I have lived the USB-C #donglelife. Here’s what you’re in for

There has been more talk of dongles now that Apple has gone and done it: excised all ports on the new MacBook Pros except one: USB-C. It is good and right to be unhappy that there aren’t any standard USB-A ports, MagSafe, nor SD card slots on these new MacBook Pros. If that gives you serious pause, I am with you and don’t have any easy answers beyond “buy the dongles and deal with them.” Lucky for you, yesterday Apple relented a bit and slashed the prices on many of its adapters.

I have been using USB-C for a year now, on the non-Pro MacBook, so I thought I should share some of my experiences. And I want to tell you that the #donglelife (yes, it’s a hashtag) is not all that horrible for me, day-to-day. That’s in large part because I am smack in the center of Apple’s target market: I don’t need to plug stuff beyond power into my computer all that often, so when I do it’s not too big a hassle to use a dongle. And much to my surprise, I don’t miss MagSafe as much as I expected to. If I were a photographer or video director who needs to use SD cards constantly and who already has a cache of hard drives that require different ports, it might be a different story.

I feel strange defending dongles, because you can and should count me among the people who think that removing the headphone port from the iPhone 7 was a user hostile mistake. But for me, the big difference between needing dongles for your laptop and needing dongles for your phone is that you usually carry your laptop around in a bag, which has pockets that can carry dongles.

I should also point out that I am a USB-C partisan. The dream of this single port was and always has been that you will be able to stop carrying around a different cable for every. damn. gadget. you. own. We do not live in that world yet, but I’ve experienced bits and pieces of it and I genuinely think a little pain now is worth it for that better future.

Apple's right to force the issue on USB-C. Good on them for dropping prices.

Wish it was on iPhone. Same plug for phone, laptop is GREAT.

— Dieter Bohn (@backlon) November 4, 2016

When I sit down at my desk, I plug a single cable in to charge my MacBook, drive my display, and connect up to the USB Hub built into my monitor. Yes, this requires a dongle, but as soon as I upgrade to a USB-C (or Thunderbolt 3, depending!) monitor, it won’t. Of course, another reason I like USB-C is that I can use the same cable to charge my laptop and my phone (a Google Pixel). That’s not something iPhone users can say.

In fact, one of the big differences between the dongle on the iPhone 7 and the USB-C dongles is that USB-C is a common standard used by most computer companies — you can find it on Android phones, on Windows PCs, on tablets, and on Chromebooks. You can find it, in fact, on nearly everything except the iPhone. That’s not to say that I don’t think that the Lightning connector is superior to USB-C (it is), but as a standard for an ecosystem, USB-C isn’t dependent on Apple’s permission.

So long-term, I think USB-C is going to make our computing lives better. And in the short term, you are likely going to have small “AHA” moments where you can plug in a single cable and have neat stuff happen. I really do think that Apple made the right decision to aggressively push the industry forward into this future — although I would have put an SD card slot in there were I designing the MacBook Pro. I also wouldn’t tell you you’re wrong if you said it should have included a traditional USB-A port, but I am not personally enraged by it.

Assuming that we get past this interim period, a single port for everything sound great! However, the pain of these ports is bigger than just having to use dongles. USB-C is an industry standard and, like all industry standards, it sometimes gets implemented by fools and fly-by-night outfits. I want to tell you that everything is going to be okay, but let’s take a tour through some of what’s going on in the world of USB-C right now.

Poorly constructed USB-C cables can sometimes allow connected devices to draw too much power and damage your gadgets (it happened to me). And even when that’s not the case, poorly constructed USB-C cables can cause weird bugs that you wouldn’t expect when it comes to inter-device communication (this, too, happened to me!). Some users have also found that simply charging can be finicky — you might plug in only to discover that the amperage isn’t powerful enough or the wire is poorly made or the device itself doesn’t adhere to the standard like it ought to.

I’ve also tried a bunch of different USB-C docks and hubs — my Amazon purchase history is a gallery of sorrow and misspent dollars. To a one, these multi-port hubs have been flaky and unreliable — usually when it comes to their SD card slots. Others have had better luck, but a year after the release of the MacBook we’re still waiting for the One True Hub that will really cover the bases for most people.

Happily, all of Apple’s adapters have performed excellently — the company just doesn’t offer an all-in-one solution, so I end up carrying two or three different dongles just in case. Bottom line: buy from vendors you trust. If for some reason you can’t, look hard for those ineffectual USB Implementers Forum logos that theoretically denote safe cables. Amazon is trying to crack down on bad cables, too. But still, even today the surest way to know if a cable is safe is to look for a review from one heroic Google engineer (seriously).

So that all sounds awful. And we’re not done yet:

Technically, the ports on the new MacBook Pro are both USB-C and Thunderbolt 3. Both protocols work using the same connector. That seems fine, but we’re facing a situation where the connectors look the same but don’t necessarily operate the same.

For example, Nilay Patel tried plugging his DisplayPort monitor into a USB-C to Thunderbolt adapter. See, Thunderbolt uses the same connector as Mini DisplayPort, but his adapter didn’t support DisplayPort, it only supported Thunderbolt.

The best part is that the Thunderbolt 2 dongle Apple gave me doesn’t actually drive mini displayport so this didn’t work https://t.co/bF6Q7ilTmi

— nilay patel (@reckless) October 31, 2016

On top of that, even on a brand new MacBook Pro, identical-looking ports will offer different throughput, depending on which side you happen to plug in on. It can get even worse, as Stephen Foksett explains:

Consider a simple USB-C HDMI adapter: It could implement HDMI over USB 3.0 or it could use Alternate Mode (native) HDMI. It could also use HDMI “multiplexed” with Thunderbolt Alternate Mode or even (theoretically) implement HDMI over Thunderbolt using an off-board graphics chip! Of these options, only the newest computers, like the MacBook Pro, would support all three. Can you imagine the consumer confusion when they purchase a “USB-C HDMI adapter” only to find that it doesn’t work with their MacBook or Pixel or whatever?

I feel like this Apple support article headline, of all support article headlines, should actually start with "So," https://t.co/r2JWWjKROd

— nilay patel (@reckless) November 5, 2016

At this point I know what you’re thinking: USB-C is not ready for primetime. Even if you accept that we all have to use dongles for the next few years, it’s still insane that Apple is foisting this confusing and potentially dangerous connector on people. And I would agree with you, but the only way we’re going to figure this single-connector situation out is to start figuring it out by using it, buying them, and finding what works.

And, again, the irony is that this “Apple is correct to foist the future on everybody right now, before we’re totally ready” stance is particularly rich coming from me, a guy who thinks Apple should have left the 3.5mm headphone jack in the iPhone. I’ve watched in amazement (and, I will admit, no small amount of Schadenfreude) as people who vigorously defended the decision to remove a standard, common port on the iPhone are bemoaning the fact that Apple did exactly that on the MacBook.

I have exactly the opposite opinion, though.

With the iPhone 7, Apple removed a standard port and replaced it with a demand that we use wireless audio. Apple is effectively asking everybody to either use a proprietary solution (A W1-blessed Bluetooth headset or Lightning audio) or solution that is in many ways not as good (Bluetooth audio without Apple’s fancy W1 chip). And there’s no guarantee the prices will come down on either of those things anytime soon.

Compare that to the switch to USB-C. Here, the entire industry is lining up behind a common standard that will work across all devices and be relatively cheap. It’s unproven, yes, but everybody who makes a circuit board is motivated to get it right. It’s not so much removing a standard port as it is replacing an old standard with a new standard.

Having lived with some of the worst of USB-C for a year, I think that for most users the pain of this switchover is going to be briefer and smaller than they might expect. I do wish that Apple would either create or bless the One True USB-C Dongle, something with a few ports and a reliable SD card slot. Carrying one dongle is embarrassing, carrying three (as I do) is downright ridiculous.

It gets much, much trickier for pro users — the very people who need a new, powerful MacBook the most. For them, I think Apple’s reduced prices on adapters is a boon, but it’s going to take a while to see if Apple forces the rest of the industry to make USB-C and Thunderbolt peripherals more quickly. Given how many Windows computers and Android devices are moving to it alongside the MacBook, I’m cautiously optimistic.

Should have put an SD card slot in, though. And put a USB dongle in the box.


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