Examined: Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.1 gen 2 on the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar

Posted:
in Current Mac Hardware edited October 2016
While everybody expected USB-C connectors on the new MacBook Pro, all four ports being Thunderbolt 3 wasn't. AppleInsider explains the differences between USB-C, USB 3.1 gen 2, and Thunderbolt 3, and examines Apple's latest implementation of the technologies.




The three terms associated with external device input and charging on the new MacBook Pro are being bandied about on the internet and social media, with a general lack of understanding. Couple that with a lack of user education, and you'd think that Apple omitting the USB type-A connector on the new machine is the end of the world, dooming all legacy peripherals to the trash heap, or similarly dramatic histrionics.

USB 3.0, USB 3.1, and the USB-C connector

In 2013, the USB Implementers Forum revealed the USB 3.1 connectivity specification, which doubled connection speeds of the older USB 3.0 to 10 gigabits per second with a new "SuperSpeed+" transfer mode and a slightly modified Type B peripheral connector.
This hurts now, but like other adapter crises before it drawing the ire of users, will pass in time.
Shortly after announcement of the USB 3.1 speed boost, the same group announced a new physical connector with the potential for a symmetrical single cable to provide power not just to peripherals, but host device power as well --USB-C.

Confusing the matter somewhat, are early adoptions of USB 3.1. The first release, as seen on the MacBook from 2015 is USB 3.1 generation 1, limited to 5 megabits per second, but including some improvements from the USB 3.1 protocol, including the ability to use the USB-C physical connector.

USB 3.1 and USB-C are not synonymous terms.

Thunderbolt 3... using the USB-C connector

Thunderbolt take a different approach to data transfer, and in many ways is more like Apple and Texas Instruments' legacy FireWire connector than USB. The latest version of Thunderbolt is capable of 40 gigabits per second of transfer speed, per Thunderbolt controller chip -- more on this a bit later.

In 2015, the The USB group, and the assortment of companies controlling Thunderbolt, unified behind one physical connector -- the USB-C connector. The best way to think about it is to consider Thunderbolt 3 as the "master" cable, which contains the USB 3.1 generation 2 protocol for data transfer and power delivery, plus HDMI and DisplayPort 1.2 standards for support of 4K and 5K displays.

The new MacBook Pro, and Thunderbolt

Lower-end configurations of the new MacBook Pro have a pair of Thunderbolt 3 ports. Apple has noted that the dual-Thunderbolt model will support either a pair of 4K monitors or a single 5K monitor.

Similarly, the four-port Thunderbolt 3 model can drive a pair of 5K monitors, or four 4K monitors. A single Thunderbolt 3 controller only has sufficient bandwidth for a single 5K monitor, so Apple has implemented a pair of Thunderbolt 3 controllers in this configuration for the feature -- and just isn't trumpeting that fact.

Thunderbolt 3, 5K, and the MacBook Pro

Most 4K monitors require a single DisplayPort cable for operation, and 5K monitors, generally need two -- but the LG 5K display only has one cable.

The single cable connecting the MacBook Pro to the LG 5K display at the "hello again" release event has generated confusion surrounding the connection. Speculation arose that the LG was using some custom protocol because of the single cable, and that the MacBook Pro would only be able to run certain 5K displays as a result -- which is bogus.




The answer is simpler. The connecting cable is Thunderbolt and is carrying a pair of DisplayPort signals, and not a DisplayPort cable. To use other (rare) 5K displays, both Thunderbolt 3 ports on a side will need to be used as DisplayPort connectors, the same as with the 2015 MacBook Pro.

The future is the USB-C connector, regardless of communication protocol

While Phil Schiller wisely avoided the use of "courage" to explain the shift to the USB-C port, the writing has been on the wall for some time that this is the way the industry is going.

USB 3.1 generation 2 is twice as fast as USB 3.0. The physical connector associated with USB 3.1, USB-C, is symmetrical across the horizontal axis, so no cable end-flipping is necessary to plug in the connector.

Thunderbolt 3 is twice as fast as Thunderbolt 2, and uses the same physical connector. Since the connectors are shared, and Thunderbolt 3 contains USB 3.1 generation 2, users can plug in a USB 3.1 Generation 2 Type-C connector and get the same connectivity as always.




Plus, the faster speed allows for a single Thunderbolt 3 cable to extend to a dock or hub, and provide data and not have any problems with being bandwidth-starved on the tail-end of the chain.

When USB hit the scene, the entire computer industry was wracked with adapters, and dongles, USB to ADB, USB to Parallel just to name two. That period of adapters being common is over, but computer users have always needed some level of specific cabling, cable adapters, or dongles to connect from point A to point B.

This hurts now, but like other adapter crises before it drawing the ire of users, will pass in time. USB-C has begun its march with Apple not being the only flag-bearer, and will become the ubiquitous computer connector -- until the next one, where we will do it all again, and again vent on whatever has replaced Facebook or Twitter as our venues of choice.

To grab the lowest prices on Apple's new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, see AppleInsider's Mac Price Guide.
«134

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 61
    calicali Posts: 3,495member
    Is Apple having a port identity crisis? Also notice these have headphone jacks. Aren't headphone jacks, like function keys, outdated technology?

    Shouldn't Apple be pushing Lightning 2.0? Are problems arising with USB-C? What the hell is going on?
  • Reply 2 of 61
    I don't see what the problem is myself. I ordered a USB-C to USB-A adapter with my MacBook Pro but I've just been looking at replacement cables for the 3 things that I actually connect to my Mac. I can easily just buy a printer cable, external hard drive cable and perhaps a Lightning cable that all have USB-C connectivity, therefore eliminating the need to use adapters. I'll still keep the adapter that I've purchased as a just in case backup, but replacing your existing cables is far easier than shelling out on a bunch of adapters and will look much neater (if you're a bit OCD about such things like me!).
    iphonenickrob53stevehpulseimagespolymnialondorjony0
  • Reply 3 of 61
    cali said:
    Is Apple having a port identity crisis? Also notice these have headphone jacks. Aren't headphone jacks, like function keys, outdated technology?

    Shouldn't Apple be pushing Lightning 2.0? Are problems arising with USB-C? What the hell is going on?
    I think the lack of headphone jacks in the iP7 has more to do with improving the water resistance* and adding space for other components rather than any identity port crisis.

    *most water resistant android phones with the jack still leak pretty badly.
    iphonenickstevehpulseimagesjahajanolamacguybaconstanglondorwatto_cobrajony0
  • Reply 4 of 61
    YardbirdYardbird Posts: 1unconfirmed, member
    USB-C with Thunderbolt 2 is the way to go. Can't imagine that any upgrades needed for the foreseeable future.
    jahaja
  • Reply 5 of 61
    Rayz2016Rayz2016 Posts: 4,569member
    cali said:
    Is Apple having a port identity crisis? Also notice these have headphone jacks. Aren't headphone jacks, like function keys, outdated technology?

    Shouldn't Apple be pushing Lightning 2.0? Are problems arising with USB-C? What the hell is going on?

    Yes Apple thinks that headphones are outdated technology, but they would have left one on the iPhone if there was room for it and if it didn't compromise the waterproofing. Fortunately the Mac has more space, and is never going to be water resistant, so it gets to stay there's no room.

    They could have put a lightning connector on the MacBook, but I guess they thought that a lot of professional musicians will be less than happy to give up their favourite headphones, and anyone with a set of lightning headphones from their iPhone7 already has an adapter.  
    pulseimagesnolamacguybaconstangpscooter63williamlondonuraharawatto_cobrajony0
  • Reply 6 of 61
    I understand the difficulty with buying adapters (and having them clutter your workspace), not to mention the cost. That alone will probably prevent me from buying a Mac with only USB-C/TB3 ports for a few years. I'm in the nonprofit world, and unless I really need the power that the new MacBook Pros provide, it would not be a good use of funds to buy a new MacBook Pro that also required extra money to get new adapters, peripherals, or both.

    However...

    If Apple is committed to the form factor of USB-C/TB3 (so that for at least 5 years, Macs will use that same form factor), I think it's a good move. I will miss the MagSafe plug, but I would like it if I had four ports that would all fit my flash drive (yep, still use one occasionally), power cord, external hard drive, external monitor etc. Of course, it's a pain when old peripherals require an adapter (such as the move to lightning port), but if Apple sticks with it, it really will make things easier in the years to come.

    If they abandon it after only a few years, however, then I'll be angry.
    pulseimagesrezwitsbaconstangrandominternetpersonflashfan207watto_cobraaylk
  • Reply 7 of 61
    calicali Posts: 3,495member
    mknelson said:
    cali said:
    Is Apple having a port identity crisis? Also notice these have headphone jacks. Aren't headphone jacks, like function keys, outdated technology?

    Shouldn't Apple be pushing Lightning 2.0? Are problems arising with USB-C? What the hell is going on?
    I think the lack of headphone jacks in the iP7 has more to do with improving the water resistance* and adding space for other components rather than any identity port crisis.

    *most water resistant android phones with the jack still leak pretty badly.
    That's not what Apple said. They said the jack was outdated and wireless was the future. Were they lying?

    water resistant androids are crap I know that.
  • Reply 8 of 61
    While all this sounds convincing in regard to traditional ports, where is the new memory card standard with USB-C connector? And yes: of course I can connect my camera via USB cable, and of course I can have one more adapter and/or card reader with me. But every photog knows that there is (/was) nothing faster and more convenient than just sticking the SD card into the macbook.
    baconstang
  • Reply 9 of 61
    calicali Posts: 3,495member
    Rayz2016 said:
    cali said:
    Is Apple having a port identity crisis? Also notice these have headphone jacks. Aren't headphone jacks, like function keys, outdated technology?

    Shouldn't Apple be pushing Lightning 2.0? Are problems arising with USB-C? What the hell is going on?

    Yes Apple thinks that headphones are outdated technology, but they would have left one on the iPhone if there was room for it and if it didn't compromise the waterproofing. Fortunately the Mac has more space, and is never going to be water resistant, so it gets to stay there's no room.

    They could have put a lightning connector on the MacBook, but I guess they thought that a lot of professional musicians will be less than happy to give up their favourite headphones, and anyone with a set of lightning headphones from their iPhone7 already has an adapter.  
     This is more in line with what I was thinking but it also shows that Apple isn't confident that wireless is the future. It's also funny because I saw the future happening for the first time today, someone was complaining that it didn't have lightning for his new headphones. 

     As far as my lightning comment, I'm hoping Apple announces a lightning 2.0 with more capabilities than USB-C. I feel like Apple should go all the way or not go at all
  • Reply 10 of 61
    cali said:
    Is Apple having a port identity crisis? Also notice these have headphone jacks. Aren't headphone jacks, like function keys, outdated technology?

    Shouldn't Apple be pushing Lightning 2.0? Are problems arising with USB-C? What the hell is going on?

    No, no, no, no, and I'll explain.

    Apple's style of product management (like most customer-focused companies) starts by asking "what problem does this product solve? Who will use it? How will they use it?", and then determining features accordingly. This always involves tradeoffs in cost, performance, materials, and so on... but the way to solve those tradeoffs is to come back to the customer needs.

    In the case of the iPhone, Apple decided that lightning headphones made more sense than keeping the headphone jack, for some combination of space, cost, waterproofing, aesthetic, sound quality, and other reasons. You may or may not agree with their assessment, but that's what they did.

    Same with the new Macs: I am sure that the question of adding a lightning port in addition to, or instead of the headphone jack, came up. It had to. So again, Apple looked at how people use MacBooks, weighed similar cost/space/waterproofing factors, and decided to keep the headphone jack and not add a lightning port.

    Again, you can totally disagree with either or both decisions; my point is that it is very reasonable for the decision on the MacBook to be different than the decision for the phone. Because customer usages are different, space constraints are different, price point is different, waterproofing requirements are different, and so on.

    This gets lost when people see product design decisions as moral statements: if Apple removed the headphone jack from the phone, they must hate headphone jacks, and therefore it is morally hypocritical not to do the same on the laptop. But good product design doesn't work that way.  And thank God -- otherwise Ford would have had to stop offering manual transmissions in the Mustang when they stopped offering them in the F-150.
    Rayz2016lmagoo2old4funnolamacguywonkothesaneai46loquiturdesignrpscooter63randominternetperson
  • Reply 11 of 61
    mtbnutmtbnut Posts: 191member
    To all the port-complaining people, just be glad we're past this: 
    stevehpulseimageschabigjahajalooplessmacplusplusnolamacguydesignrrandominternetpersonson3
  • Reply 12 of 61
    cali said:

    That's not what Apple said. They said the jack was outdated and wireless was the future. Were they lying?

    What a world we live in that it's not even "were they wrong?" or "did they change their mind?", but it has to be about them intentionally lying for some nefarious purpose.

    That aside, it might be that they think laptops are used differently than phones, so the benefits of wireless are different and inform a different transition period. Heck, I still use a wired keyboard and mouse, it doesn't bother me. But I am glad Apple did not ship the iPhone with a mouse, wired or not.
    stevehroundaboutnownolamacguypscooter63lorin schultzwilliamlondonuraharatycho24
  • Reply 13 of 61
    wigginwiggin Posts: 2,265member
    While everybody expected USB-C connectors on the new MacBook Pro, all four ports being Thunderbolt 3 wasn't. 
    I don't know of anyone who was expecting that only some of the ports would support Thunderbolt. Having physically identical ports on the same machine but with significant different capabilities would have been pretty silly.

    It's would have also been worth pointing out with the mention of the MacBook that it's single port does not support Thunderbolt. It's implied by omission, but I've read in places where people have not realized there was a difference.
    pulseimages
  • Reply 14 of 61
    ...
    Similarly, the four-port Thunderbolt 3 model can drive a pair of 5K monitors, or four 4K monitors. A single Thunderbolt 3 controller only has sufficient bandwidth for a single 5K monitor, so Apple has implemented a pair of Thunderbolt 3 controllers in this configuration for the feature -- and just isn't trumpeting that fact.

    ...

    This is pretty awesome.
    pulseimageschabigai46pscooter63urahara
  • Reply 15 of 61
    Rayz2016Rayz2016 Posts: 4,569member
    cali said:
    Rayz2016 said:
    cali said:
    Is Apple having a port identity crisis? Also notice these have headphone jacks. Aren't headphone jacks, like function keys, outdated technology?

    Shouldn't Apple be pushing Lightning 2.0? Are problems arising with USB-C? What the hell is going on?

    Yes Apple thinks that headphones are outdated technology, but they would have left one on the iPhone if there was room for it and if it didn't compromise the waterproofing. Fortunately the Mac has more space, and is never going to be water resistant, so it gets to stay there's no room.

    They could have put a lightning connector on the MacBook, but I guess they thought that a lot of professional musicians will be less than happy to give up their favourite headphones, and anyone with a set of lightning headphones from their iPhone7 already has an adapter.  
     This is more in line with what I was thinking but it also shows that Apple isn't confident that wireless is the future. It's also funny because I saw the future happening for the first time today, someone was complaining that it didn't have lightning for his new headphones. 

     As far as my lightning comment, I'm hoping Apple announces a lightning 2.0 with more capabilities than USB-C. I feel like Apple should go all the way or not go at all
    Actually it shows that Apple doesn't remove things unless they have to. The depth of the Macbook can still accommodate a headphone jack, so there is no point in removing it. When they get this thing down to the width of a USB-C port then the jack will probably go. 

    If someone complains that he can't plug in his new lightning headphones then tell him to look in the box his iPhone7 came in. If he has Apple lightning buds then they came with his iPhone7 … along with an adaptor.
    tycho24
  • Reply 16 of 61
    exkeks said:
    While all this sounds convincing in regard to traditional ports, where is the new memory card standard with USB-C connector? And yes: of course I can connect my camera via USB cable, and of course I can have one more adapter and/or card reader with me. But every photog knows that there is (/was) nothing faster and more convenient than just sticking the SD card into the macbook.
    I am a photographer (granted, not full-time, but I use my photography in my graphic design work) as well. I have enjoyed the SD slot in my MBPs. I'm not bummed out it's gone.

    I feel the TB3/USB-C plugs offer the most flexibility for ALL users. Not everyone is a photographer. Not everyone needs to use wired-only networking at their secured office network. Not everyone plugs into HDMI projectors.

    The old port strategy was 2 adaptable ports (Thunderbolt 2) and 5 single-use ports (USB-A, HDMI, SD, MagSafe).

    The new port strategy is 4 adaptable ports (Thunderbolt 3) and no single-use ports.

    Of course, I'm omitting the headphone port because Phil Schiller says it is dead, so it is dead to me ;)

    Now that we have TB3 over USB-C, I'm happy Apple followed the adaptable port strategy, allowing for a smaller, lighter MBP. I've never plugged more than 4 things into my MBP at one time. I'll be able to adapt. Pun INTENDED!
    tmayai46lorin schultzuraharawillcropointwatto_cobra
  • Reply 17 of 61
    Rayz2016Rayz2016 Posts: 4,569member

    aiken said:
    cali said:
    Is Apple having a port identity crisis? Also notice these have headphone jacks. Aren't headphone jacks, like function keys, outdated technology?

    Shouldn't Apple be pushing Lightning 2.0? Are problems arising with USB-C? What the hell is going on?

    No, no, no, no, and I'll explain.

    Apple's style of product management (like most customer-focused companies) starts by asking "what problem does this product solve? Who will use it? How will they use it?", and then determining features accordingly. This always involves tradeoffs in cost, performance, materials, and so on... but the way to solve those tradeoffs is to come back to the customer needs.

    In the case of the iPhone, Apple decided that lightning headphones made more sense than keeping the headphone jack, for some combination of space, cost, waterproofing, aesthetic, sound quality, and other reasons. You may or may not agree with their assessment, but that's what they did.

    Same with the new Macs: I am sure that the question of adding a lightning port in addition to, or instead of the headphone jack, came up. It had to. So again, Apple looked at how people use MacBooks, weighed similar cost/space/waterproofing factors, and decided to keep the headphone jack and not add a lightning port.

    Again, you can totally disagree with either or both decisions; my point is that it is very reasonable for the decision on the MacBook to be different than the decision for the phone. Because customer usages are different, space constraints are different, price point is different, waterproofing requirements are different, and so on.

    This gets lost when people see product design decisions as moral statements: if Apple removed the headphone jack from the phone, they must hate headphone jacks, and therefore it is morally hypocritical not to do the same on the laptop. But good product design doesn't work that way.  And thank God -- otherwise Ford would have had to stop offering manual transmissions in the Mustang when they stopped offering them in the F-150.

    ^ ^ ^
    The most sensible analysis I've seen here in years.

    Leave now son; you don't belong.
    nolamacguyai46urahara
  • Reply 18 of 61
    USB-C/Thunderbolt is all very well and good, bring it on, but give us the MagSafe power plug back already.  Horrible decision to get rid of it IMO.
    baconstang
  • Reply 19 of 61
    felix01felix01 Posts: 239member
    I suppose a Google search will reveal the answer but for brevity's sake, are Thunderbolt 3 docks being made? And if so, do any of them support FireWire? Or maybe it's not even doable?
  • Reply 20 of 61
    tmaytmay Posts: 3,671member
    waverboy said:
    USB-C/Thunderbolt is all very well and good, bring it on, but give us the MagSafe power plug back already.  Horrible decision to get rid of it IMO.
    You are aware that USB Type C standard is a plug and socket, so by definition, this would be a function that would take place at the charger or at some intermediate point on the cable. The best case might be a stub adaptor that plugs into the USB Type C socket, with a magnetic interface on the cable side, and guess what? Third parties have already made those.
Sign In or Register to comment.