Apple has a history of “addition by subtraction” when it comes to ports and drives. It has over the years ditched FireWire, Ethernet, and optical drives. Now, with the MacBook, it says goodbye to all but a lone pioneering port. This probably was inevitable. So just how big of an adjustment are you in for?
How we push data to and from our machines constantly evolves thanks to the steady progress of new standards, faster wireless connectivity, streaming services, and the cloud. Apple tends to anticipate these changes—and in some cases force the issue, often being among the first to banish old-guard tech from its devices. It’s been a successful strategy; just ask any phone with a physical keyboard.
But the new ultraportable MacBook doesn’t just nip an optical drive here and a FireWire port there. It cleans house. And while we’re accustomed to hermetically sealed, port-barren devices in our pockets and on our coffee tables, a laptop with plenty of connectivity options is part of what makes minimalism possible elsewhere. With the new MacBook, your “plug and play” options are a 3.5mm headphone port and a USB-C port—a standard that isn’t exactly swimming in compatible components just yet.
The good news is that USB-C is versatile. It’s a standard that, unlike the stalled Thunderbolt interface, will be embraced by many devices and peripherals that don’t originate in Cupertino. It’s capable, too; the port on the new MacBook can shuttle data at 5Gbps, it can charge and be charged by whatever it’s hooked up to, it supports video out, and it’s tiny. The only bad news about the shift to USB-C ports is the MacBook has one of them.
Of course, there are ways to compensate, though not as many as you might think. The cheapest, most direct way to get your USB devices to play nice with a USB-C port is a $19 USB-to-USB-C adapter from Apple (or this $13 model from Google, whose Chromebook Pixel features two USB-C ports). That’s a good start, but it still limits your choices to hooking up a single device or charging your laptop.
For those who need more I/O in their lives, Apple now sells its own USB-C adapters that let you turn that single port into a three-headed hydra supporting HDMI-out, full-size USB 3.1, and a passthrough for power. Another version swaps the HDMI-out port for VGA-out. They cost $79. Each. That’s more than an Apple TV.
And even those pricey dongles don’t come close to replicating the ports on a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro. The 13-inch Air has a dedicated power connector, a Thunderbolt 2 port, an SDXC card slot, two USB 3.0 ports, and a headphone jack. The 13-inch MacBook Pro has all of that, plus an additional Thunderbolt 2 port and HDMI-out.
Apple’s message is clear: You don’t need all those cables. It’s better to carry something that feels almost weightless, something elegant and slim and gold than have some pört-gåsbord weighing you down. “Besides,” Apple seems to insist, “you can address all of your needs via Web services, or streaming, or iCloud, or one of the wonderful new features we’ve added to Yosemite. Would you like more ports? Well, we have inelegant dongles and more-expensive computers for that.”
At some point, getting data and electricity to and from your MacBook with just one port may be seamless and natural. Today, though, we’re at least a few dongles away. Here’s how the MacBook plays out in practice.
If you use an iPhone for most photos and directly upload your shots to your iCloud photo library (or the cloud service of your choice), you’re set. But if you use one of those old-school “standalone” cameras and one of those dinosaur “SD” or “CompactFlash” cards, you’ll need to wait until somebody makes a card-to-USB-C adapter to get much use out of the MacBook. In the meantime, you could plug a USB card reader into a $13 or $19 or $79 adapter.
Potentially easing the frustration is the fact that most modern cameras have built-in Wi-Fi features, so you can hypothetically leave your card in your camera, beam photos to your phone or a cloud service, and use it as a passthrough to your computer’s hard drive. That sort of set-up would be basically unworkable for pro photographers shuttling RAW files, though, and probably more trouble than it’s worth even when dealing with JPEG files in any quantity.
The same solutions and limitations apply to video editors. Videos taken with an iPhone can be magically ported to the machine via iCloud, Dropbox, or most other cloud services of your choice, so that’s easy enough. USB-C can handle video files zipping back and forth (through an adapter or new cable, for now). Other wireless transfer options aren’t very practical for files of the sizes you’ll be dealing with. The most likely setup for a wired-in connection will be a USB 3.0 or 3.1 cable running from a video-capture device through a dongle.
Your USB-C external hard drive options are non-existent right now, but help is on the way. This summer, SanDisk will offer a 32GB thumbdrive with USB-C and full-size USB connectors. A LaCie external drive will offer up to 2TB of portable USB-C-connected storage when it’s out later this year. End of list so far. But now that there’s a demand, the USB-C drive market will grow. You’ll have plenty of options if you hold out a few months.
Meanwhile, the new MacBook will come with up to 512GB onboard, and cloud-storage services abound these days. That could be enough for most people, but anyone who’s been stashing years of valuable files and photos and music on an external drive would be inconvenienced by a MacBook today. To get the important stuff from there to your new machine, for the time being you’ll need an adapter.
While Apple already phased out Ethernet ports across its laptop lineup, there are a few cases in which having one generally comes in handy. If you’re dealing with crappy Wi-Fi service or that odd hotel that only offers jacked-in connectivity, yes, you’ll need a adapter for that. Belkin already has announced a USB-C-to-Gigabit-Ethernet adapter, but the pricing and release date are still a mystery.
Anyone who uses a laptop as a mobile machine and the docked guts of their home/office scenario will absolutely need to fork over for a dongle or avoid the new MacBook altogether. For now, at least.
Multi-port docks for the MacBook are likely on the way, but without that $79 add-on you won’t be able to simultaneously charge your laptop and work on a bigger screen or use a dual-monitor display. Or use a non-Bluetooth keyboard or mouse when your single port is occupied.
What may be the strangest USB-C fallout? If you want to mirror your laptop screen on your television, your cheapest and best option at this point is to buy an Apple TV. It costs $69 and supports AirPlay mirroring, while Apple’s HDMI-out multi-dongle will cost you $10 more.
Curiously—and this is bound to change soon—there doesn’t seem to be a way to charge your iPhone or Pad with the new MacBook without using an adapter. Apple hasn’t yet officially announced a Lightning-to-USB-C cable. For all we know, one may come in the MacBook box. Otherwise, for a wired connection, you’d have to use a dongle, plug the fat end of your Lightning cable into that, and charge or sync an iOS device with a cumbersome setup.
There’s a reason, though, that Apple has put concerted effort in making Yosemite interact with iOS devices in wireless ways: Continuity, Handoff, and AirDrop are all geared toward seamless interoperability between its mobile and desktop OS, no literal strings attached. And here’s the big thing on the horizon: Future iOS devices will likely use USB-C as their one and only port, which will be an instant fix. Until then, you’ll need an adapter or an as-yet-unannounced cable to charge your iDevice from a MacBook.
Here’s a fun resulting fact. As of right now, it will be easier to charge an Android device with an Apple computer than to charge an iPhone or iPad with one—just as long as you have this upcoming $20 Belkin cable. Again, USB-C is a standard, and it’s one that will show up on many other devices, too, so don’t expect this to be an issue for long.
In many ways, this new MacBook is an exciting harbinger of a bright future, one teeming with interoperability and free of proprietary connectors. We’re not quite there yet, though. And until we are, it’s going to be a long, dongle-paved road.