Why Apple is banking on USB-C for its all-new 12-inch MacBook and beyond

Posted:
in Current Mac Hardware edited July 2015
Apple recently made a splash by announcing a new 12-inch MacBook that features a single port for both power and data transfers: USB-C, a new connector spec that may sweep away not just USB 2.0, but also Thunderbolt -- and possibly even Apple's Lightning.

The standard: USB 2.0 and its issues




It may be taken for granted now, but in the early 2000s, USB 2.0 was a major step forward. USB already existed, but v2.0 provided a common specification for transferring data at relatively high speeds, peaking at 480 Mbps, or about 60 MBps.

That's enough to support accessories like external hard drives or syncing a music collection to a smartphone or MP3 player. Powered USB 2.0 connections can also provide enough juice to run many external peripherals without a separate supply.

In recent years though, the format's limitations have become increasingly obvious. There are still many devices that USB 2.0 can't sufficiently power, and 480 Mbps has become frustratingly slow in an era when most storage is rated in gigabytes and terabytes, not megabytes. No serious video editor would work from a USB 2.0 drive unless they had to.

USB 2.0 also employs an infamous non-reversible Type-A connector. Many people complain that it's rare to properly plug in the connector on the first try.

Solutions: USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt




USB 3.0 has finally become a standard component on most Macs and Windows PCs, and provides one major upgrade: speed. The format tops out at 5 Gbps, which is more than 10 times as fast as its predecessor.

While USB 3.0 can be used across a variety of connector types, Apple's current Mac lineup and the overall PC market rely on the legacy, non-reversible USB Type-A connector for input.

For people demanding even more performance, there's Thunderbolt, a format co-developed by Apple and Intel. This merges PCIe, DisplayPort, and DC power channels together, with a maximum 10 Gbps for Thunderbolt 1-level devices and 20 Gbps for Thunderbolt 2. A third generation coming later this year will hit 40 Gbps, or a whopping 5 GBps.

And since Thunderbolt sports the same connector type as Mini DisplayPort, and it has enough power and bandwidth, Thunderbolt can additionally be used to connect one or more monitors and even daisy-chain up to six peripherals per port.

One might think this would be enough to help the format spread like wildfire, but in general, it hasn't caught on. It's used primarily by Apple computers, and relatively few Thunderbolt peripherals have been made. Most of those, naturally, are marketed toward Mac owners.

The next generation: USB-C




Enter USB Type-C, or USB-C for short, which promises to solve a variety of problems all at once.

Its definining trait is actually a smaller, rounded port accepting reversible connections. This should not only remove the clumsiness of USB but allow faster data transfers on ever-thinner devices, with Apple's new 12-inch MacBook being a leading example.
Though USB-C is backwards compatible, it's meant to be paired with USB 3.1, which is capable of 10 Gbps file transfers and can also supply power.
How fast? While USB-C can technically be paired with older, slower USB standards, it's really meant to be linked with USB 3.1, which scales from 5 to 10 Gbps. Accordingly, USB-C devices can blaze through tasks which were previously the domain of Thunderbolt.

This includes running 4K or quad-HD displays, due also in part to increased power throughput. Indeed USB-C can theoretically handle up to 100 W in either direction, which is why the new MacBook doesn't even need a MagSafe charging port.

Thunderbolt encapsulates DisplayPort, dedicating two 20 Mbps lanes towards displays. USB-C supports something called the "DisplayPort Alternate Mode," which allows native DisplayPort signals to be carried over one, two, or four lanes as needed, with the tradeoff that using all four lanes will reduce USB 3.1 functions to the 2.0 level, and that USB-C can't handle Dual-Mode Display Port, and hence passive (as opposed to active) DisplayPort adapters.

The takeaway is that a computer like the MacBook can use USB-C as its sole connection standard. Even full-scale desktops may eventually be lined exclusively with USB-C ports, jettisoning dedicated HDMI, DVI, and Ethernet ports as long as needed adapters are available.

Decisive factors

USB-C's core advantage may be its namesake universality. It is backwards compatible with legacy USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 out of the box, and will work with USB Type-A devices via an adapter. But more than that, it's guaranteed to have industry support.

Thunderbolt was an attempt to disrupt the industry, whereas USB is already omnipresent. In that sense the real obstacle to USB-C adoption is just the cost to device makers (and hence shoppers), but that's bound to shrink as more OEMs come on board.

Thunderbolt won't vanish completely, or at least overnight. Some professionals need 20 or 40 Gbps speeds, and USB still doesn't natively support RAID or TRIM, which are essential to more complex storage setups (connecting a RAID drive via USB requires a controller card, for instance). For the average person however, Thunderbolt may no longer be much of a selling point, something even Apple appears to have acknowledged with the MacBook.

What's interesting to consider is whether USB-C might replace Lightning, the Apple format used exclusively for iOS devices. Fundamentally Lightning is based on USB 2.0, and doesn't offer much of a difference beyond a compact, reversible head -- something USB-C could easily replace.

If Apple did make the switch, there would be number of concerns. Lighting's authentication chips are used to block unlicensed cables and accessories, and abandoning them would hurt Apple's accessory sales, or at least the company's control of the accessory ecosystem. It would also be important to manage power consumption to preserve battery life, and many iPhone and iPad owners would probably be upset by having some of their accessories rendered obsolete once again.

Apple might also just choose to upgrade Lightning with USB 3.0/3.1 compatibility. But in the Mac world USB-C seems destined to spread, and it might not be surprising to see more Macs in the near future without Thunderbolt.

Update: The MacBook actually uses an early iteration of USB 3.1, capped at 5 Gbps. The article has been updated to reflect that fact.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 154
    wood1208wood1208 Posts: 2,009member
    If Apple and/or other gadget,laptop manufacturers are planning to standardize on USB-Type C connector than they should add at-least 2 USB-C rather than 1 connector as provided in new Macbook announced by Apple. Because now one connector carries burden of power and connectivity so when one connector overused and go bad than whole laptop,gadget go useless, unusable until spend much to get it fixed.
  • Reply 2 of 154
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by wood1208 View Post



    If Apple and/or other gadget,laptop manufacturers are planning to standardize on USB-Type C connector than they should add at-least 2 USB-C rather than 1 connector as provided in new Macbook announced by Apple. Because now one connector carries burden of power and connectivity so when one connector overused and go bad than whole laptop,gadget go useless, unusable until spend much to get it fixed.



    It won't cost much to replace. The part is modular, not attached to the logic board; you can tell Apple was considering replacements.

     

     

    And the MacBook (and Chromebook Pixel) do not use true USB 3.1. The USB forum, intellectually bankrupt people that they are, have rebranded USB 3.0 as USB 3.1 5Gbps, which is what Apple is calling Gen 1. Gen 2 will be true USB 3.1.

  • Reply 3 of 154
    zroger73zroger73 Posts: 722member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post



    USB 2.0 also employs an infamous non-reversible Type-A connector. Many people complain that it's rare to properly plug in the connector on the first try.

     

    "Rare"? I think not. In a worst-case scenario, you have a 50% chance of getting it right. I wouldn't call a 50% chance "rare".

     

    That's like saying I drive my car half of the time and my wife drives my car the other half of the time and claiming that I rarely drive my car.

  • Reply 4 of 154
    What about isochronus communication? Is USB C still stuck to USB communication overheads that stall sustained throughput? Then it can't replace thunderbolt (or FireWire via TB) any time soon, even if it claims a 10Gbps theoretical bandwidth. Most people can do without RAID and TRIM, but try backing up a hard drive over USB and you will know what iam talking about.
  • Reply 5 of 154
    mstonemstone Posts: 11,510member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by zroger73 View Post

     

     

    "Rare"? I think not. In a worst-case scenario, you have a 50% chance of getting it right. I wouldn't call a 50% chance "rare".




    True but for those of us who know what to look for it is easy to get it right...that is, unless the ports are on the back of the computer and you can't see them. Then even 50% of the time is annoying.

  • Reply 6 of 154
    consider this %u2013 you want to connect a 4K monitor to a KVM switcher, it's very difficult to find anything above display port 1.1 and you need display port 1.2 or 3 even to have a fighting chance and few switchers come with anything higher than a series of USB2 connectors.So ATM you can't find a suitable Display port connector let alone Thunderbolt connector and precious little in the way of USB3 and now we have "good news everybody we are changing everything so the cable manufactures and hardware manufacturers can make a killing". Look forward to adding my Thunderbolt and USB3 cables to my big dusty box of USB2 (A and B), Firewire400 and 800, (full size and mini), Magsafe type1, and iPhone first gen cables. P.S. does anyone want a serial to USB cable converter for a Wacom v1 A2, I'll throw in a SCSI card for free !
  • Reply 7 of 154
    zroger73zroger73 Posts: 722member
    Quote:



    Originally Posted by mstone View Post

     



    True but for those of us who know what to look for it is easy to get it right...that is, unless the ports are on the back of the computer and you can't see them. Then even 50% of the time is annoying.


    If you can't see it, then you still have a 50% chance of getting it right and a 50% chance of getting wrong. This isn't "rare".

  • Reply 8 of 154
    hattighattig Posts: 830member
    Note that USB 3.1 comes in two forms.

    USB 3.1 Rev 1, which is the old 5 mbps USB 3.0 rebranded.
    USB 3.2 Rev 2, which is the new 10 mbps standard that we think of when we hear "USB 3.1".

    You can guess which revision is used on the MacBook and the new Chromebook.

    In addition, I think that two Type C ports would have been a no-brainer, for the flexibility that it gives.
  • Reply 9 of 154
    hattighattig Posts: 830member
    Quote:



    Originally Posted by crushed View Post



    What about isochronus communication? Is USB C still stuck to USB communication overheads that stall sustained throughput? Then it can't replace thunderbolt (or FireWire via TB) any time soon, even if it claims a 10Gbps theoretical bandwidth. Most people can do without RAID and TRIM, but try backing up a hard drive over USB and you will know what iam talking about.

     

    USB 3 contains separate input and output data pairs, if that's what you are talking about. I believe it also dumps the old hub USB hub "broadcast to all devices on the bus" mechanism in favour of active USB switches or similar that route more intelligently.

  • Reply 10 of 154
    nolamacguynolamacguy Posts: 4,758member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by zroger73 View Post

     

     

    "Rare"? I think not. In a worst-case scenario, you have a 50% chance of getting it right. I wouldn't call a 50% chance "rare".

     

    That's like saying I drive my car half of the time and my wife drives my car the other half of the time and claiming that I rarely drive my car.


     

    the problem is, w/ current USB the change of getting it right/wrong is not 50% -- it often takes me 3 attempts to get it right. how can that be possible since it implies one attempt was the correct orientation? dunno, but it is...and im not alone -- people often joke about it taking three attempts. its just a poor plug design.

  • Reply 11 of 154
    If they had put two of these on the MacBook that would have been much better
  • Reply 12 of 154
    mstonemstone Posts: 11,510member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by zroger73 View Post

     

    If you can't see it, then you still have a 50% chance of getting it right and a 50% chance of getting wrong. This isn't "rare".


    I didn't say rare, I said annoying and it is probably worse than 50% in some cases, such as the new iMac. When trying to discern which port is which just by feel, it is difficult to distinguish between the Thunderbolt and the USB ports. I have a new Asus all-in-one that has one USB on the edge, which makes sense. Of course it is a couple millimeters thicker than my iMac. The old Mac Pro design is fantastic with 2 USB, Firewire 400, 800 and audio out ports right in front.

  • Reply 13 of 154
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Hattig View Post



    Note that USB 3.1 comes in two forms.



    USB 3.1 Rev 1, which is the old 5 mbps USB 3.0 rebranded.

    USB 3.2 Rev 2, which is the new 10 mbps standard that we think of when we hear "USB 3.1".



    You can guess which revision is used on the MacBook and the new Chromebook.



    In addition, I think that two Type C ports would have been a no-brainer, for the flexibility that it gives.

     

     

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Captain J View Post



    If they had put two of these on the MacBook that would have been much better



    And you would have had just as many complaints (probably more) about Apple not including a 3.5mm jack for audio.

  • Reply 14 of 154
    prolineproline Posts: 194member
    The media should be pressing Apple for an answer at every available opportunity as to whether Apple is committed to lighting for the future or not. When Apple released lighting in 2012 they said they'd be using it long-term, and people are making buying decisions based on that. If that is a lie, Apple needs to come clean ASAP.

    Again, there's nothing wrong with switching connectors, especially when USB-C may well be better overall and certainly more standard, and I understand Apple may not have known that USB-C would actually come to market when they made lightning. Apple also is under no obligation to release future plans in general. However, knowingly allowing false statements about the future that they voluntarily made to stand after Apple becomes aware that they are untrue would be wrong if that is in fact happening. It's the media's job to find out.
  • Reply 15 of 154
    john.bjohn.b Posts: 2,721member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by zroger73 View Post

     
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post



    USB 2.0 also employs an infamous non-reversible Type-A connector. Many people complain that it's rare to properly plug in the connector on the first try.

     

    "Rare"? I think not. In a worst-case scenario, you have a 50% chance of getting it right. I wouldn't call a 50% chance "rare".


     

    Plug in a USB A connector, it doesn't fit.

    Flip the plug over and try again, it still doesn't fit.

    Flip it back over and realize you had it right the first time.

     

    That's the real world scenario most people are discussing.  But thanks anyway for being pedantic...  SMH

  • Reply 16 of 154
    prolineproline Posts: 194member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by zroger73 View Post

     

     

    "Rare"? I think not. In a worst-case scenario, you have a 50% chance of getting it right. I wouldn't call a 50% chance "rare".

     

    That's like saying I drive my car half of the time and my wife drives my car the other half of the time and claiming that I rarely drive my car.




    Unfortunately your 50% guess is not true. That implies the user randomly tries an orientation, but in fact animals are incapable of a truly random act. In reality, the user likely looks at the device end, as it is easily visible and well lit, but not the machine end, as it is often difficult to get your head in front of, and makes a guess based as to which was is up and which way is down based on their intuition and the various design clues they see peering into the cable end. If the plug is designed without a good grasp of what clues people use to form their intuition, as is the case with USB, it is possible for the user to guess right far, far, less than 50%.

  • Reply 17 of 154
    canukstormcanukstorm Posts: 1,970member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by TheWhiteFalcon View Post

     

     

     



    And you would have had just as many complaints (probably more) about Apple not including a 3.5mm jack for audio.


    You make a good point and at the end of the day it's all about trade-offs. But I don't think I'm alone in saying that I'd rather Apple forego the 3.5mm audio jack and have 2 Type-C ports instead.  That extra Type-C port would come in more handy vs a 3.5mm audio jack.  Bluetooth headphones are dime a dozen these days.

  • Reply 18 of 154
    slurpyslurpy Posts: 5,179member
    captain j wrote: »
    If they had put two of these on the MacBook that would have been much better

    And 4 would have been even "better". I'm sure Apple considered the option, but this what the product they wanted to make. I respect them for it, because it takes guts to do that. Including more "stuff" in any product in order to appease more people is always the safer, easier way, but it also compromises the products primary vision. This is basically an iPad with a real keyboard and OSX, a product many have longed for. For those that don't want that, Apple sells many other laptops.
  • Reply 19 of 154
    slurpy wrote: »
    And 4 would have been even "better". I'm sure Apple considered the option, but this what the product they wanted to make. I respect them for it, because it takes guts to do that. Including more "stuff" in any product in order to appease more people is always the safer, easier way, but it also compromises the products primary vision. This is basically an iPad with a real keyboard and OSX, a product many have longed for. For those that don't want that, Apple sells many other laptops.

    Actually no. Two would have been ideal as one could charge the device and have another device connected. You could be charging and hook up a display. Having no available putts whole charging is what bothers me
  • Reply 20 of 154
    bloggerblogbloggerblog Posts: 1,871member

    Obviously MacBook is not for pros, it's for coffeeshop dwellers.

    I am disappointed for the lack of MagSafe. Yes USB-C now handles power as well as data, but the whole premise of MagSafe was to avoid disaster should someone trip over your cord, which was very good selling point.

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