UNO, hands on: The magnetic cable for multiple USB connections

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Finding one cable that can connect all your devices -- a truly universal USB cable -- would be extremely convenient. UNO, a USB-C cable with multiple magnetic adapters, promises that, but is it up to the job?

With all the optional adapters, UNO can plug into a USB-C or Type A port at one end and a Lightning, USB-C or Micro-USB at the other. (The cable costs $21 with a single tip, $25 with all three tips.) One end has a USB-C connector that's permanently attached to the cable, with an adapter that snaps over it to fit into a USB Type A port if that's what you have. It snaps on easily enough, but no matter how carefully you grip it, when you pull the cable out the Type A adapter tends to remain in the port and you have to prise it out.

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The configurable end of the UNO cable has interchangeable Lightning, USB-C and USB Type A connectors that attach magnetically.

Image: asap Technologies
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There's a Type A adapter for the USB-C end of the UNO cable.

Image: asap Technologies

At the other end of the cable is a small cavity with a strong magnet in; that means the three different tips you can get -- USB-C, Lightning and Micro-USB -- snap into place on the end of the cable very easily. In fact, a tip on its own will slide a couple of inches across the table or leap an inch into the air to snap onto the cable (which is fun to watch). However, the magnetic well they sit in isn't very deep, so they also snap out pretty easily. The tips are also tiny and easy to lose. Keep them in a bag together and you'll find them stuck to each other, so getting the right one out means pulling them apart every time.

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The UNO cable is touted as being strong enough to hold a 437g iPad Air, so we tested that: with a protective case on it was too heavy for the cable and the magnetic tip pulled right off; without the case we were able to lift the iPad Air up by the cable, but only when the iPad was already vertical and we pulled straight up on the cable. A Surface Go, even without a Type Cover keyboard, was too heavy for the USB-C tip, while the cable could hold an iPhone 7, if not very securely. With the Micro-USB tip on we were able to lift a Lumia 1520, which was a solid phablet, and even swing it a little on the cable without it falling off, but if it knocks against anything the tip pops right off.

The way magnets work means that it takes a bit of effort to pull the tip straight off the cable, because that's the strongest line of magnetic force. So if you stand your phone or iPad on end and lift it vertically on the cable it will stay attached, and you can even swing it around a bit. But as soon as you apply force at an angle -- whether that's pushing on one side of the adapter with your finger or putting the connection under tension because of the angle of the cable -- it pops right off, because the magnetic force is much weaker at an angle. So if your device is flat on the table, you can't pick it up by the cable, and if the position of the device puts the cable at an awkward angle the weight of the cable can pull it away from the connecting tip.

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The magnetic connection is (just) strong enough to hold an iPad Air.

Image: asap Technologies

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In some cases, having the tip detach might be an advantage. If some careless person pushes past you while you're holding a device that's plugged in to charge and catches the cable, or you grab your phone without remembering to unplug it, the adapter will snap safely off rather than the device getting caught -- that's the beauty of magnets. But equally, if your phone gets knocked off the table while it's charging, the cable is unlikely to stop it plummeting to the floor the way a standard cable would, because the tip will simply detach.

With no cable to pull them out by, the tips stay in the port on your device very securely, and the makers suggest leaving the adapters in your devices so you can just shove the cable in the general direction of the adapter and have it connect. Get the end of the cable within a quarter of an inch and the magnetic force pulls it into place. That's certainly easier than fiddling with inserting a connector like Micro-USB, which is notoriously the wrong way round the first two times you try it. But that also leaves you with an adapter sticking out quite some way (about 4 mm for most of the tips, even with a case on your phone). If you ever need to use your device with another cable, you have to prise out the adapter -- there's a little plastic tool to help you with this if it sticks -- and then try not to lose it.

The UNO is a fairly smart cable (there's a chip tucked inside it). It delivers the 480Mbps data transfer speed of any USB 2 cable (although not the 5-10Gbps of USB 3). Because it's a USB-C cable with an adapter rather than a real Lightning cable, it can't do data transfer between a Mac and a Lightning device. And while it can deliver enough power for Apple Fast Charge and Qualcomm Quick Charge 2 and 4, it doesn't manage the 18W needed for USB PD (Power Delivery) so it won't charge a laptop like the Surface Go.

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The UNO cable comes in several colours: blue, gold, gunmetal, red, rose gold, silver.

Image: asap Technologies

The cable itself is protected by a braided wrap. It feels sturdy and not likely to fray or snap, especially as the permanent USB-C connector has a tapered neck that will protect the end of the cable. The standard cable is 1.5m long; there's also a 2.5m version, which is handy for hotel rooms where the plug is a long way away from the bedside table. There's what looks like a charging light on the cable, but it lights up as soon as it's plugged in to a power supply, which makes it easier to find but tells you nothing about whether your device is actually charging. You can't turn the light off if you find it annoying when you're trying to sleep.

UNO comes from asap Technologies, a small Australian company that's already produced the X-Connect USB type A cable with swappable tips through Kickstarter, and it's a clever idea. But in practice, it's a bit on the fiddly side and the magnets aren't nearly as strong as a permanent cable connection. It could cut down on the number of cables you need to pack for a business trip, but UNO will be most useful if you invest in as many tips as you have devices that you want to connect regularly, which makes it a less universal solution.

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