Ever wonder why your phone charges slower on your computer?

Isn’t it weird that a simple power-plug adapter can charge your phone faster than your new MacBook, or gaming PC? Why, on even the most expensive laptop or motherboard, is there only one “always on” or “sleep mode” port where you can charge a USB device, even when your computer is sleeping, or off?

This is mainly because of computer manufacturers.

Lenovo ThinkPad L380 (light grey), and, ThinkPad X380 Yoga (dark grey), how many different icons for power? Source: MobileTechReview

In the picture above, we see different icons for various features of these laptops that can be somewhat confusing.  First off, on the light grey L380, we can see a USB Type-C port with a power plug icon and a small LED indicator.  This is obviously the port where you can charge your laptop through the USB Type-C port.  Adjacent to that is a regular Type-C port, and a regular USB Type-A labelled with two icons, one italic SS with USB logo and a battery with a + symbol inside it.

Moving on to the dark grey X380, we have an old-fashion charging port, a Type-C with a lightning bolt icon, and a Type-A port with the same SS USB and Battery icon as seen on the L380.

If you had to guess which port would charge your smartphone the fastest, and the only information that was given to you were these icons, your safest bet would be choosing the port with the battery+ icon, right?  Well in this case, that port is not exactly doing more than being available even when you shut the system down.  For all intent and purposes it’s just a regular USB 3.0/.1 Gen1 port without any other special charging features. And in a lot of cases, you still need to manually enable this feature.

The Type-C ports on both models are capable of USB Power Delivery, but the specs don’t mention what revision it uses, nor does it specify how much power it actually supplies.

And this is just the start of the problems for most of us, the charger that comes with the laptop might be 45W or 65W, but it’s hard to know exactly until you have the actual product in-hand.

Motherboards and USB power

A few years ago, motherboard manufacturers discovered the challenges of the, then new, USB 3.0 (2010-2011) standard and having multiple USB devices connected to your computer.

At that time, many motherboard manufacturers began to question the power of their USB implementation.

The reason behind this was because once the USB chip guidelines on how to install one USB 3.0 chip on a motherboard with sufficient 5 Volt were implemented, manufacturers started integrating more USB chips on their motherboard, leading people to start connecting more and more devices simultaneously.  The voltage and the amount of Watts that were delivered for USB charging eventually dropped.  The most common scenario was having a USB hard-drive, a phone charging on a motherboard, and then connecting an Audio amplifier which would eventually lead to one of the devices not working because there was not enough power.

Around 2013, we saw them change the way they would implement delivering voltage to the USB chips. 

By now, the engineers understood that following the specs didn’t work, so the solution was to make sure that all USB ports on a motherboard deliver a stable 5V, no matter how many devices are connected.

However, since the introduction of USB Power Delivery, they have not been able to deliver the same USB experience on Motherboards, as there is they have been doing on modern laptops. Even though they are made by the same company, and engineers.

After analyzing the current range of the latest and popular Z390 motherboards among different brands, we’ve come to this conclusion:

Asus: They don’t make any mention of anything over bare spec USB for charging, we couldn’t even find any port with Power Delivery on their high-end ROG Maximus XI Formula.

ASRock:  They also don’t mention any special USB technology for their motherboards. Although, for those that are interested, they do still use USB ReDrivers to boost USB signal integrity over long-ranges, for instance USB ports at the front of your case.

MSI: They were once proud to show they had the same USB charging technology on their motherboards and laptops, however they now only mention the bare minimum for USB information. The marketing comments do not mention anything regarding USB power either.

That now leaves us with Gigabyte.  While we can’t say everyone should immediately go out and buy their motherboards for their next build, motherboards like the Gigabyte Z390 Extreme feature a USB 3.1 Gen2 port with “USB TurboCharger”  that connects to the front of your PC case.  The port supports both QuickCharge 3.0 and Apple Fast-Charge.

So no, you will not be able to charge your MacBook Air, or Lenovo Yoga laptop, but at least you know that you’ll be getting plenty of juice to charge your smartphone straight from your PC’s front panel.

That concludes our little investigation into charging USB devices on your Personal Computer.  While it’s okay on the laptop side, with various brands offering PD solutions on their laptops, the options for gamers and desktop users are very limited, with most vendors focusing purely on delivering a LOT of USB ports, without thinking about how we, the customers, actually use them.