REPORT

Those ‘gold USB cables’ you bought are useless

By Greg Stevens

“The Gold Series Hi-Speed USB 2.0 Cable helps you achieve maximum performance from your USB devices,” boasts Belkin on its website. “Our 24k gold-plated connectors are corrosion-proof and ensure maximum conductivity.”

But hang on a second. Gold is actually a terrible electrical conductor. So what the marketing people at Belkin surely mean when they write “ensure maximum conductivity” is simply that the gold plating doesn’t corrode. As a result, you won’t experience a deterioration in conductivity over time due to corrosion of the USB cable tip.

Have you ever experienced corrosion on your USB cable tip? Chances are you have not. It’s not that common. It looks like this.

corroded USB

A small amount of corrosion will have almost no impact on the performance of your computer or the devices that you attach to it with the USB cable.

People who spend most of their time on boats experience corrosion on their USB cables. People who live in villas on tropical islands experience corrosion of their USB cables. One person commenting online under the username “hippietrail” described corrosion of his USB cables that resulted from living for two years in a tent on the beach.

But if you do plan on living in a tent on the beach for two years, or in a beautiful villa facing the ocean, or on a yacht, then you will face bigger problems than corrosion in the tips of your USB cables. After all, if the tips of your USB cables are at risk, then so is the USB port itself. So are all of the cables and ports in your computer, in fact, as well as the internal circuitry.

People who live in these environments have the option of buying computers made entirely of gold. It would be cheaper and easier, however, to buy an anti-corrosive lubricant for all of the computer ports and cables. There are a number of them available: AX7-C, SuperCorr A, and the unfortunately-named ContraLube 770 are just a few examples.

It is true that over several years, tiny amounts of corrosion – invisible to the naked eye – could accumulate on the tips of your USB cables. This is actually unlikely to happen with devices that you plug and unplug frequently, because the friction of plugging and unplugging is usually enough to scrape off a superficial layer of corrosion.

But, more importantly, as I mentioned a moment ago, a small amount of corrosion will have almost no impact on the performance of your computer or the devices that you attach to it with the USB cable.

This is not true, of course, when talking about gold-plated speaker cables. Part of the reason people get hoodwinked into buying gold-plated USB cables is that they are already familiar with the well-known fact that gold plating is preferred by audiophiles for extremely high-end audio systems.

gold-plated-audio-cablesWhy? Well, when speaker cables transmit audio signals to a speaker, the sound is transmitted in an analogue signal, not a digital signal: changes in the voltage of the signal are actually causing the vibration of the speakers. If a small amount of corrosion in the connection causes a small increase in the electrical resistance, which causes a small change in the voltage, it will result in a small change in the sound produced by the speaker.

So very small amounts of corrosion actually lead to small but persistent differences between the representation of the sound on the recorded medium and the actual sounds produced by the speakers, which decreases the fidelity (that is, the faithfulness) of the sounds that you hear to the original recording.

Hardcore music enthusiasts hate that.

But this is not how USB cables work. Except for in very rare situations, USB cables are used for only two things: transmitting digital data and transmitting power. Increased resistance due to minor corrosion of the USB cable tips could lead to a small loss in the ability to transmit power. So, it is possible that your iPhone will charge more slowly if you are charging it by connecting it to your computer via a USB with corroded tips.

But a small amount of increased resistance will have no effect at all on the fidelity of a digital signal. Digital signals are designed to have built in redundancies and error-checking. Having tiny amounts of corrosion will not cause a digital signal to “degrade”, and it will not make the connection run more slowly.

The signal between your computer and the device that you are connecting with USB may become unreliable, behaving much like a cable that is loose or not plugged in all the way. But this will only happen once you have substantial – and visible – corrosion in the tips of your cable.

Moreover, if you are actually experiencing any of these symptoms in your USB cable – weak power transmission or unreliable connectivity – it is more likely that it is being caused by dirt or physical damage to the cable itself, rather than corrosion on the connection tips.

This is worth mentioning, because gold-plated USB cables get dirty and damaged just as easily as regular USB cables do.

Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with buying gold USB cables, of course. You should buy them if you want to. Just make sure that you know what you are buying. You are not buying performance, speed, durability or reliability. You are buying bling.