How to survive with only one USB-C port on your new MacBook

Apple's 12-inch MacBook has only a single shared port. Here's how to connect data, video, power and more to it.

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If there's one thing about Apple's new 12-inch MacBook that seems to drive people crazy, it's that the slim, 2-pound laptop has only a single shared port to handle data, power, video output and accessories.

Forget Apple's current scheme of packing in USB, Thunderbolt/mini-DisplayPort, HDMI and even an SD card slot on laptops such as the 13-inch MacBook Pro . Now you've got a single port -- and what's more, it's a new USB-C port, which means absolutely nothing you own will work with it without an adaptor or dongle.

Formally known as USB 3.1 Type C, this new port combines faster data transfer speeds (up to 10Gbps) with a new shape. The smaller plug and socket is miles better than the previous Type A and Type B ones, and their much-hated micro and mini variations, because it's fully reversible. The plug slides in either side up, which is a big deal if you've ever tried jamming a USB key or cable in upside down. And as both the top and bottom of a USB plug look the same unless you're examining it very closely, that happens fairly often.

Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

Why only one port? And a new one at that? The official pitch is that MacBook users will use wireless connections for just about everything. Bluetooth for a mouse, Wi-Fi for internet access, AirDrop for file transfer, and so on. Most of these assumptions are correct, but there's something to be said for being able to use a full-size USB or HDMI port to connect to any USB key or HDTV with minimal hassle.

Staying connected on the new MacBook realistically requires plugging and unplugging accessories fairly frequently. If you start with the power cable connected to the single USB-C port, in order to connect the USB dongle for a wireless mouse, you need to disconnect the power cable and plug in a short USB-C to USB-A cable (sold by Apple for $19, £15 or AU$29). To use a USB data key, keep the adaptor cable connected, but pull the mouse receiver and connect your key instead.

Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

Shortly, you will be able to connect video the same way, using a USB-C to HDMI, DisplayPort or VGA adaptor. Apple has two connection blocks that include either HDMI or VGA for $79, £65 or AU$119 each coming soon, and third-party accessory companies such as Belkin, Monoprice and Kanex have their own versions that will also be available soon, including a USB-C to Ethernet adaptor.

One clever trick you can do with the USB-C port on the new MacBook is to charge it on the go. The system (and theoretically any laptop with USB-C) can draw power from the portable backup battery packs that so many people have lying around in drawers and laptop bags.

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An external battery pack connected via a Monoprice USB-to-USB-C cable.Photo by Dan Ackerman/CNET

To do this, use a USB-C to male USB cable (we tried a $10 one sent by Monoprice), and you can get some extra battery power on the go without having to bring the whole power brick, or have access to a power outlet. It won't fully charge the laptop, but it could offer enough power to help you out in a pinch.

Despite all the cool aspects of USB-C and its great potential for the future, the limitations of having a single USB-C port for all your connection needs (with the exception of a standard audio jack that also made the cut in the new MacBook) is going to be a challenge in the short term, unless you're prepared to arm yourself with a pocketful of dongles and adaptors.