Cables: A Pandemic Love Story
Repair Stories

Cables: A Pandemic Love Story

These last two years made me appreciate some nearly forgotten things. Long dog walks, board game night, reading an actual book: all pleasant rediscoveries in rough times. Maybe the most significant re-acquaintance is something that never should have gone away: wires.

I’d convinced myself over the past few years that wires were on the wane. I was a willing booster of the wavelength-industrial complex. I’d buy a wireless doorbell and congratulate myself on upgrading my home. I’d daydream about a living room full of built-in, subtle wireless chargers.

One day, during the early pandemic, I walked past some lost or tossed AirPods on the sidewalk. I pondered them for a couple of minutes, while my dog pondered me. I know that true wireless headphones are mostly eco/repair nightmares. Still, I considered my own Bluetooth buds, the kind with a wire between the earpieces. Didn’t I deserve a no-cord future? (After all, you can swap AirPods now, right?)

But I was wrong. Headphone cables, like too many useful cables, have been unfairly maligned. Capitalism’s quest to fit a circuit board, battery, and wireless chip into every conceivable durable good has blinded us to the intrinsic value of certain things having fast, reliable connections that require no charging, pairing, or shielding from interference.

Allow me to name and praise a few cables, these physical connections to which I’ve become closer these past two years.

Wired Headphones

Lots of us appreciate our headphones lately. Headphones deliver sounds—music, videos, games, Alyssa from marketing—directly to your ears. More importantly, their sounds keep other sounds—your roommates’ music, videos, games, and Alyssas—out of your ears.

Wired headphones

My wife spends hours every day on video calls, compared to my 2-3 hours every week. We both work from home most days in our apartment. I thought I had a solution for her: a wireless Jabra headset. It had loads of features you could set up in a related app: echo cancellation, per-app volume levels, and wireless charging. Features it did not have: reliably showing up in the list of listening devices in Teams and Zoom, not suddenly robo-glitching the speaker, and staying charged after a cat bumped it off its wireless cradle during the night. We had to replace it after it permanently cyborg-ed her voice; the replacement lacks wireless charging, but has all the other complications.

Finally, I found her ultimate solution: one earbud. As in, a pair of these cheap-ish earbuds so banged up that only one rubber-tipped ear actually works. She plugs it into her work laptop, puts it in one ear, then uses a USB webcam as a microphone. When the headphones are plugged in, they work. The wireless headset still gets used—after too many seated calls, she’ll take a meeting audio-only and pace around our home.

At my desk, I’m sticking with my Sony MDR-7506. They have audiophile bona fides, and they’re repairable, once you find the parts. I know some people love their noise-canceling cans, but they don’t work for drowning out other people (or most non-constant sounds). The 7506’s cord is plenty long enough when I’m at my desk. When I’m watching a show or playing games on our TV, I use this little Bluetooth adapter to connect to no-jack devices. It’s a slight concession, and another battery, but it has one job it should do well for a long time.

Ethernet Cables

Once, I lived in a single-family home and a COVID-free world. Video calls were not a primary means of work communication. I occasionally streamed Netflix or Hulu shows to my TV. Wi-Fi was good enough for most networking needs, and it was relatively easy to set up and maintain—unplug and replug whenever something was amiss.

Ethernet cables

We moved to a multi-floor apartment building during the pandemic. The wireless network in my newer home most resembles the Trading Places commodities floor. Smart light bulbs, smart switches, tablets, phones, a security camera, and other devices all jockey for space inside both the 2.4 and 5 GHz spaces. My neighbors’ wireless routers, MacBooks, soundbars, and other devices lean into that space too, along with a wireless printer somebody didn’t fully set up. When my wife or I used to freeze during a video call, or The Witcher suddenly looked potato-y, I’d find it hard to explain that the culprit was … modern life? None of your devices listen when you yell “We’re living in a society!”

I write “used to freeze” because this wireless-dense building offered one reprieve: networked ethernet ports in the walls. If you want two devices to speedily speak to one another wirelessly, you must consider many things: bands, firewalls, wall structure, sub-networks, QoS rules, the router firmware, congestion, and more. If you want two devices to see each other on a home ethernet network, you plug them both in. You do not have to tap a wall and wonder if there’s brick or a metal dryer vent behind it. You just plug them in.

Ever since I put in the effort to buy long-enough ethernet cables, there have been no Zoom freezes or video buffering moments that weren’t caused by a far-off data center. Dozens of wireless gadgets are still screaming to be heard, but I can’t hear them. If you’ve got a bigger home, or some wireless-only devices that need serious help, you can combine ethernet and mesh networking for better reach and reliability. But the real hero is the unassuming cable with clippy ends, a cable I once thought had its best days behind it.

Non-Wireless Speakers (Or As Close As It Gets)

Speakers with wire ports

For a while, my new wireless Sonos speakers lived on that same congested Wi-Fi network. Lived, but did not prosper. Every random number of days, a speaker would disappear as a place your phone could throw sound. I’d unplug them, sometimes reset them, and they’d reappear, but only until the next disappearing act. One of them sat four feet from the wireless router. The future of audio was here, and it involved sending multi-page diagnostic logs to Sonos support.

While Sonos units drifted in and out of my house, I visited a friend in rural Massachusetts. The prior owner of his new home had thrown a lot of ideas into it. Among them was a whole-home sound setup, with in-ceiling speakers above a bathtub, surround sound in the living room, and red and white plugs everywhere else. It felt like a shame to waste all the work somebody had done inside the walls.

I found someone on Facebook Marketplace offloading Pioneer speakers—two back units and a center channel—for $20 nearby. We picked them up, borrowed a receiver from his father-in-law, and, after cursing the complete lack of plug labeling, got them working. We drank beer, listened to music, and fixed other stuff the rest of the weekend. At no point did any of the Pioneers disappear, and only my friend’s dog could really mess up the speaker wire connections.

My Sonos speakers did get their own wire-based salvation…sort of. Digging in the Sonos support forums and subreddit, I discovered that plugging in one of your Sonos units via ethernet unlocks the option to have all your Sonos devices connect over a private “Sonosnet,” rather than having each one negotiate its existence and data with your router. If you can’t run speaker wire, the next best thing might be making your speakers into Wi-Fi secessionists.

Non-Wireless Charging

At one point, my wife and I both had wireless-charging-capable phones, and I started plotting out our no-cable future. Where should I put the charging pad on the kitchen island? Which stand would charge her phone the fastest at her desk? Then I read Eric Ravenscraft’s (iFixit-featuring) guide to how inefficient wireless charging really is.

Pile of charging cables

Chances are, if you’ve used wireless charging, you know one major problem: positioning. You miss the ring, or you nudge it unknowingly, and your device doesn’t charge. Apple tried to fix this with MagSafe, but uptake has been slow. Meanwhile, even when you get the positioning right, wireless charging itself generates a good deal of heat, and thereby wasted power.

“We worked out that at 100% efficiency from wall socket to battery, it would take about 73 coal power plants running for a day to charge the 3.5 billion smartphone batteries once fully,” iFixit technical writer Arthur Shi told OneZero. But if people place their phones wrong and reduce the efficiency of their charging, the number grows: “If the wireless charging efficiency was only 50%, you would need to double the [73] power plants in order to charge all the batteries.”

Eric Ravenscraft, Debugger

Even if I’d tried to convince myself that my part in this backward-facing future was small—no one raindrop thinks it caused the flood! The jig was up by the 11th paragraph.

“On top of this, both wireless chargers independently consumed a small amount of power when no phone was charging at all—around 0.25 watts, which might not sound like much, but over 24 hours it would consume around six watt-hours. A household with multiple wireless chargers left plugged in—say, a charger by the bed, one in the living room, and another in the office—could waste the same amount of power in a day as it would take to fully charge a phone. By contrast, in my testing the normal cable charger did not draw any measurable amount of power.”

Eric Ravenscraft, Debugger

On top of cluttering up my home’s usable surfaces, sporadically surprising me with a dying phone in the morning, and simultaneously spurring the purchase and disposal of lots of cables and wall plugs and other tiny devices, you’re telling me wireless charging can also make our carbon-free electrical future more difficult to achieve? Impressive, but I think I’ll maybe just get better at hiding my cables.

All the Cables That Can (Once Again) Go Into Your Laptop

Apple has, for at least the last seven years, waged a war of attrition on cables. The company removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7, pushed MacBooks thinner and thinner until they had only one headphone jack and a USB-C port, and removed a charger, headphones, and adapter dongle starting with the iPhone 12. And there are the persistent, if chronologically unmoored, rumors of a no-ports-all-wireless iPhone. Apple, a company that cares deeply about controlling the user experience, has every reason to nudge us toward devices with almost no external input.

And yet, there are the newest MacBooks. On them are ports, more ports, of more kinds, than have been on MacBooks in many years’ time. Three USB-C ports, HDMI, a new MagSafe charging port, a headphone jack, and an SD card reader. You could plug seven cables into this laptop at once if you wanted. It likely came too late for pandemic workers who had already added a dozen docks, dongles, and adapters to their homes. But it did feel like a quiet admission that, actually, having a single point of failure on a machine you use for work? Bad.

2021 MacBook Pro ports

Two months after Apple debuted this MacBook, a friend recruited me to replace the battery and sole USB-C port on his single-port 2016 MacBook. Apple had quoted him between $350-$800, depending on how much he wanted to fix, and whether they could find a spare USB-C port. It noted in the invoice that, regardless of what he picked, they would replace an entire case.

So I did it for much less, with iFixit’s parts. It was at least a two-hour job, given the tight spaces, the heavy glue, and having to remove every single component to do it. When he got it back, it held a charge and worked with his Thunderbolt monitor again. He didn’t have to upgrade, because his laptop works. But it only works until that one port—the source of all power, data, monitor output, and external input—fails again.

The other major laptop story of 2021 was the Framework, an almost entirely modular, highly repairable laptop that earned a 10/10 on our repairability scale. Its ports can be removed with the literal push of a button, swapped around, and replaced from an online marketplace. Starting from scratch last year, a new laptop maker made ports a major part of their platform.

My relationship with cables over the last two years has reached what feels like the ending of an (exceptionally narrowly focused) romantic comedy plot. Cables can be messy. They might not be as slick as some minimalist or wireless solutions. And, sure, sometimes cables have let me down, breaking down or being too inflexible. But cables are there for me, and they know what’s most important. Cables, you really get me.

Header image by John Barkiple on Unsplash