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Road warriors buy Macbooks for untethered working and at times find themselves in a place without a powerpoint. So charging a Macbook from a USB Brick is a fundamental operational requirement. I thought I'd just plug my 2018 Macbook Pro into a USB Power Brick and it would just "work". How wrong I was...

The USB Brick charged at such a poor rate my Macbook's battery would run flat despite having almost a full 26800 mAH Brick connected to it via the USB-C/Thunderbolt port to charge it. Something was badly wrong. Was it the USB brick I was using? Was it the cable? Was it a combination of these things? Much head scratching...

Since this is an issue I feel of broad interest for all mobile workers, I'll give a thorough treatment of the issue and how I resolved it in my answer below.

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SHORT ANSWER:

The non- Apple cable I was using with the Anker USB brick WAS killing charging performance as proven by the testing I did which is documented in the "Long Answer" section which follows

The Apple USB-C/Thunderbolt cable would require a USB2.0-to-USB-C adapter to work with my Anker USB brick, so I just bought a brick with native USB-C support which works great:

Zendure X6 45W 5 Ports USB-C Hub Portable Charger 20000mAh PD&QC 3.0 Power Bank

HOWEVER: I remarked in the comments in the Apple store that the Apple USB-C/Thunderbolt cable received many 1-star reviews; not robust. Coiling & uncoiling this cable seemed likly to damage it, so I did some searching on Amazon and found the following cable, which works well with the Zandure X6 Brick from my (short) experience of it:

Anker USB-C to USB-C Thunderbolt 3.0 Fast Charging and Data Transfer Cable

Now my brick runs flat first before the Macbook's battery begins to run-down. Problem solved.

Do remember to shut-down any unnecessary CPU-intensive tasks while running on a USB brick or you will watch it drain fast. And I do mean "FAST"

If you want to see how I arrived at my results, please continue reading "Long Answer" section. Lots of pictures to support my analysis

LONG ANSWER

Since my Macbook charged correctly using the supplied 87 Watt Power Adapter and USB-C/Thunderbolt cable, I needed to assess the charging properties of this connection to obtain a baseline of what "normal" performance was. But how?

Task #1: Identify Appropriate Power Meter:

I'm not an electrical engineer, but searching in Amazon I found the tool for the job:

Jokitech USB Type C PowerMeter tester

Task 2: Identify baseline performance of a correct power connection

Armed with the Jokitech tool, I measured the properties of the stock Apple 87 Watt Power Adapter and USB-C cable that ships with my Macbook Pro 2018:

Stock Apple 87 Watt Power Adapter using Apple USB-C Thundebolt Charging cable Stock Apple 87 Watt Power Adapter using Apple USB-C Thundebolt Charging cable

The voltage fluctuated between 19.7-19.9 volts, so we'll use the median number 19.8 as a baseline for assessing performance of other USB cables.

Task #3: Determine charging performance using a USB Brick with non-Apple cable

This test I swapped-out the Apple 87 Watt Power Adapter with an Anker USB brick to power my Macbook

Anker 26800 mAH USB Power Brick and USB 2.0-to-USB-C cable Anker 26800 mAH USB Power Brick and USB 2.0-to-USB-C cable

The voltage of the USB Brick's cable is barely 1/4 of the correctly charging connection using stock Apple Power Adapter & USB-C/Thunderbolt cable.

But is it the USB Brick or the Cable- or both?!?!

Task #4: Compare Apple USB-C cable with non-Apple cable

The Anker Brick I had been using had no USB-C interface, so I found the Zendure X6 45W (5) Port USB-C Hub Portable Charger 20000mAh PD&QC 3.0 Power Bank which enabled me to test both the non-Apple cable reporting low voltage and the Apple USB-C/Thunderbolt cable with the same USB brick.

The first test shown below with the non-Apple cable reporting low-voltage, still demonstrates same poor 5-ish volts performance with the new brick when connected to the USB-C port via an adapter:

Anker 26800 mAH with USB 2.0-to-USB-C Cable with USB-C adapter

Now, if I connect the Apple USB-C Cable which was known to work correctly with the Power Adapter and it continues to operate at about 19.8v (or thereabouts), then that cable I was using with the Anker was causing me the pain. Let's see how tha Apple USB-C cable behaves:

Apple USB-C/Thunderbolt cable used with Brick

Note that there's no issues with low voltage with the Apple cable. The original cable I had tried with both the Anker & Zandure X6 USB bricks performed 5-ish volts consistently. As you can see, the USB cable you use to charge from a USB brick can have a HUGE effect on charging performance

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    Devices need to negotiate to get more than "old"-USB power. Apparently that is not possible if you do not use modern devices and cables. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Mar 29 at 15:38
  • That USB-A to USB-C cable (you refer it to as the "non-Apple" cable) is for charging phones that accept 5V and up to 2.5A. That's why you're seeing that low value. The MacBook and it's charger conform the USB 3.1 Power Delivery specification which negotiate the wattage delivered. This is like using Mini to tow a caravan instead of a pickup or van (people carrier) wondering why it never got above 10 mph - you selected the wrong thing for the load you're trying to pull – Allan Mar 29 at 20:31
  • I bought the cable because it had one end that fit my Macbook and another end that fit the USB brick ;-). Don't believe there was any level of detail such as you (very usefully) provided, so I just clicked "buy". I figure since only recently bricks are now shipping with native USB-C connectivity, others will likely make the error I did when sourcing a cable that works with their (legacy) USB brick. Just trying to save them the grief of working out how it was going wrong. Much obliged for your useful feedback @Allan – F1Linux Mar 29 at 20:40

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