Apple's next MacBook Pro will help move us all into the future of personal computing. But it could also bring some big headaches along the way.
I'm confident it'll remain a powerful machine while getting lighter and smaller. But I'm worried that one new technology that enables that slimming down, the versatile USB Type-C port, will also mean the MacBook Pro and other heavy-duty laptops will leave me in the lurch.
USB-C is flexible enough to handle just about anything you can plug into a laptop. I'm not sure we're yet ready to have it push aside other useful ports, like HDMI video and 3.5mm audio, the way they've already pushed aside Ethernet jacks and SD card slots. And I'm concerned there won't be enough USB-C ports to make up for the loss of the old ports.
The next version of Apple's workhorse laptop, rumored to be in final testing stages, will no doubt embrace USB-C. Apple historically has been eager to embrace new technologies for connecting things like printers, keyboards, external drives and displays to computers, and it became a high-profile early USB-C adopter with the 2015 introduction of the slim MacBook. Dozens of other machines now include the new port, too, like Dell's XPS 13 and HP's Spectre, and the port is well on its way to becoming the new standard.
Mostly that's great news. USB-C is reversible, so there's no more fiddling to figure out which way is up when plugging in a cable. It can be used to charge laptops, not just phones. It's easier to take advantage of USB's new higher-speed modes, 5 and 10 gigabits per second, enough to copy an entire 100GB 4K movie in 13 seconds, at least in principle. And USB-C is getting new abilities to handle audio and video, too, making it into one port that can do it all.
But in the bid to simplify our lives with a single input technology, it may end up complicating things with too few connectors -- especially if you're a power user.
Trouble on the port side?
Paring back ports may not seem like a big deal. But it could leave people like me high and dry. Without enough ports, we'll have to buy dongles, hubs and docking stations so we can connect everything we need.
Four ports may seem plenty for most folks. With wireless links like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, we don't need so many cables for keyboards, mice, network cables and printers. But not everyone has upgraded to everything wireless. Even if you have, you might still have external drives, thumb drives, DVD drives, camera memory card readers, and the tiny radio controllers for wireless keyboards and mice.
So even a modest number of peripherals can take up a lot of ports. Add to that USB's ability to replace HDMI and DisplayPort video ports, the 3.5mm audio jack, and the power connector, and you could be running into trouble if PC makers get rid of those older standards.
Imagine you're on the road giving a sales pitch. You have a projector plugged into one port, a network cable in another, an external drive in the third and a power plug in the fourth. Then a coworker needs you to load up a file from a thumb drive. What are you going to sacrifice?
It's not just me. Transcend, a Taiwanese maker of storage products like flash memory cards, card readers and external drives, told me it's considering selling a hub "to avoid the limited amount of ports available" on PCs equipped with USB-C ports.
We've seen this movie before. Critics laid into Apple for designing the MacBook with only a single USB-C port. If you want to plug in power, an HDMI cable, and some USB peripheral at the same time, you have to buy Apple's $79 USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter or something like it.
That's a problem, but I cut Apple some slack because the MacBook is an ultralight travel model. The MacBook Pro, though, is another breed: a workhorse for programmers, photographers, videographers, designers and others who need more processing power and a better ability to connect to other devices.
The $3,000 Mac Pro has a generous complement of ports -- four USB ports and six Thunderbolt, which in new machines double as USB-C ports. The MacBook Pro is smaller and has to work on battery power, so it won't go that far. But I'm hoping Apple and other PC makers will show they understand how important connectivity is for powerful machines.