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USB-C needs to get smarter before it gets better


Woke up to a dead phone this morning, because my smartphone did something really dumb.

A few nights ago I was away from home and didn’t have my power cord with me, so I had to rely on a battery backup to charge my USB C-based phone for the night. This battery had been stuffed down in the bottom of my backpack for a few days, after having been used to power something else for several hours, so it didn’t have a lot of juice left to begin with. If I had to guess, there was just about enough to get my phone to about 70%, which was more than enough to get me to a power outlet the next morning.

I plugged in my phone, confirmed it had charged to 10% before I closed my eyes, and didn’t think about it again until the morning. When I woke up late because my alarm didn’t go off, I realized it was because my phone was dead. What’s worse, my battery backup actually had more power in it than it did before I’d plugged it in to my phone.

My phone and was dead and my battery pack was recharged — the opposite of what I wanted!

What happened here sounds bizarre, but it’s actually all of the individual pieces of this charging system working as designed. The battery backup charged my phone until it was drained, and then started pulling power back from the phone because it was drained. USB-C is designed to allow simple power sharing, so anything can charge anything else. In theory it’s amazing, and has seriously come in handy when I needed 20 more minutes of juice on my Chromebook for work and only had a phone nearby. In this situation, though, it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to.

This isn’t a failing on any one particular phone manufacturer, OS, or battery backup designer, either. This is, largely, how USB-C is designed to function right now. Some handle this worse than others; for example, many Anker USB-C batteries have the Type-C port set to draw power by default, with a key press required in order to reverse direction, but in general this is a small problem lacking a standard solution for all devices. And the solution, at least to my specific problem, probably lies in software.

In my opinion, our phone shouldn’t be allowed to give power to other things without our express permission. In much the same way that Android offers USB selection modes for file sharing that require a manual selection from me, power management should offer a similar option. That way, if my phone is sharing power with something, it’s no accident and doesn’t interrupt the ability to use the phone. This is something Google would need to implement at the OS level, but it seems like the best possible solution for this kind of problem.

It may be a fringe issue in the grand scheme of things right now, but as more and more people adopt USB-C in phones and tablets and laptops and game consoles, this kind of problem is going to pop up more and more. It’d be nice for Google to take the lead on addressing this issue, instead of waiting for another big company to implement USB-C and show everyone how it’s done.



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