A CLOSE LOOK AT USB POWER

It’s not a stretch to say that most devices these days have settled on USB as their power source of choice. While we imagine you’ll still be running into the occasional wall wart and barrel jack for the foreseeable future, at least we’re getting closer to a unified charging and power delivery technology. But are all USB chargers and cables created equal?

The answer, of course, is no. But the anecdotal information we all have about dud USB gear is just that, which is why [Igor Brkić] wanted to take a more scientific approach. Inspired by the lighting bolt icon the Raspberry Pi will flash on screen when the voltage drops too low, he set out to make a proper examination of various USB chargers and cables to see which ones aren’t carrying their weight.

In the first half of his investigation, [Igor] tests four fairly typical USB chargers with his TENMA 72-13200 electronic load. Two of them were name brand, and the other just cheap clones. He was surprised to find that all of the power supplies not only met their rated specifications, but in most cases, over-performed by a fair amount. For example the Lenovo branded charger that was rated for only 1 A was still putting out a solid 5 V at 1.7 A. Of course there’s no telling what would happen if you ran them that high for hours or days at a time, but it does speak to their short-term burst capability at least.

He then moved onto the USB cables, were things started to fall apart. The three generic cables saw significant voltage drops even at currents as low as 0.1 A, though the name brand cable with 20 AWG power wires did fare a bit better. But by .5 A they were all significantly below 5 V, and at 1 A, forget about it. Pulling anything more than that through these cables is a non-starter, and in general, you’ll need to put at least 5.2 V in if you want to actually run a USB device on the other side.

Admittedly this might not be groundbreaking research, but we appreciate [Igor] taking a scientific approach and tabulating all the information. If you’re still getting low voltage warnings on the Pi after swapping out your cheapo cables, then maybe the problem is actually elsewhere.

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