 80× faster), yet all the ports and cable connectors will look the same to the naked eye, only goes to show just how confusing “USB-C” is. Glenn Fleishman’s headline from 2021 remains as apt as ever: “USBefuddled: Untangling the Rat’s Nest of USB-C Standards and Cables”.

While I’m writing about the switch to USB-C, let me make a prediction how this will be received when it’s officially announced in two weeks. The small number of filmmakers who shoot using iPhones (small compared to the aggregate number of iPhone users overall) will rejoice. The larger number of nerds, and even semi-nerds, who travel with multiple computing devices and just want USB-C charging connectors on all them will be happy. But the vast silent majority of normal iPhone users? I think there’s going to be a backlash that most USB-C proponents don’t see coming, premised on accusations that this switch is a money grab from Apple to get people to replace all their Lightning cables with new $30 USB-C cables from the Apple Store.

You, dear reader, of course know that USB-C is an industry standard and you can buy high-quality cables from stores other than Apple. I don’t think everyone knows that. And even those who will buy their new USB-C charging cables from companies other than Apple are likely to grouse about the need to buy new cables at all.

When Apple switched from the 30-pin iPod connector to Lightning with the iPhone 5 in 2012, there was a lot of grousing. And that was a port switch where you could easily see how much better the new one was. (The old 30-pin connector and port really do look absurd to modern eyes.) At a glance USB-C doesn’t look any better than and barely different from Lightning. My gut feeling is that not much has changed since 2012 on the “new iPhone connector” front, other than the fact that there are, quite literally, over a billion more iPhone users today than then, and thus perhaps billions of extant Lightning cables in use. Typical users put more value on being able to just keep using the old cables (and chargers) they already have2 — at their bedsides, in their kitchens, on their desks, in their cars, in their backpacks and purses — than reducing the number of different types of cables they need in their lives.

I don’t know how many people are going to be irritated, if not downright angry, about this switch, but it’s going to be a lot more people3 than most “the iPhone should have already switched to USB-C” proponents expect. Me, I’ll gladly take the vastly-improved data transfer speeds. But I won’t be the one answering the phone at 1-800-MY-APPLE.

  1. Steven Soderbergh shot the feature film Unsane using iPhone 7’s in 2017. It looks great — deliberately grainy, in a throwback 16mm film way — but it boggles the mind to consider how much time they spent waiting for footage to transfer off the iPhones. ↩︎

  2. It’s worth noting that many iPhone users will be able to keep using their existing charging cables — if they’ve been using MagSafe instead of Lightning. I think this is the single biggest reason Apple has waited so long to switch the iPhone to USB-C. (The iPad Pros switched from Lightning five years ago.) I think they wanted to introduce MagSafe first, let people accumulate a few MagSafe cables in the places where they charge their iPhones, and then switch from Lightning to USB-C. Three years of iPhones (12, 13, 14) have already had MagSafe, so that’s about an average upgrade cycle for most users. But anecdotally, the normals in my family don’t use MagSafe, they use Lightning, probably because the cables are cheaper. ↩︎︎

  3. And a lot more clickbait-y “Look What Apple Is Forcing iPhone Users to Buy” headlines. ↩︎︎