Apple picking USB-C for MacBooks puts us in dongle hell for now

Commentary: CNET editor Dong Ngo cautions about the pain you might have getting the new MacBook Pro right now due to its lack of support for legacy connections.

Dong Ngo SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews
CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.
Dong Ngo
5 min read
Watch this: Apple's new mainstream MacBook Pro

Someday we'll live in a truly wireless future, where everything is interconnected. Speeds will be so fast -- 5G and WiGig -- and the chipsets so cheap and plentiful that everything from your coffee maker to your garage door opener will have them embedded by default. Even your charging cable may go away, when and if we ever get a single wireless charging standard.

In the meantime: you've got cables and wires. Lots of them. And they all probably fit into a different-shaped port.

That's the world that Apple's new MacBook Pros are coming into. Ironically, after pulling the headphone jack from its iPhone 7, Apple left it in its new laptops. But aside from that old-fashioned 3.5mm jack, the only connector you'll find on Apple's latest and greatest laptops is USB-C. Depending on which model you choose, you get two or four of the tiny ports, all of which offer the Thunderbolt 3 bandwidth and connectivity.

Apple's full-on embrace of Thunderbolt 3 is great. Thunderbolt 3 is extremely fast and versatile and really is the connection port of the future. On the other hand, we're still living in a present where port standards like HDMI, the SD card slot, and especially regular old USB-A ports -- those rectangular ones that have been around for 20 years or so -- are still widely used by the vast majority of devices. Which means, buying a MacBook Pro right now is to invest in a variety of adapters for all your legacy devices.

But before we delve too deeply into the cons, let's take a closer look at the pros of this decision.

Apple's new entry-level MacBook Pro loses the Touch Bar -- but still looks sweet

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One port, one cable for everything

Last year Intel announced that Thunderbolt 3 would use the same port type as USB-C. Meaning that depending on the type of device connected to it, every Thunderbolt 3 port will also work as a USB-C port and every Thunderbolt 3 cable will work as a USB-C cable and vice versa (as long as you get a qualitative USB-C cable.)

When working as Thunderbolt 3, the port delivers up to 40Gbps bandwidth and as USB-C, up to 10Gbps. Both types of connections allow for the delivery of data, audio and video, making it by far the fastest and most flexible peripheral port to date. Plug in a Thunderbolt 3 device to a new MacBook, and file transfer speeds will be so quick that the write speed of the storage will be the only thing holding you back. And with the right adapter, you can output video to HDMI, VGA, DVI, DisplayPort or pretty much anything else under the sun.

James Martin/CNET

It's also important to note that USB-C supports bidirectional charging. This means not only can you now can say goodbye the the MagSafe charging adapter on the new MacBooks, you can also use the laptop to charge any peripheral device connected to it or use a peripheral device to charge the laptop. So you really only need one power adapter, no matter how many devices you use with your laptop, including those that would normally require a separate power source, which is awesome.

When Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C are the only port types used in peripheral devices, you won't need to carry more than one type of cable with you. Just a few USB-C cables will connect everything. Just think about how convenient it is!

Dongle and accessory madness

But that future is still quite far away; for now, there are myriad peripheral devices that still require the USB-A connector (legacy standard USB), like portable drives, SD card readers, most smartphones and so on. This means you'll need to get an accessory or dongle adapter before you can use them. If the new laptops retained just one regular USB type-A port, this wouldn't be such a big deal and would greatly ease the pain of the transition. Keep in mind that this is the first time the MacBook Pro has gotten USB-C; prior to this the 12-inch MacBook was the only Apple computer that used USB-C.

And the number of ports itself is also significant. Even in the case of the Touch Bar-equipped MacBook Pro models (13- and 15-inch), the ones with 4 Thunderbolt/USB-C ports, that's still not enough ports to comfortably suit many people's needs. Just look at your computer right now and count how many things are currently plugged in. (And remember: there's no more MagSafe port, either; if you want to charge your new MacBook, a USB-C power cable will occupy one of those precious ports.)

For me personally: a charging cable, a portable backup drive, a smartphone, an SD card, and a thumbdrive, and at times an external monitor. And while the new MacBooks compare pretty favorably to the MacBook Air (two USB, a Thunderbolt 2 port for external video, plus MagSafe charging, and 3.5mm headphone), they're a far cry from the previous (albeit still available) MacBook Pro 15-inch, which has a total of 7 ports (two USB, two Thunderbolt 2, HDMI, SD, MagSafe and headphone). For power users -- the very folks looking for a "Pro" laptop -- that's already limiting.

Watch this: USB-C and Thunderbolt 3: One port to rule them all

The iPhone paradox

However, it's iPhone users who'll suffer most. When the iPhone 7 was first announced, I was extremely disappointed by its lack of USB-C support -- Apple still opted to use its proprietary Lightning connector instead. And now this means that you can't connect the phone to any of the new MacBook Pros, without an adapter.

You could skip the adapter and get Apple's Lightning to USB-C cable for $25. That will solve the connection problem, but then you'll need to carry at least two types of cables when traveling. So much for the future where only a single type of cable is necessary.

(Apple didn't immediately reply to my request for comment on why it had made this decision.)

This whole ordeal is rife with irony. With its computers, Apple is now one of the biggest supporters of USB-C. But at the same time, it bars its flagship smartphone from natively using this port, which just doesn't make sense to me. But even taking the iPhone out of the equation, the abrupt move -- from no USB-C on the MacBook Pros at all to going all USB-C and nothing else -- feels premature. Apple is treating a relatively distant future as if it were already here. And as a result it may have taken its shot way too soon.