What is USB-C in the new MacBook and why should you care?

Anthony Caruana
23 March, 2015
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MacBook, USB-C, connector, macworld australiaApple’s recent announcement of the relaunched MacBook product line has been met with mixed reactions. With a CPU that sits it in the niche between high-powered notebook and tablets, it’s something of an ‘inbetweener’ – the sort of thing the late Steve Jobs said of devices like the iPhone 6 Plus.

Perhaps the most interesting innovation has been Apple’s adoption of the new USB-C connector. This one connector can carry enough data and power to supply the needs of the modern notebook computer. But it’s not all plain sailing.

A brief history of USB

USB has been around since 1990 when it was introduced the myriad different connectors available in computers of the time. USB-A is the rectangular connector that we’re most familiar with. Until now, the USB ports on all Macs have been USB-A ports.

USB-B is the port we usually see on devices like printers. It’s the squarish connector.

We’ve also seen micro- and mini-USB connectors but there are really variants of the USB-B connectors that have been shrunk down to suit mobile devices.

And we arrive at USB-C

USB-C boasts a number of advantages over its predecessors.

For a start, it doesn’t have a right way up. You can plug a USB-C cable into a port without worrying about whether you have the cable the right way around.

While USB-A can carry power, it’s limited. If you remember the introduction of the MacBook Air – Apple’s external DVD drive required connection to a special USB-A port that delivered a little more power than the USB standard allowed. That power carriage is bi-directional so the USB-C port can be used to charge the new MacBook and to charge your iOS device when it’s connected.

USB-C can carry far greater volumes of data than USB-A and USB-B. It’s similar to Thunderbolt in it’s ability to move data for external peripherals such as printers and hard drives but it can also handle video.

What will it mean?

macbook av digital adapter

One of Apple's USB-C adapters.

It sounds like good news doesn’t it? One port type that can do everything. To some degree, it sounds like Nirvana for peripheral makers. One public standard that means no more fragmentation from having to make different products for the Apple and generic PC markets.

If you’ve forgotten to pack your Mac’s charger, you’ll be able to potentially borrow one from your Lenovo-toting friends.

We’re not going to discuss how Apple has deployed USB-C just yet. Apple’s shift to USB-C will mean some frustration for long-term Mac users. If you’re like us, you probably have a box of cables, connectors and adapters that Apple has abandoned. This shift means recent shifts such as MagSafe and Thunderbolt are about to be resigned to garage sales.

But the long-term benefit is, hopefully, Apple will stick to this industry-wide standard and stop using proprietary cables and connectors. Perhaps an upcoming version of the iPhone, iPad and iPod will use the mini-USB cable for sync and charge – following on from the standardisation adopted by every other smartphone and tablet maker.

The bad news is that until we refresh all of our peripheral devices or move to everything being wireless, we’ll need to invest in dongles and adapters in order to use USB-C.

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