USB Power Delivery: The Ultimate Guide

Don’t you just hate it when your devices run out of juice? Especially when all you have to fall back on is a 3rd-party charger that doesn’t work anywhere near as quickly as the proprietary design that arrived with your laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc.

Well, the reason those aftermarket chargers don’t seem to get anywhere close to the OG unit is that they’re built to a different charging standard, of which there are many… too many!

USB Power Delivery The Ultimate Guide

Which is why the folks over at the USB Promoters Group are trying to turn the system on its head with a superfast, super-powerful, universal charging specification: Power Delivery.

This quick-charging protocol can be implemented in every USB device moving forward, ensuring we all have access to insanely fast charging solutions when our essential devices bottom out and give us the technological version of the cold shoulder… the bank screen.

Just What The Heck Is USB Power Delivery Anyway?

USB Power Delivery (PD) is the newest USB technology to find its way into our electrical devices, and it’s doing great things. So effective is this universal charging standard that it’s already finding ubiquity the world over.

In fact, if you have a relatively new smartphone, you’ve probably been using Power Delivery this whole time without even knowing it.

In a nutshell, USB PD is a versatile power delivery protocol (hence the name), the new and improved version of the USB-BC standard designed to increase battery charging speeds.

It’s powerful enough to charge a massive array of different devices, and it’s devilishly quick, too! Just how powerful is it, you ask? Well, let me put it into context for you…

The older protocol had a maximum power output of 7.5 watts, which isn’t bad, but PD chargers completely blow BC out of the water, with an astonishing max power delivery of 100 watts!

And that was just the very first PD iteration. We’re now on version 3.1 which, with the right cable, can support power delivery of 240 watts, which is more than enough to fully charge even the most demanding device in little over 2 hours.

Now, I know what you’re thinking… Isn’t 100–240 watts a little too powerful for a lot of gadgets?

Well, yes, it is, but you won’t have to worry about PD overcharging your smartphone, as it uses intelligent technology to communicate with your devices, allowing them to negotiate a suitable energy draw. 

You see, 100–240 watts is just the max output. PD is also capable of providing a much more modest current between 5 and 20 volts in order to safely recharge devices with a max draw of 0.5–100 + watts — pretty impressive, right? But it gets better!

Using a USB-C PD PPS (Programmable Power Supply), PD can modify voltage and wattage in real-time to optimize delivery at different stages of the charging process, ensuring your device is charged in an efficient and safe manner.

It’s not a completely fluid power scale, as it still relies on incremental voltage steps, but the increments are incredibly granular — we’re talking 20mV per step.

Granted, USB PD wasn’t always this flexible. PD 1.0 had a limited amount of current steps between its 10-watt base and 100-watt cap, which meant it couldn’t charge quite as many devices, but versions 2.0 and 3.0 resolved the issue and made PD the most versatile fast-charging solution on the planet.

I mentioned earlier that it’s likely your current smartphone is loaded with PD technology, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This tech can also be found in some of the best up-market laptops, such as the Apple MacBook Pro.

The very latest iteration of Power Delivery hasn’t quite seen the proliferation enjoyed by its predecessors just yet, but it’s my bet that before long, it will be the go-to standard for all personal electronic devices.

Of course, this USB revolution isn’t just fantastic for us and our yearning for 24/7 screen time, but for the planet as well.

Charging speed and variety may be USB PD’s bread and butter, but there’s also a noble end-game to consider: the reduction of E-waste and an end to the strain charger production puts on our precious metal supplies.

How could this green goal possibly be achieved?

Well, the idea is that by establishing PD as the universal charging protocol, it would oust the plethora of proprietary and aftermarket 3rd-party charging technologies already in circulation, and discourage future production — sounds promising, right?

Unfortunately, though, big brands and the general populace aren’t exactly accepting USB PD with open arms, the reason being that even now, with PD PPS finding its feet in the tech market, it’s still not quite as efficient as charging utilities designed by the manufacturer for their own products.

So, as impressive as Power Delivery is, it’s not quite ready for world domination just yet, but hey… we’re only on version 3.1 and look how far it’s come.

Hypothetically, if PD technology keeps advancing at this rate, it’ll be up to the task in no time at all, so, hopefully, more people will be willing to give it the time of day, and we can start making progress on these ecological objectives.

USB Power Delivery: Key Features

USB Power Delivery Key Features

Okay, so now you’ve got the gist, let’s take a look at some of USB PD’s key features and what they can do to make life for us, our devices, and, of course, the planet, a little easier.

Power Delivery Up To 100 Watts (240 Watts On The Latest Iteration)

The big, headlining feature of USB PD is the sheer size of its power delivery potential.

100–240 watts is a mammoth amount of energy to pass over a USB connection, which means the PD protocol is robust enough to charge the more energy-hogging devices in our tech arsenal, such as laptops, computer monitors, large notebooks PCs, workstations desktops, printers, USB-bus HDDs, and docking stations.

Think of all the separate power bricks and unique cables you’d need to power all of those devices. Using USB PD, you’d only ever need one set of universal cables and chargers.

You would no longer have to worry about finding the right cable for each device, as everything would work with everything, so to speak. You’d need only find any old USB-C cable lying around, plug it into any of your electronics, and voilà… power!

For people that use a lot of primary devices and peripherals simultaneously, such as recording artists and sound engineers, gamers, and digital artists, PD streamlines workflow, and, ultimately, increases productivity.

PD technology also makes it much easier to take your tech on the road, as instead of packing multiple different chargers, you can just pack one or two PD chargers and a couple of USB-C cables, and you’ll be able to power every gadget you plan on taking with you!

In fact, if PD does indeed become the universal charging solution it’s supposed to be, the days of packing chargers for your journey could be well and truly over, as no matter where you’re headed, there’ll no doubt be some Power Delivery chargers waiting for you when you arrive. 

Articulate Incremental Charging

As mentioned earlier, USB PD 3.1 with PPS technology is capable of providing 0.5 watts all the way through to 240 watts and any 20mV increment in between, which means this protocol can cater to a wide variety of different devices on their terms.

What’s more, the user doesn’t have to model the power delivery with each new device they charge. PD opens a line of communication, allowing the device to inform the charger of its maximum rated energy draw.

The charger then automatically sets the wattage to the optimal level, amounting to snappy charge times.

This line of communication holds strong throughout the entire charging process, meaning that PD technology can shift the power delivery in real-time to suit the changing requirements of both the device battery and the device itself.

No More Overcharging

Overcharging is exactly what it sounds like. It occurs when we leave our devices plugged in after they’ve already reached 100% charge.

You’d be forgiven for thinking batteries would appreciate a constant power supply, but the truth of the matter is that overcharging generates excess heat that can damage the cell and reduce its overall cycle life.

Not only does the PD technology allow a device to request a certain amount of power during the charging process, but it can also report to the charger when it’s had its fill and is ready to be unplugged.

The charger will then cut off the power supply and prevent overcharging, saving us from having to physically uncouple the USB cables.

As important as this is, it’s not an entirely game-changing technology, as there are already smart plugs available capable of shutting down the power supply once your device reaches 100% charge.

Check out this auto shut-off USB charger, for example. It offers the same flexibility for a fraction of the cost of PD plugs and top-of-the-line USB-C cables you’d need to bring some PD magic into your life.

Even so, a universal charging protocol with this sort of technology baked-in as standard is still a pretty neat addition to the average home or workplace.

If you want to learn more about how charging habits can affect your batteries, check out our article on how to prolong battery life.

Open-Ended Power Direction

As I’m sure you’ve surmised, power direction refers to the direction the power goes when a device or devices are charging. Traditionally, current travels from a primary device, into a peripheral device — think charging your phone by plugging it into your laptop.

But with USB Power Delivery, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.

This charging technology allows any suitable device with the power, whether host or peripheral, to pass on that power to another device. So, in theory, the roles could reverse, and your phone could act as the energy source for, say, your hard drive. 

The average user may not get a lot of mileage out of this functionality, but it’s pretty dang cool in my opinion!

Environmental Impact

The variety of charging specifications currently in use is exacerbating the planet’s E-waste problem a great deal.

The theory goes that by accepting a universal charging standard, we can cut the production of proprietary charging units, and, at the very least, slow down our self-destructive march towards ecological catastrophe.

Now let’s put some drawbacks of USB Power Delivery under the microscope.

USB-C Only

USB PD technology is only compatible with USB type C cables. For the uninitiated, those are the ones with the smaller ends. Your smartphone, for example, utilizes a USB-C port, and the larger, rectangular head at the other end of the charging cable is type A.

Unless you’re using a cable with a C head at one end and a C head at the other, then PD simply won’t work.

And, as most smartphone users (especially those on team iPhone), are using C-to-A USB cables and chargers at the moment, embracing this new standard may increase the very E-waste that PD implementation is supposed to reduce.

Still Not Quite As Good As Proprietary Charging Solutions

The old adage, Jack of all trades, master of none, couldn’t be more applicable here.

Yes, USB Power Delivery is an amazingly versatile technology, capable of supporting more devices than any other singular charging protocol, but in this strength, we find its biggest weakness — it’s not as good as the proprietary charging systems it’s pegged to replace.

When a proprietary charging system is built from the ground up to serve a singular device, it can deliver precisely what that device needs, optimizing charge times, battery cycle life, and device performance.

Even though the increments of PD delivery are becoming increasingly small, a lot of the time, it still won’t provide quite as accurate a current as a custom-built charger would, which is a problem.

If the folks over at the USB Promoters group are hoping to convince the general public to use their technology over everything else on the market, it’s kind of a no-brainer that it should be better than, or at least as good as, what’s already available.

Power Delivery: A Bright Future?

Well, there you have it — USB Power Delivery is the latest charging specification in town, capable of powering a variety of different sized gadgets and gizmos, from your smartphone to your laptop and everything in between.

In the USB Group’s vision of the future, no longer would we need a different charger for each of our electronics, as all our power requirements would fall under the PD umbrella, but a complete overhaul of the market was never going to be an easy undertaking. 

With such huge implications for the industry, the environment, and, of course, the end-users, PD will take time to settle into society as a whole.

But if involved parties continue to finesse their technology and shrink power delivery increments, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t be successful in their goal of creating a truly universal charging standard.

Brett Jones
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