When it comes to charging a modern Android flagship device quickly, the USB type C port may be standardized, but the myriad of fast charging standards is a tangled, incompatible mess.
In 2009, the European Commission brought together major mobile phone makers who signed a memorandum of understanding for the development of a shared external power supply standard. The ten original signatories soon became 14, and for a while, we had peace and uniformity with the ubiquitous micro-USB chargers we have all come to know and love.
But then the standard 500 milliamps of the USB specification became woefully inadequate for phones and their ever-increasing battery capacities. Charging would take hours, so the industry started developing fast charging standards. 500ma became 1A then 2A still on 5v. Things began to get interesting with Qualcomm’s Quick Charge standard that, in its second iteration, would vary the voltage as well as the amperage to enable charging at up to 12v.
Sounds simple enough, but my experience with the LG G4 at the time turned out to be not so simple. The device successfully enabled Quick Charge with some Qualcomm-certified chargers, but not others. In some extreme cases, it would spend all night trying and failing to negotiate a charging rate and the battery would actually continue to drain. Thankfully, LG did manage to fix most of these teething incompatibilities with later software updates.
Fast forward to late 2016, and micro-USB has been superseded by USB-C on all flagship phones. But while the connector may look the same, the jungle of chargers and cables needed to navigate it is ridiculously convoluted.
Because Quick Charge is a Qualcomm standard, it can only be enabled on devices with Qualcomm chipsets. With Mediatek making significant inroads, many manufacturers are now in the odd position of having Qualcomm Quick Charge phones selling alongside Mediatek Express Pump phones in their lineup, using the same-looking but electronically incompatible USB-C charger.
But even among Qualcomm-based USB-C phones, not every phone maker has enabled Quick Charge. Most notably, Google has decided against using Quick Charge and is going with the USB-Power Delivery (USB-PD) standard for its Qualcomm-powered PIxel phones, as well as its nVidia-powered Pixel tablet. USB-PD is an official open standard that has the extra benefit of being able to deliver fast charging while still allowing data transfer. For Android 7, Google tells its partners that it strongly recommends USB-PD.
Ironically, the other major vendor that has chosen to use USB-PD is Apple, for its notebooks. Which means an Apple Macbook charger will properly fast-charge a Google Pixel but not an iPhone.
Then there is OnePlus’ DASH charge, which is backward compatible with USB-C, but goes further and adds wires to a proprietary charging cable. Unlike the other standards, DASH splits the charging logic between the charger and the phone. This makes for a much cooler-running phone chipset and very fast charging, but at a cost.
Not to be outdone, the latest Huawei Mate 9 features its proprietary Supercharge technology which actually goes the opposite direction from other fast charging standards by lowering voltage and increasing amperage to reduce heat.
To summarize, we have a standard physical connector (USB-C) for fast charging, but a range of fast-charging standards that are incompatible with each other except in fallback slow-charging mode. This makes a mockery of the spirit of the original European Commission MoU.
Qualcomm Quick Charge is by far the most mature of the lot, and also the least expensive. A cursory glance at the great flea market of the Internet, Aliexpress, gives us a Qualcomm Quick Charge 3 car charger for $7, a USB-PD charger for $22 and a OnePlus DASH charger at an eye-watering $49. MTK Express Pump chargers only exist in home AC form and Huawei Supercharge is (as of this writing) nowhere to be seen.
But perhaps all is not lost. Just after Christmas, Santa did bring a glimmer of hope. One Korean Twitter user, @perillamint, responded to the author’s frustration over the myriad of USB-C charging standards and shared a project they were working on: a USB-PD/Qualcomm Quick Charge 2 translation hardware device.
So it has come to this: frustrated hackers are actually designing their own hardware to bridge the standards. One wonders if this is a time to celebrate or cry.