## USB cable resistance tester

18.08.2019 17:04

Back in June I did a short survey of tools for measuring resistance of power supply lines in USB cables. I was motivated by the common complaint about bad cables, often in the context of powering single board computers like the Raspberry Pi. I wasn't particularly happy with what I found: the tool wanted to buy was out of stock, and I've seen various issues with others. Having already dug too deep into this topic I then set out to make my own tool for this purpose.

So roughly two months later I have a working prototype in my hands. It works as designed and I spent a few hours measuring all the USB cables I could get my hands on. I'm reasonably happy with it and can share the design if anyone else wants to make it.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I really liked the approach of FemtoCow's USB cable resistance tester and I basically copied their idea. Since USB type C is gaining in popularity I've added connectors so that A-to-C and C-to-C cables can be tested in addition to A-to-mini B and A-to-micro B, I've taken care that even with the added connectors, the voltmeter still has Kelvin connections in all combinations. I've also added proper 4 mm test sockets for all connections.

The principle of operation is very simple. Electrically, the resistance tester consists of two parts. On one end of the cable is a reasonably accurate 1 Ω resistor in series with the cable's VBUS and GND lines. The other end only shorts the VBUS and GND lines together. The power supply is used to set a current through the cable. The measured resistance of the cable, which consists of the sum of the four contact resistances and resistances of the two copper cores, can then be calculated as:

R_{measured} = R_{VBUS} + R_{GND} = R_{ref}\frac{U_{measure}}{U_{calibrate}}

Or, if set current is 1 A, the voltmeter reading in volts directly corresponds to the measured resistance in ohms:

R_{measured} [\Omega] = U_{measure} [\mathrm{V}]

The nice thing about this approach is that the cable can be tested at an arbitrary current. If the first equation is used, the accuracy of the method does not depend on the accuracy of the current setting. It even doesn't depend much on the calibration accuracy of the voltmeter: since a ratio of similar voltages is used, any linear error cancels out. The only requirement is that the voltmeter is reasonably linear over the 0.1 V to 1 V range. Since Kelvin connections are used, the resistance of the PCB traces has negligible effect on measurements as well.

The only critical component is the reference resistor. 1% resistors are widely available, so getting to that kind of measurement accuracy should be trivial. With some more effort and a bit higher price, 0.1% current sense resistors aren't that exotic either. For my tool I went with a cheap 1% thick-film resistor since I considered that good enough.

After measuring a pile of cables, some shortcomings did become apparent that I didn't think of earlier: I really should have added a switch for the voltmeter instead of having four test sockets. Constantly re-plugging the test leads gets tiring really fast. It also affects the measuring accuracy somewhat since it's hard to re-plug the cables without moving the tool slightly. Since moving the connectors results in slightly changing their contact resistances, it's hard to measure both voltages in the exactly the same setup. The errors because of that seem minimal though.

Another thing I noticed is that with my analog power supply, setting the current to exactly 1 A wasn't possible. Since I have only one knob that goes from 0 to 25 V in one rotation, setting low voltages requires very small movements of the knob and isn't very accurate. Hence I mostly used the ratio equation for my measurements. My power supply also tended to drift a bit which was a bit annoying. The power supply at work with a digital interface worked much better in that respect.

Finally, I'm not sure how harmful this kind of test is for type C cables that contain active parts, like the electronically marked power delivery cables. I didn't test any so far. All schematics I could find show that the power delivery ID chip is powered from the VCONN line, which is left unconnected in this tool, so that should be fine. On the other hand, the active cables that do signal conditioning do seem to be powered from VBUS. It's possible, although I think unlikely, those could respond weirdly or even be damaged by the low voltage applied during this test.

If you want to make a tool like this, you can find all required Gerber files and the bill of materials in the GitHub repository. While it might be possible to etch and drill the board yourself, I highly recommend using one of the cheap PCB prototyping services instead. The USB C connectors require very small holes and SMD pads that I think would be pretty challenging to get right in a home workshop. There are some more notes in the README file regarding that. On the other hand, the Würth connectors listed in the BOM are solderable with only a soldering iron, so manual assembly is reasonably straightforward with no hot air station required. However again the type C ones can be pretty tricky due to the fine pitch.

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