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Power Communications Software Hardware Technology

USB-C Power Meter Helps You Spot Counterfeit Accessories Before They Fry Your Gadgets (gizmodo.com) 152

USB Type-C cables are not all created equally. In fact, some USB Type-C cables fail so badly that they will permanently damage your hardware. Benson Leung, an engineer on Google's Pixel team, discovered early last year that there's even more risk to your electronics when you've got a cheap USB-C cable with an older USB connector on the other end that doesn't properly regulate power draw. In an effort to weed out the bad cables from the good, a company called Satechi has released a "Type-C Power Meter" that makes it easy to tell if your USB-C gadgets are at risk of getting fried, or under-powered, by a sketchy accessory. Gizmodo reports: The simple pass-through adapter connects between a USB-C cable and a USB-C device, providing real-time data about the power draw, in either direction, including details about voltage, amps, and the amount of energy that's been transferred since it was first plugged in. The monitor can let you know if an external battery pack is providing the proper amount of power to a smartphone that it claims to, or if your MacBook or Chromebook is receiving sufficient power from a charging cable connected to its USB-C port to actually charge the battery. What the monitor can't do, however, is protect a device if there's a detected problem in the power flow. It's not a surge protector, nor does it have any built-in alarms or warnings because it has no idea what the power requirements are for whatever device you're using it with. You'll have to make sure you're aware of how much power a device is supposed to be drawing, and confirm that it matches what the Type-C Power Meter is reporting, as soon as you plug it in.
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USB-C Power Meter Helps You Spot Counterfeit Accessories Before They Fry Your Gadgets

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  • by Frosty Piss ( 770223 ) * on Friday January 27, 2017 @11:37PM (#53753045)

    I use only the spun-gold Monster Type-C cables. I know, they cost quite a bit at a little over $600 a foot, but the power is so smooth, and a certified genuine Yogi meditated over them. If you really care about the performance of your equipment, you buys these and do without food.

  • Now your telling me to add another $$$ to get a cable and thingie to measure current.

    My current phone sucks beans, but I can hold off another 6 months :(
  • Or you can buy a cheapo multimeter, which is far more versatile, for less than $10....

    http://www.ebay.com/itm/Digita... [ebay.com]

    Granted, not as cool, compact and easy to use.

    • by caseih ( 160668 )

      Sure if you cut open a cable and placed your multimeter inline with the power wire. Decent cables aren't cheap either. So it seems a lot easier and more fool-proof to buy a purpose-made monitor, and you'd come out nearly the same.

  • I FOR ONE (Score:3, Funny)

    by stiebing.ja ( 836551 ) on Friday January 27, 2017 @11:51PM (#53753089)
    WELCOME OUR NEW ad OVERLOADs
  • by Ungrounded Lightning ( 62228 ) on Friday January 27, 2017 @11:55PM (#53753097) Journal

    What bugs me about USB power is that the negotation for more than a tenth-amp (half-watt) takes place partly on the data lines. That means they need to be connected between the peripheral and the source.

    So any charger device for a power-hungry gadget (such as a smartphone) will have a full four-wire connection and have the opportunity to attempt to exploit any USB port vulnerabilities of the device. Making a "condom" adapter to only connect the +5 and ground wires will normally provide reduce performance (if it works at all). Vetting one that does connect to the data lines on both sides is difficult - both to insure that it does what's intended and doesn't have a backdoor, and that it, itself, isn't such an attacking device.

    Given that Russian intelligence was already caught handing out phone-cracking "USB chargers" to many countries' high officials at an international conference, the threat not just a hypothetical.

    (Note that some powered hubs just tie +5 and ground to the supply, rather than try to negotiate and enforce per-port power limits, too.)

    IMHO: A USB device that depends on its power source to limit its input current, and can be damaged by a host that is willing to deliver more current that it requested, is defective by design. The negotiation and enforcement is for the benefit of the power source (for instance, a laptop trying to protect its battery life).

    • IMHO: A USB device that depends on its power source to limit its input current, and can be damaged by a host that is willing to deliver more current that it requested, is defective by design.

      Ditto any supply (such as a laptop's USB port) that can be damaged by an excessive load - all the way down to a short to ground. Current limiters are not that costly, and one smart enough to negotiate higher limits involves enough custom silicon that it can also be designed to enforce the higher limits in a self-protec

      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        The USB-C spec allows for as much as 20V to be negotiated. For anything but the cheapest crap devices I don't think it's too much to ask that they be able to handle that or at least disconnect electrically rather than burn out. Any supplier of power should, as you say, not be damaged by even a dead short.

        I can understand if a $5 thumb drive can't handle it, but there's no excuse for something like a chromebook burning out.

        The meter might be useful for some things, but I suspect it's more likely to tell you

        • by thogard ( 43403 )

          If the shiny device can't cope with 20V, then an engineer should have stuck a 5.1V Zener diode in the design.

          • If you put 20V on a 5.1V zener diode, the diode is going to die, and you can no longer use the design anyway.
            • by MrMr ( 219533 )
              https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wik... [wikipedia.org] Now get off my lawn
              • That's not a 5.1V zener, but a crowbar. It also relies on the power supply to be able to handle shorts, and, depending on the supplying device, may have to dissipate so much power it can overheat and cause a fire. A fuse isn't really an answer in a small USB gadget that typically can't be opened to replace it. A much better solution would be to add a suitable power regulator so that it can just handle the 20V gracefully instead of shorting it. Now get off my lawn.
    • What bugs me about USB power is that the negotation for more than a tenth-amp (half-watt) takes place partly on the data lines.

      In theory. In practice, very few devices do any "negotiation". They deliver the power to any device that plugs in. I am not sure if I have ever seen a device that actually uses the official negotiation protocol.

      • I am not sure if I have ever seen a device that actually uses the official negotiation protocol.

        Every device charging above 700mA does some form of negotiation if for no other reason than to prevent your house burning down. If you supply a USB jack on a phone with 5V with a beefy powersupply it'll charge incredibly slowly. The official protocol includes dumb signalling such as simply supplying 2V on D+ and 2.7V on D-.

        However for the newer fast charge standards the device will need to tell the upstream supply if it wants more than 5V, that requires some kind of negotiation.

    • by Cyberax ( 705495 )
      The whole USB-C is a burning trash fire. The standard got overcomplicated and is essentially unsafe - a bad USB-A cable can at most damage your data and/or devices it's connecting. A bad USB-C cable can burn down your house, easily. Just throw in a defective cable claiming to support 50W power transmission and wait for it to catch fire.

      They should have specified that the cable resistance must be monitored by the endpoints and the charging must stop if it's too high (i.e. the wire is heating up or is too t
    • IMHO: A USB device that depends on its power source to limit its input current, and can be damaged by a host that is willing to deliver more current that it requested, is defective by design.

      Current limiting is to protect the supplier of the current. Bad current negotiation can damage the power supply, so of course the power supply should limit the current. A bad power supply may break, though. I think the main problem is that USB-C can use a range of voltages and a 5 V device plugged into a 20 V power supply will blow up the device unless the 20 V supply is signaled to throttle back to 5 V.

      But maybe I misunderstand. Unfortunately, the reporting about this topic (Leung's findings) is very fuzzy

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      Just build a USB condom that negotiates for maximum power but doesn't pass the data lines through to the phone.

      Most phones just ramp up power draw until the voltage sags anyway, even if they can't communicate. Few ports actually limit power to 100mA, especially chargers.

    • If you are going to have power adapters that can provide 100 watts, in the form of 20v 5a that are on the same setup as devices that might draw 5v 100ma you have to have some kind of communication.

      It isn't the current draw that is the only issue, it is the voltage. New USB specs allow for higher voltages. That's a problem if the receiving device can't tell it what to set it at. The charger I have for my phone can do 5v, 9v or 12v. My phone wants 9v. Somehow, the phone has to tell it what to send.

      In terms of

  • Sometimes I wonder... Why did Apple make lightning connectors and thunderbird or bolt or whatever connectors..

    Other days I know exactly why. I switched from Android from day 1 to an iPhone 7. I personally don't use the headphone so haven't noticed it. The battery is awesome. The UI reminds me of Windows 3.1. Far from perfect, hoping to switch back soon (battery life is killer for me, plus phone durability). Then I see more issues with Pixel or USB-C and it makes me want to be a luddite.

  • I would think that any specification for consumer grade hardware that could end up damaging the devices they are built into is the root cause of the problem.

    Products like this (which are repurposed development tools normally used to check USB Operation - I have several in my office) strengthen my resolve to not purchase USB-C equipped systems.

  • by SeaFox ( 739806 ) on Saturday January 28, 2017 @12:17AM (#53753167)

    The simple pass-through adapter connects between a USB-C cable and a USB-C device, providing real-time data about the power draw, in either direction, ...What the monitor can't do, however, is protect a device if there's a detected problem in the power flow. It's not a surge protector, nor does it have any built-in alarms or warnings because it has no idea what the power requirements are for whatever device you're using it with.

    It can't measure the power flow unless it's put in-line with the device you're charging and the charger.
    It has no automatic warnings or alarms. You have to sit there and watch it while your device is charging.

    Didn't Benson lose some equipment [arstechnica.com] as soon as he plugged it in? If this device can't really test anything on it's own, how is it going to "help me prevent my gadgets from being fried"? Once I've hooked it to my device if something goes wrong it's too late.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Osgeld ( 1900440 )

      and even if it's a slow burn you wont know unless you know what the numbers mean

      even on slashdot the majority know jack shit about electronics (hence all the countless pi and arduino posts over the years) so abcxyz data on a device means fuck all nothing

    • You're missing the point. The point is that this is a Slashvertisement for a device that has existed for many years only in this case supports USB-C.
      All the talk about preventing frying devices is purely to draw in readership based on earlier coverage of this risk on Slashdot.

    • by pz ( 113803 )

      Yeah, and the damage potentially happens far faster than your hundred-millisecond scale reaction time.

    • So how does it help again?

      It doesn't. Gizmodo is being stupid again.

      It's a neat device for us nerd-types because it's an easy way to see how much power a USB-C device is drawing (and at what voltage). However that's the limit to its use. It can't detect for or protect against bad USB-C adapters.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Saturday January 28, 2017 @01:01AM (#53753305) Journal
    This device seems totally unsuited to detecting 'fry your gadgets' failure modes. If you hit one of the corner cases where USB power delivery goes for overkill; it'll be over in moments; so having a few numbers displayed during the frying won't help you much.

    These sorts of widgets can come in quite handy(nothing you couldn't do with a decent multimeter and some socket bodging; but socket bodging is annoying and tedious): I used to use them a lot when dealing with 'Smartboards' that used a (vendor supplied) overlength USB cable; but depended on bus power, and could be increasingly glitchy if they weren't getting enough of it. Having an easy way to know which computers used the 'meh, connect USB power to the 5v rail, maybe with some kind of fuse' method, and were good for plenty more than 500ma; which ones took a '500ma is by the book; if you don't like it, go cry to the USB SIG' stance; and which ones(mostly laptops) were spotty about being able to provide as much bus power as standards demanded.

    Also handy for getting a look at whether your cheapo portable battery pack droops atrociously under load; testing the various devices that use a min-USB connector for power to see how much the really draw, etc. but not a piece of safety equipment.

    It is really off-putting to see this sort of mislabeling. The functions this thing is actually capable of(assuming the vendor didn't screw it up) are quite handy to have in your tech-widget drawer; but it's blatantly dishonest to imply that it has much chance of saving your expensive gadget in the event of a nasty power delivery failure.
  • This Gizmodo article has for a title "USB-C Power Meter Helps You Spot Counterfeit Accessories Before They Fry Your Gadgets"

    but..... FTA

      "What the monitor canâ(TM)t do, however, is protect a device if thereâ(TM)s a detected problem in the power flow. Itâ(TM)s not a surge protector, nor does it have any built-in alarms or warnings because it has no idea what the power requirements are for whatever device youâ(TM)re using it with."

    So, really, it does nothing, and by the time you see 40V hitting your phone when it's expecting 12, I think it's going to be too little too late before the magic smoke escapes, and really, who knows what the charging spec on their devices is, really?

    The amount of cables that Nathan-K and Bensen Leung test that don't match the spec, don't work to spec, do work to spec with exceptions, melt or any of the above combination is nuts.

    Nathan-K has a page up on G+ with more details:

    https://plus.google.com/collec... [google.com]

    They've a spreadsheet of tested cables:

    https://docs.google.com/spread... [google.com]

    Personally, my favourite comment regarding USB-C comes from the register:

    https://forums.theregister.co.... [theregister.co.uk]

    "it's a design error

    An electrical specification which allows multiple, software-controlled supply voltages, but does not require connected devices to tolerate the highest available voltage.

    What could possibly go wrong?"

    • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

      An electrical specification which allows multiple, software-controlled supply voltages, but does not require connected devices to tolerate the highest available voltage.

      What could possibly go wrong?"

      It's happened before. The FireWire ports of Macs can actually supply max FireWire voltage (48V). Guess what? A certain Firewire hub couldn't take that, so it was well know if you bought one of those, it wouldn't work in your Mac. In fact, your Mac would let the magic smoke out.

      The reason for this was a Firewire

  • There are people who will buy the cheapest accessory because they don't know better.

    There are people who buy the premium/OEM accessory because they do know better.

    The former group are not going to shell out coin for a power meter they likely won't even understand the meaning of. Feel free to argue that it's about education, but look how prevalent email and phone scams are some 10 years after they arrived. Don't know about you folks, but I'm kind of over getting told I'm a paranoid freak because people
    • by dbIII ( 701233 )
      A couple of decades back I was testing acetylene cylinders that a local business wanted to import. They failed. Badly. On multiple counts. They were an accident waiting to happen and may have caused a few accidents in India (or maybe not, that manufacturer had never made acetylene cylinders before).
      You don't get dangerous acetylene cylinders in the cheap bin, you don't get them allowed for sale at all.
      Why should USB cables that can burn your house down be treated differently? The consumer should not ha
      • Why should USB cables that can burn your house down be treated differently?

        How much are you willing to pay for your USB cable?
        How much are you willing to pay in taxes for customs to inspect and carefully vet every package coming in for false certifications?

        That's why they are treated differently. When you have something that costs several hundred dollars and needs to pass through another local party within HSE rules before it becomes usable, certification is easy.

        • by dbIII ( 701233 )

          How much are you willing to pay in taxes for customs to inspect and carefully vet every package coming in for false certifications?

          You are a bit slower on the uptake than normal today, try some coffee. It's about what people get from their local vendors who buy in bulk and not mail order. It's about the sort of checking that is already going on for thousands of other products, just not USB cables, so the extra costs end up being minimal.

          costs several hundred dollars

          Make that many thousands when you've got

      • by gweihir ( 88907 )

        Why should USB cables that can burn your house down be treated differently? The consumer should not have to know better unless they buy direct from China or something.

        There is also the little problem, that this devices does not help at all finding such cables. That requires measuring the resistance of the cable and the temperature resistance of the isolation material used. Also a cable may just have a small stretch that heats up (broken stands), so some x-raying may be in order, or at least temperature measurements with a heat-camera.

        All of that is wayyyy out of what an ordinary consumer can do. I fully agree with you. Dangerous cables should be illegal.

        • by dbIII ( 701233 )

          All of that is wayyyy out of what an ordinary consumer can do

          It's well within what Walmart or a major cable distributor can do.

          • by gweihir ( 88907 )

            Have you failed to read the story? This is not what we are talking about. We are talking about a device that claims to let ordinary users do this. Your remark is both obvious and irrelevant.

            • One of the links in the story describes how a cable purchased at Amazon destroyed some equipment. Pointing out that verifying the quality of the cables is within the capabilities of Amazon is what we are talking about.
    • There are people who buy fake premium/OEM accessory because they think they do know better.

      FTFY.

  • Voltage regulation and current-limit are solely the task of the USB port. The cable does not come into it at all. The only thing the cable does is tell the device about itself, and of course that information can be wrong. However if that fries the device, the device is at fault for incompetent protection circuitry design and not the cable.

    I do not see how this gadget helps at all. IT seems to be a simple USB power meter, vastly over-priced.

    • THIS!!

      Holy shit - how incompetent can you be as an engineer to design an electrical connector interface which is specifically intended to negotiate a power delivery rate and not put in a way to prevent the remote device from exceeding your power supply capabilities? AFAIK, there has never been a sink device* that has failed, only the supply devices (Apple and Google/Chrome), which is exactly the side that should be controlling the maximum capacity of the connection.

      *if someone has a link to a confirmed case

    • The cable needs to be able to pass the current without overheating itself, so it does come into it.
  • The lesson I'm taking home from this is to avoid USB-C until they get the kinks worked out.

  • They put optocouplers in most CNC controllers, and perhaps they should put them in computers as well. Perhaps something can be done about the power leads as well.

  • The summary of this article makes no sense. A USB cable is just a cable with connectors, there's nothing in it to 'regulate' anything, and the connectors have nothing to do with that. A poorly made cable, that shorts out internally? That's a different matter entirely, that's a quality issue, but the connectors and the cable itself have nothing to do with regulating current draw. You plug a USB cable into your computer and leave the other end unconnected, it draws ZERO power -- assuming the cable isn't short
    • This is a retraction for the above comment.

      Wasn't actually aware that USB-C cables differed from other USB cables in that there is in fact active electronics embedded in the cable assembly. Apologies for any confusion or consternation this may have caused.
  • These devices have been readily available in China for ages, slapping on a c connector didn't make it novel

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