Why does my phone murder USB cables?
December 18, 2017 5:21 PM   Subscribe

My Oneplus One android phone works with a new USB cable for about three weeks, and then it starts charging only intermittently, then stops charging altogether. A brand new cable works again for three weeks or so, then repeats. This is true of both cheap cables and expensive ones. What is going on?

When the charging becomes intermittent, the little lightning symbol still appears in the status bar, and when I go into the settings it claims to be "charging on AC" but it can go all night without changing the amount it is charged, or it charges five percent over a couple of hours and then stops. If I unplug it and replug it a few times it starts working again. I've tried cleaning out the charging jack, which sometimes seems to help a little but then it goes back to the old problem. It might be my imagination that this helps.

Right from when I first got this phone it was picky about cables - some didn't charge it at all for no good reason. So I stuck with the original cable it came with, but that stopped working five or six months back, and now I'm having this problem.

The problem has occurred at other people's houses and with different power sockets than the one I usually use, so I don't think it's anything to do with the power socket.

I can't easily test whether the cables that stop working on my phone also no longer work on other devices, because we now no longer have anything else that charges on that kind of USB (everything else is USB C now).

I don't have a mental model of what could be causing USB cables to fail like this. If they are getting worn with frayed wires inside, that should take a lot longer, and shouldn't be anything to do with the specific phone. And one cable was one my husband was using with his phone happily for the last year, and when he gave it to me, it stopped working within about a week. If it was a problem with the USB port on the phone, I'd think a new cable should also only work intermittently or not at all, rather than work fine for a few weeks.

Does anyone have an explanation?
posted by lollusc to Technology (19 answers total)
Do you happen to have kids? This happens to my iPhone cables when I let my kids plug/unplug my phone. They are not careful and tend to grab the wire vs the hard plastic piece. They can take out a cable in just a few pulls- it doesn’t take long. The symptoms are as you describe with the unplug/replug and it works, kinda.

(Or if you don’t have kids, are you as careful as you should be?)
posted by PorcineWithMe at 5:40 PM on December 18, 2017

It could well be a short in the charging jack on the phone, especially if it works fine for a little while and then stops working. If the jack is generating excessive heat or electricity, it may be melting the cable or some of the wires inside. Does the cable get hot when you plug it in? That’s frequently a sign.
posted by Autumnheart at 5:46 PM on December 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd guess the problem is corrosion on the charging contacts of your phone.

Once that corrosion exists, it causes sparking with any new cable, and once the cables charging contacts deteriorate to a certain point in turn, that cable will no longer charge your phone.

But you should be able to see evidence of that deterioration on the cable contacts if the frame of the plug doesn't get in the way as it would with a usb 3.
posted by jamjam at 5:54 PM on December 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Have you shined a very bright light into the charging jack? My husband didn't believe that it was the problem since he "cleaned it" with a toothpick, but I got my phone flashlight and dug a huge chunk of lint and dust out of there. Otherwise yeah, it's probably something else with the connectors/corrosion.
posted by Crystalinne at 6:08 PM on December 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

I kill my cables very quickly because I read in bed sitting upright with it plugged in, and basically am resting the whole weight of the phone on the place where the cable comes out of the end of the plug. My planned solution is to get magnetic USB cables (which leave a tiny dongle in your phone which they stick to) in the hope of avoiding this single point of failure. The one linked above is recommended by Techmoan, who is, err, a good man, and thorough.
posted by ambrosen at 6:12 PM on December 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Depending on how it's being handled, most of my cables have failed at the connection point. If you look at the end of the micro-USB plug, it has a hole in it. I think that enlarges. You can wiggle it around and sometimes make a connection, maybe looping the cable over the phone, but a new cable always works. I think this is good enough evidence that it's not the phone-side that's getting bent out of shape.
posted by rhizome at 6:22 PM on December 18, 2017

Response by poster: I don't have kids and while I'm not as careful as I could be, my habits haven't changed since my previous phone, which didn't have this problem. The phone and charger do get very hot while charging which makes me think the corrosion answer might be right.
posted by lollusc at 6:39 PM on December 18, 2017

Get some good light and maybe a magnifying glass and you should be able to detect corrosion, which I agree is the most consistent, parsimonious and plausible explanation.

If it is corrosion, cleaning with mild abrasives or maybe a tiny drop of oil might help prevent your phone’s socket from infecting new cords.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:48 PM on December 18, 2017

I have a OnePlus One. I still have the original cable and block. Where the cable plugs into the block has become a little loose. I have the same problem if I don't sort of manipulate the cable to stick into the block.

Are you sure it is the cable and not the block? My OnePlus One, when I am not using the stock charging setup, charges best using an old heavy duty Samsung Galaxy S4 block and cable. I have no idea why. Other setups will charge it, but it is as if it is a different type of charge that seems to drain quickly. The other problem is that OnePlus stopped selling the old usb-mini stock chargers on their website.

Also, what OS are you running? I flash the Lineage nightlies every Monday. Some weeks, the charge holds better than others. I would at least update the OS to 7.1 if not 8.1 (Oreo).

Finally, my OnePlus One is 3 years old now. While I think the phone has held up really well, age does affect the battery and likely the charging capability.
posted by AugustWest at 11:01 PM on December 18, 2017

I had a problem with my OnePlus One similar to one aspect of yours - there would be nights that it would claim it was charging as usual, but by morning I'd wake up to find it had not charged at all; sometimes it had even discharged and turned off (meaning I missed some morning alarms!). After a while I noticed that after those times it had shut all the way down it took the problem much longer to return - and building on that, I eventually found that regularly shutting it down and back on, once a week or so, greatly mitigated the problem.
posted by solotoro at 8:37 AM on December 19, 2017

The phone and charger get warm because the OPO phones support quick charge.

There is a 99% chance your MicroUSB port is full of lint and such. I find the plastic toothpicks perfect for cleaning them out. The reason I'm so certain of this is that it is precisely what was happening to me until I finally figured it out. I was going through a cable every couple of months and finding it very difficult to get it to work after a month. Now that I clean the port once every couple of months, the same cable has worked for over a year. It is getting time to replace it, though. A MicroUSB cable is only good for 500-1000 cycles. They're intentionally designed to wear so that the port wears out less.

The weird thing is that if you look down the end it doesn't seem like there is nearly enough crud to cause an issue, but it does.
posted by wierdo at 4:49 AM on December 20, 2017

Response by poster: I have been cleaning it out with a toothpick. I shone a light in there and it looks clean and I can't see any sign of corrosion. I bought another new (good quality) cable yesterday and will pay careful attention to what happens. I notice it is not warm while charging with this cable for now. I'm going to avoid any bad habits like reading in bed, pulling out the cable carelessly, charging with anything other than the one good quality charger, etc.

I run Resurrection Remix for my OS. And the phone is less than 2 years old - I bought it after the later Oneplus phones were already out because the One was getting better reviews on the aspects that matter most to me. It still has great battery life once it is charged (5+ hours screen-on time). I do have to shut it down at least once a day because it has a bug (which it has always had no matter what OS) that means it doesn't connect properly to data when it comes off wifi unless you restart it.
posted by lollusc at 2:48 PM on December 20, 2017

Response by poster: Well that one lasted 3 days. Phone didn't get hot. Was super careful when plugging cable in and out. Had cleaned out jack beforehand (and again today). Magnifying glass and strong light show nothing. But the new cable didn't charge at all last night and this morning took three or four times attempts before it worked. Once it seemed to be charging fine but got to 73% and then stopped.
posted by lollusc at 10:09 PM on December 22, 2017

Ok, that is weird. Maybe try cleaning the contacts with a tiny cotton swab and a bit of alcohol? Otherwise it almost sounds like an odd software problem if you're using a brand new cable and the port isn't physically loose.
posted by wierdo at 10:25 PM on December 22, 2017

(it's possible the charge controller or some of the circuitry is failing or the battery is going bad, but it doesn't sound quite like that)
posted by wierdo at 10:26 PM on December 22, 2017

Response by poster: To be fair it has been a while since I updated my software. I might do a clean install and see what happens. I'm on holiday now without access to cotton swabs and alcohol (I assume sangria is not advised) but will try that when back home too, thanks
posted by lollusc at 12:09 AM on December 23, 2017

Vodka is fine, and everclear even better, but yes, sangria would be inadvisable. ;)
posted by wierdo at 8:28 AM on December 23, 2017

Best answer: Just realised this is still open and I can update. I did a fresh OS install right after that and never had a problem again. However, the old cables that had stopped working before that still didn't work after the reinstall. So whatever the software issue was, it was actually causing hardware damage to the cables. But the new cable I bought when I reflashed the OS is still working now, six months later.
posted by lollusc at 7:26 AM on June 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

When Apple had that problem with iBook batteries catching fire, they apparently put out a software modification that limited the amount of power apps could draw in order to keep the battery from getting too hot -- a mefite asked a question about sudden loss of volume when listening to music on their iBook around that time, for instance.

I can only guess that software update you installed limited the amount of current the battery could draw as it was charging because someone realized excessive current draw during charging was destroying the cables, but chose not to tell anybody about it.
posted by jamjam at 7:48 PM on June 9, 2018

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