Best USB-C & Thunderbolt 3 Cables 2021

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When USB-C ports first started appearing on phones and laptops, we rejoiced because finally the days of trying to plug the cable in upside down were over. This new standard is reversible, so there both ways are the right way round.

But there’s a problem. You can’t just buy any cable with a USB-C connector on each end and expect it to work for transferring data and charging. It’s way too easy to accidentally buy what you think is the correct cable, only to find it is not capable of the task for which you need it.

Some don’t support Power Delivery, so won’t charge a laptop, while others can cope with only USB 2.0 speeds, and won’t offer the much faster transfer rates you’ll get with a USB 3.1 Gen 2 cable. Ideally, find out how much power your laptop or phone needs when charging and buy a cable that can handle that much power. If you care about data transfer speeds, check what your laptop or phone supports before buying and choose a cable that matches that speed.

USB-C is merely the connector type, and the name says nothing about the performance of the cable itself. There are different versions of USB and therefore USB-C. Adding even more confusion is the fact that Thunderbolt 3 looks identical to USB-C and uses the same physical connector, but can offer faster data transfer when used with compatible devices.

The attraction of USB-C is borne out of a desire for a universal charging standard that is capable of transferring data and power at a sufficient rate for all the charging and syncing tasks we want to complete. USB-C is also preferable over Micro-USB for its reversible design, just like Apple’s Lightning connector.

When buying a USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 cable, there are various things you must consider, namely price, cable length, durability, data transfer speed, charging speed and, potentially, warranty. Let us guide you through your options.

Best USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 Cable Reviews

Anker Powerline II USB-C to USB-C Cable – Best Value Cable

Anker Powerline II USB-C to USB-C

Satechi USB-C to USB-C Cable – Best Charging Cable

Satechi USB-C to USB-C cable

Plugable Thunderbolt 3 Cable – Best Thunderbolt 3 Cable

Plugable Thunderbolt 3 Cable 0.8m (40Gbps)

Apple Thunderbolt 3 Cable – Best Cable for MacBook Pro

Apple Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) Cable (0.8 m)

Apple USB-C Charge Cable – Best Value for Apple Products

Apple USB-C to USB-C cable

Anker Powerline+ USB-C to USB-C Cable – Best Short Cable

Anker Powerline+ USB-C to USB-C

Syncwire Nylon-Braided USB-C to USB-A Cable – Best Short USB-A to USB-C Cable

Syncwire Nylon-Braided USB-C to USB-A Cable

Apple USB-C to Lightning – Best for iPhone

Apple USB-C to Lightning Cable

AmazonBasics USB-C to USB-A Cable – Best Value USB-A to USB-C Cable

AmazonBasics USB-C to USB-A

USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 cable buying advice

To some extent your choice of USB-C cable is going to come down to whether you need both ends to be USB-C, or if the device you want to hook up has a USB-A, Micro-USB, Lightning or Thunderbolt 3 port. But there is more you should take into account before purchasing the cheapest cable you can find.

What are the different types of USB-C?

The slowest USB-C cables for data transfer are based on the USB 2.0 standard, and many of the cheap USB-C cables you find today will be of this variety. USB 2.0 supports up to 480Mbps data transfer. It will be sufficient for transferring most files, but for 4K video or other large files you’ll really want something more powerful.

USB 3.1 Gen 1 is an improvement on this spec, offering data transfer of up to 5Gbps. This is sometimes referred to as SuperSpeed USB.

USB 3.1 Gen 2 doubles that data-transfer speed to 10Gbps. For 20Gbps transfers you need USB 3.1 2×2.

Are USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 the same thing?

No. USB-C is merely the connector type, and not indicative of its spec. Thunderbolt 3 is identical to USB-C in design, and it is compatible with USB-C ports and devices, but it has faster throughput of up to 40Gbps when paired with an appropriate cable. 

If you have a Thunderbolt 3 port on your laptop, PC or storage device you should select a Thunderbolt 3 rather than USB-C 3.1 cable to achieve the best performance. This cable must have a USB-C connector at both ends to achieve Thunderbolt 3 speeds, though this is not necessary for achieving USB 3.1 speeds. This does not mean, however, that every USB-C to USB-C cable supports Thunderbolt 3.

Thunderbolt 3 cables come in active and passive varieties. Passive cables are typically shorter and cheaper, and unable to maintain the top 40Gbps transfer speeds over longer distances. Active cables can maintain this speed over distance, but they will also be more expensive.

As it is rarely advertised whether a cable is active or passive, your best bet is to opt for a shorter cable. This is because passive cables can deliver 40Gbps at 0.5m, but only 20Gbps at 1m.

The situation will be greatly simplified when USB 4.0 comes along in early 2021: with Thunderbolt technology underpinning it, USB 4.0 will be capable of the same 40Gbps data transfer speeds.

Will any USB-C cable charge my laptop?

The simple answer here is no. The various generations of USB and Thunderbolt take into account the data transfer speed, but for charging you also need to consider the power output.

When we talk about charging phones and tablets we might use the term Quick Charge, which is a technology built into Qualcomm processors but in essence just a standard that ensures truly fast charging. The same is true of Adaptive Charging, which is found in Samsung phones, and any other similar technologies used by alternative phone and tablet makers.

When we consider charging a laptop, however, extra power is required. Here you will encounter the term Power Delivery (sometimes simply PD), a specification that enables up to 100W of power output, although most laptops won’t require more than 60W.

How cable manufacturers deal with this in their marketing can differ, but the key phrase you’re looking for is Power Delivery. Some will claim speeds of 60W, others 100W, and rarely anything in between.

When charging you need to consider all links in the chain: to charge a laptop that requires 60W you need a cable that supports 60W and also a mains adaptor that supports 60W. (We’ve listed some of the best USB adaptors for charging a laptop.)

As an aside, do not assume that the fact your laptop has a USB-C port means it will charge over USB-C – some are present purely for data transfer purposes.

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