Inside Apple's 2016 MacBook Pro: USB-C and Thunderbolt 3

Posted:
in Future Apple Hardware edited August 2016
With Apple's new MacBook Pro expected in the coming months, AppleInsider takes a look at technologies expected to be updated, or removed, from the new portable. In many ways, one of the key changes could be the anticipated embrace of new, smaller USB-C ports with high-speed USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3 data connectivity.




The long-term lack of revision of the MacBook Pro has resulted in Apple falling behind somewhat in data transfer technologies. Two updated standards that the new computer should see are Thunderbolt 3, and USB 3.1 type C.

While Apple has used older versions of both in previous, or other, models, there are recent advances in both protocols that need to be examined.

Understanding the present and predicting the future needs an examination of the past.

A brief history of USB

Prior to the development of the Universal Serial Bus, several connector standards were prevalent in the marketplace. Four different common serial port connectors existed, with some adaptable to each other, and some not.

PS/2 ports, an outgrowth of the serial port, were used for keyboards and mice on Windows computers and on some Macintosh clones, with Apple using its own Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) for user input. Higher speed connections were provided through generations of the Windows-centric parallel port, various flavors of Small Computer System Interface (SCSI) with attendant revisions, and later, FireWire.

The Universal Serial Bus protocol was revealed in January 1996, and was intended to be a standard port providing ample power for devices to run without external power, as well as data transfers at up to 1.5 megabits per second in "low speed" and later 12 megabits per second in "high speed" with USB 1.1. It was during the release that the conventional Type A USB cable end for plugging into a host device, and Type B connectors for peripheral use were introduced.

USB didn't get wide industry support for years -- not until Steve Jobs revealed the original iMac with USB 1.1.




The USB 2.0 specification was published in April 2000, upping data transfer speeds to 480 megabits per second. USB 3.0 was launched in 2008, with the new "SuperSpeed" mode providing peak connections of up to a potential 5 gigabits per second.

Each iteration of USB brought with it improvements to how power was delivered, ultimately leading to USB power being used without data to charge many devices today.

The modern USB-C connector

In 2013, the USB Implementers Forum revealed USB 3.1, which doubled connection speeds to 10 gigabits per second with a new "SuperSpeed+" transfer mode and a slightly modified Type B peripheral connector. Shortly after announcement of the USB 3.1 speed boost, came a new connector with the potential for a symmetrical single cable to provide power not just to peripherals, but host device power as well -- USB-C.

After the USB-C reveal, naming conventions got shuffled around. USB 3.0 connections with 5 gigabits per second data transfer implementing the USB-C connector and associated power delivery benefits were called "USB 3.1 Gen 1." Later full USB 3.1 uses with the USB-C connector are sometimes called Gen 2, but more commonly "USB 3.1 type C."

Apple's first device with the USB-C connector was the 2015 rebirth of the MacBook. It used a single USB 3.1 Gen 1 connector, with speed limited to 5 gigabits per second. Since the 2015 MacBook, USB-C in both the slower speed Generation 1 and the full 10 gigabit per second Generation 2 implementations are prevalent in the marketplace.

At present, there are some sporadic controller chip incompatibility issues with USB 3.1 like there were in the early part of the century with USB 2.0 that ultimately took some time to work out.

Enter Thunderbolt

The modern Thunderbolt connector was developed by a consortium of companies, including Apple and Intel, as "Light Peak." Like USB, Thunderbolt provides device power, with early versions of Thunderbolt providing more power than USB did at the time.

Thunderbolt take a different approach to data transfer, and in many ways is more like Apple and Texas Instruments' legacy FireWire connector than USB. Further reinforcing the similarity, there are Thunderbolt to FireWire and Thunderbolt to USB 3.0 adapters, but not USB 3.0 to FireWire or USB 3.0 to Thunderbolt connectors.

Where USB uses a hub and spoke topography for multiple devices, Thunderbolt uses a chain, up to seven devices deep. Thunderbolt has always contained the DisplayPort protocol, meaning a Mini DisplayPort monitor can be plugged into a Thunderbolt chain of devices with no additional chipset needed to translate the signal to video.

Thunderbolt originally provided speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second per channel, with two channels available, limiting speeds to 10 gigabits per second on any given device. In 2013, Thunderbolt 2 launched, and provided up to 20 gigabits per second total -- the same as the original Thunderbolt, but the pooled maximum data speeds made the newer version more flexible overall with multiple chained devices.




The latest incarnation, Thunderbolt 3, has two discrete speeds. Using "active" cables, or cables with transceiver chips embedded in them for negotiation, peak speeds can reach 40 gigabits per second.

Thunderbolt 3 can also use "passive" cables without transceivers, cutting the downstream speed to one channel at 10 gigabits per second.

Unification theory

In 2015, the The USB group, and the assortment of companies controlling Thunderbolt, unified behind one physical connector. Much the same way that a Mini DisplayPort connector isn't equivalent to Thunderbolt but can be used in a Thunderbolt chain, USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3 use the same physical connector.

The best way to think about it is to consider Thunderbolt 3 as the "master" cable, which contains other protocols. The initial Thunderbolt 3 supports HDMI 2.0 and DisplayPort 1.2 protocols for 60Hz 4K support, and can supply a total of 100 watts of power to downstream devices.

Older Thunderbolt peripherals are compatible with Thunderbolt 3 with the use of adapters, but they will have to be located at the end of a Thunderbolt peripheral chain.

Additionally, since the USB-C protocol can be contained in Thunderbolt 3, cables inserted into a Thunderbolt port will function normally, with the same topographical considerations for peripherals that USB demands, such as using a hub to extend connectivity.




The converse is not true. While a Thunderbolt peripheral can be physically plugged into a dedicated USB-C port, it will not function.

Thunderbolt 3 does not yet have native CPU support on any currently shipping processor, but it is coming on the recently released Intel "Kaby Lake" processor family. However, "Kaby Lake" processors aimed at a high end portable workstation like the MacBook Pro aren't expected to appear until the end of 2016 or the start of 2017.

So, any Thunderbolt 3 support would need to be from a bridging chipset -- above and beyond native processor support -- that could be omitted when Apple ultimately supports "Kaby Lake."

Apple's future portable Mac line, and the USB-C/Thunderbolt connector

If rumors are to be believed, the new MacBook Pro refresh that has been expected for some time will have at the least USB-C, and probably Thunderbolt 3. Thunderbolt 3 is a faster port than USB-C, can still provide device power. Plus, given the one-way nature of the Thunderbolt 3 to USB-C relationship, we hope that all the ports on the new model will be Thunderbolt 3, to eliminate consumer confusion.

The 15-inch MacBook Pro last updated in 2015 has two Thunderbolt 2 ports on the left side of the case, and single USB 3.0 Type A standard rectangular connectors on both the left and the right. There is an Apple-specific MagSafe 2 connector and analog audio dual-purpose jack on the left. The right has a HDMI port, and a SD card slot. Digital data ports for cables come to a total of five, including HDMI, but not including the analog audio port, and the SD card slot.




Existing suspected case leaks suggest that there are a pair of ports utilizing the common USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 connector on both the left and right side of the cases, plus an unknown circular port on the right, which is probably not MagSafe. Presumably, power to the MacBook Pro will be provided through one of the Thunderbolt ports, with MagSafe a thing of the past.

The dongle game, revisited

Apple's minimal design aesthetic has helped and hurt users simultaneously.

Some migrations, such as the removal of the floppy drive at the same time that USB 1.1 was added to the Apple product line, have ultimately advanced the industry. Some, like the Apple Display Connector, have not.

Thunderbolt 3 is an amazingly flexible core connector, which for the first time, brings every connectivity need including computer power to a single form factor -- but for a price.

Anybody who's used any form of Apple portable since the Powerbook 100 is familiar with the need to have specific adapters for connectivity. Twenty five years spanning SCSI adapters, AAUI networking connectors, HDI-45 video dongles, USB to ADB connectors, and now an assortment of Thunderbolt pigtails should give us all some kind of indication that Apple continues to pursue the "one port to rule them all" concept, and Thunderbolt 3 gives Apple a way to finally execute that vision for macOS.
repressthis
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 58
    mytdavemytdave Posts: 434member
    I could see and would be okay with a MacBook Pro with no connectors but Thunderbolt 3, if, that's a big if, if there were enough of them (min. of 4), and Apple included the following adapters in each box: Gigabit Ethernet; USB type-A; Audio; Leave the SD card slot in place too (it's a card slot, not a port).
    edited August 2016 xiamenbill
  • Reply 2 of 58
    emoelleremoeller Posts: 431member
    great article clarifying a confusing subject...thanks

    I think that Apple has been delaying hardware due to Intel's delays in processors.  As such it would be a shame to see a new MacBook Pro (or Mac Pro) come out this fall without Kaby Lake processors.   The reports out yesterday indicate that Kaby Lake variants for Apple wouldn't be out until very late this year or early next (  http://www.macrumors.com/2016/08/16/first-kaby-lake-computers-coming-this-fall/ ). 

    repressthisbaconstangchasmrezwits
  • Reply 3 of 58
    I don't think it is the Intel processors delaying new Macs, but rather the infancy of USB 3.1 gen2 and Thunderbolt 3.

    Sure, Thunderbolt 3 computers with 6th generation Skylake processors have been shipping since Fall 2015, but there don't seem to be many peripherals shipping. There definitely appears to be a problem getting robust, reliable peripherals and cables that can operate at these phenomenal new speeds. Yess, those computers also shipped with USB 3.1 gen2 and Thunderbolt 3 connectivity via Type-C connectors, but where are the real peripheral products?


    patchythepirate
  • Reply 4 of 58
    SoliSoli Posts: 8,680member
    I wonder if we're going to see Apple do another port inf efface cleansing, like when they adopted USB across the board with the original iMac. IOW, you get a bunch of USB-C ports and a Lightning port.

    I don't mind that MagSafe may go away now that we have all-day battery life in these machines. I like that I'play be able to charge my Mac whilst driving, without the use of a seperate inventor. Let's be honest, it's less of a problem that in use to be with those deep power ports, and the technology needed to effectively have the same size MagSafe with data going through it over optical to avoid EM interference just isn't feasible.

    Ideally, for me, I'd like to have MagSafe and 2x USB-A on the next MBP, for the next couple years, but my viewpoint is focused on what I'll be doing with the machine for the next couple years, which means is about as narrow minded as yo can get when compared to what Apple needs for plan for with the future of the Mac lineup.
    repressthis
  • Reply 5 of 58
    entropysentropys Posts: 1,619member
    Please let them be insanely great.
    repressthislamboaudi4
  • Reply 6 of 58
    appexappex Posts: 687member
    Bring SDXC with extra pins, supporting maximum read/write speeds (300 MB/s).
  • Reply 7 of 58
    paxmanpaxman Posts: 4,594member
    Lets face it - progress can be a pain in the butt. 

    I remember an interview with Jerry Yang when Yahoo was still going strong. The interviewer noticed he was running Windows 95 - now many years out of date and questioned why Jerry Yang of all people still ran an old OS. The reply was that "Upgrading is a pain".  Its still true - more so when it comes to hw than sw, perhaps.
  • Reply 8 of 58
    So, no serial port then.
    sphericpalegolas
  • Reply 9 of 58
    volcanvolcan Posts: 1,770member
    paxman said:
    The reply was that "Upgrading is a pain".  Its still true - more so when it comes to hw than sw, perhaps.
    I just upgraded an old Mac Pro 1,1 and it was a week long undertaking, but the end result is fantastic.

    Patched the boot loader so I am now running Yosemite.
    Replaced the 2 Xeons with new 3.0 GHz total of 8 cores
    Upgraded the graphics card GT 630
    Added USB 3.0 card
    Added Black Magic capture card with HDMI
    Upgraded to 32 GB of RAM
    New SSD 900 GB
    New 2 TB HD
    Too bad I can't add Thunderbolt, but I suppose I can live without that I guess. I also have an iMac 5K so if I need something newer I'm covered, but I really love my old aluminum tower. The upgrade really breathes new life into it.

    Probably get another couple years out of it using a 30" Cinema. It is plenty fast for editing HD video now.

    edited August 2016 mylesgrepressthisfastasleeptallguyxzu
  • Reply 10 of 58
    sockrolidsockrolid Posts: 2,788member
    Get ready for gold-plated-connector USB-C Monster Cables.
    At their standard sucker price, whatever that is now.
    edited August 2016 repressthis
  • Reply 11 of 58
    palegolaspalegolas Posts: 1,274member
    So basically no new mbp until holiday/ January -ish? Or it'll be like MacBook Pro USB-C now, and MacBook Pro TB3 in January... It just doesn't sound right. Perhaps an early announcement, like with the Mac Pro, is the right thing to do this time?
    repressthistallguy
  • Reply 12 of 58
    entropysentropys Posts: 1,619member
    Given the kabylake timetable, an MBA ASAP with u series kabylake chips so it can have full thunderbolt 3 performance would be highly desirable, letting MBP be upgraded early next year when chips for them become available.

    But no, consumer level must buy more expensive and m series powered rMB.

    never mind, dell XPS will have full TB3 well before Christmas.

    repressthis
  • Reply 13 of 58
    You're not improving matters by consolidating 5 ports into 1. All you're doing is dumping the accessories onto the user. In short, until they have secure wireless with high speed rates that connect peripherals to this `hub' being your computer that 1 port to rule them all means very little.
    baconstang
  • Reply 14 of 58
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 4,343administrator
    entropys said:
    Given the kabylake timetable, an MBA ASAP with u series kabylake chips so it can have full thunderbolt 3 performance would be highly desirable, letting MBP be upgraded early next year when chips for them become available.

    But no, consumer level must buy more expensive and m series powered rMB.

    never mind, dell XPS will have full TB3 well before Christmas.

    Full TB3 is possible now, it just needs an additional chipset. The question is, what processor will we see, and when.

    We're going to delve into that later in the series.
    repressthismac fan
  • Reply 15 of 58
    anomeanome Posts: 1,258member
    command_f said:
    So, no serial port then.


    Didn't you read the article? There were 4 of them.

    Or did you mean RS-232 DE 9 connectors? Or RS 422 DIN 8? Because neither of those has been on a Mac for some time.

    repressthis
  • Reply 16 of 58
    k2kwk2kw Posts: 1,698member
    palegolas said:
    So basically no new mbp until holiday/ January -ish? Or it'll be like MacBook Pro USB-C now, and MacBook Pro TB3 in January... It just doesn't sound right. Perhaps an early announcement, like with the Mac Pro, is the right thing to do this time?
    We are probably waiting for them to finish the MacOS changes for the OLED touchscreen on the keyboard which will increase the price $200.(We will also get the touchID button).   I wonder where the finger prints will be stored.   I don't think there is a secure enclave on intel chips (unless Intel is putting that into KabyLake for Apple)


    repressthis
  • Reply 17 of 58
    k2kwk2kw Posts: 1,698member
    I'm looking forward to seeing USB-C everywhere, but I have to ask why apple doesn't drop the lightning port from the iPhone and iPad to replace it with USB type C.
    It can handle faster charging, higher data speeds, and audio.
    cropr
  • Reply 18 of 58
    Seriously no SD card port? 
    I liked Tim Cook at first but now all I see is him killing Mac OS. First the Mac Pro died in the garbage can, now he is sending the MacBook Pros to their demise. No longer is Apple for professionals. 
    tallguymr squid
  • Reply 19 of 58
    SoliSoli Posts: 8,680member
    Seriously no SD card port? 
    I liked Tim Cook at first but now all I see is him killing Mac OS. First the Mac Pro died in the garbage can, now he is sending the MacBook Pros to their demise. No longer is Apple for professionals. 
    1) You're against Tim Cook because of a rumor about SD cards?

    2) So if Tim Cook didn't release an updated Mac Pro you'd have been happier with the old model still chugging along? You know how long that languished under Jobs, right? It's a low volume seller so it's not going to get the most attention, and then you have Intel who continually have pushing back releases and slowing their progress.

    3) I see no indication that I'll have to stop using macOS or a MacBook Pro, but that's probably because I'm using these tools every day and I've experienced the advancments they've made every year to macOS and nearly every year to the MBP.
    edited August 2016 stevehrepressthiskevin keefastasleeproundaboutnownolamacguyTomE
  • Reply 20 of 58
    mac_128mac_128 Posts: 3,399member
    mytdave said:
    I could see and would be okay with a MacBook Pro with no connectors but Thunderbolt 3, if, that's a big if, if there were enough of them (min. of 4), and Apple included the following adapters in each box: Gigabit Ethernet; USB type-A; Audio; Leave the SD card slot in place too (it's a card slot, not a port).
    It's likely to have a 3.5mm headphone jack. I can't imagine what else that round opening in the "leaked" case would be, especially since it's in the same place as the headphone jack on the rMB. And if Apple does remove the headphone hack on the iPhone, they sell too many laptops to people who don't use iPhones to drop it from the Macs that have room for it.

    But I do expect them to add a Lightning port where the MagSafe was. MagSafe is all but useless on the MBA now, as it often pulls the computer off the table before it detaches. Lightning on the other hand offers lots of options -- in addition to being the de facto headphone jack in the future for new iPhone customers with Lightning equipped headphone jacks, it also offers an optional charging port leaving the USB-C ports free, and an optional data port (which has more relevance on a Retina MacBook), which could be used with Lightning dongles, keeping the USB-C ports free.
    repressthistallguy
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