The beginner's guide to plugging in a USB cable

Rhodri Marsden makes many more failed attempts to plug in a standard, type-A USB cable than he does successful ones. So is there an easy solution?

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The Independent Tech

It has long been believed that there's some mysterious attribute possessed by freshly buttered toast which compels it to land on the floor face down when accidentally dropped from a kitchen work surface.

When that happens, we shrug resignedly. If, by some miracle, it lands dry-side down, we rejoice at the fortuitous hand that lady luck has seen fit to deal us, and then we eat it, because it's not as if unpleasant germs exist on the floor or anything. Of course, this is the kind of myth that ends up being busted by popular science programmes on TV – and indeed, extensive testing has proven that it's a 50-50 scenario. The notion of bad luck is just in our heads.

USB cables present us with a similar problem. I'm absolutely convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I make many more failed attempts to plug in a standard, type-A USB cable than I do successful ones. I equate the handling of said cables with disappointment and eye-rolling, rather than triumph and air-punching.

It's like being presented with a puzzle that you're doomed to fail, a technological three-card trick. Again, I'm sure the chances of success are probably 50-50, but it's given rise to a popular myth that's summed up by a much circulated Twitter joke: "When they bury the man who invented USB," it reads, "they'll lower the coffin, hoist it back up, turn it around and lower it again."

The difference between the buttered toast and USB scenarios is, of course, that the success rate for USB should, from a design perspective, be nearer 100 per cent. We look at the USB type-A cable, with its familiar rectangular plug that certainly looks reversible, and curse the fact that it isn't. The mini- and micro-USB connectors have a shape that makes them easy to orientate, ditto Firewire and Thunderbolt. Lightning connectors can be plugged in either way up. So why does USB type-A continue to mock us? It's been close to 20 years now, 20 years of relentless pain and sadness – I'm exaggerating, but you get the picture. Who will save us from this torment?

If you want a solution right now, this instant, well, just learn how to do it. Each USB connector has a USB logo on one side. (Or, if there's no logo, look for the two open holes on the metal connector.) More often than not, that side should be facing upwards when you plug it in to, say, a laptop. Or, if the socket is aligned vertically, make sure the logo is facing towards the gadget's nearest edge, or towards the front if it's a screen. This method isn't 100 per cent foolproof (I'm looking at a USB hub right now that doesn't conform to the rule) but this solution has been knocking around, ignored by the majority of us, for nearly two decades.

If that seems too much like hard work, an answer in the shorter term may be provided by Apple. Last year, Apple patented a USB connector that could be oriented either way up and be plugged successfully into a standard USB socket. Pictures of that connector surfaced this week, and it's rumoured to be included on the Lightning cables that ship with the new iPhone 6. But that patent is held close to Apple's chest, so for as long as type-A cables and sockets are knocking about, it might be better to just put in a few hours of practice.

This design error won't be made again. At the end of last year, it was revealed that the next generation of USB devices will have a "type-C" connector which, just like Lightning cables, can be plugged in either way up. It may seem like a utopian dream, but it's coming. Give thanks, ladies and gentlemen. Salvation is nearly upon us.

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