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“One port to do it all” – the new integrated USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port makes it into the first laptop

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Apple’s decision to equip the 12-inch MacBook with just a single port was a controversial one, but the USB-C port Apple chose just got a whole lot more powerful. Intel announced back in June that it was integrating USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 to create “one compact port that does it all” – and that port just hit the market in the form of the revamped Dell XPS range.

That means that a single port combines superspeed USB, Thunderbolt, DisplayPort, PCI Express and power. The DisplayPort channel can simultaneously handle two 4K monitors.

Dell has opted to include two of the new ports, and this is an approach I think we can expect Apple to take with the new MacBook Air models (whatever they are actually called) and, in time, the MacBook Pro … 

Such a move would, of course, be a controversial one – especially among power users, who have a whole raft of peripherals using existing USB and Thunderbolt connectors. But there are two reasons to think Apple will do it anyway.

First, the 12-inch MacBook provides a strong pointer to the company’s thinking: it’s exceedingly unlikely it would reserve the latest and greatest port for just the baby in the MacBook line-up. Second, Apple has consistently demonstrated its willingness to abandon what it considers legacy technology. It was the first major player to abandon the floppy drive in favor of an optical one, and the first to drop the optical drive from laptops aimed at the pro market.

But it’s good news for those of us who use Thunderbolt. A couple of years ago, it was looking to me like Thunderbolt might itself be on the way out. It never achieved mass adoption beyond Apple products, and I did wonder whether Apple might itself decide to move on. Intel’s decision to integrate it into USB-C gives the standard an assured future – and with even higher speeds as a bonus.

While there will be some short-term pain for those of us with an array of peripherals, there are solutions available, even for those who need to connect multiple devices while mobile.

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  1. rogifan - 7 years ago

    Why do you think Apple would add this to the MBA? Isn’t that line basically on its way out?

    • Ben Lovejoy - 7 years ago

      Eventually, but probably not quite yet – I’ll have more to say on that later …

      • rogifan - 7 years ago

        I can’t see Apple redesigning the MBA without giving it retina and if they do that what is the point of the retina MacBook? It seems much more likely to me that the Airs get phased out and the Pros get redesigned to be lighter.

    • taoprophet420 - 7 years ago

      The MacBook should be the one on its way out. It is underpowered and overpriced. After a revamp of the Air and Pro laptops with the iPad Pro Apple needs to narrow the 12″ to 13″ screen range.

      • rogifan - 7 years ago

        You do realize that’s what people said about the original MacBook Air.

    • 1sugomac - 7 years ago

      MacBook = Intel CPU
      New MacBook Air = Apple AX CPU

      • Rich Davis (@RichDavis9) - 7 years ago

        Why would they put an ARM chip, which is RISC in a MacBook that runs OS X, when OS X is designed for CISC processors? Apple already did RISC chips with the Power PC and it took them several years to migrate over to CISC. Why would they want to migrate back to ARM chips? That makes NO sense to me. Are they going to run Windows on an ARM chip too? They have to do that as that’s one of the attractions to Macs running OS X. Are they going to change direction and muck up their user base and developers and piss everyone off?

        I just wish Apple would get off their asses and release some new Intel Skylake chips as they are using older gen chips currently on the majority of their laptops and desktops.

      • yoitssenghy - 7 years ago

        None of the macbooks will get an Apple AX CPU any time soon. First off, it doesn’t work that way. OS X has been developed for Intel’s x86-64 instruction set, (the same way iOS has been designed to work with Apple’s AX [ARM V8 based] instruction set) so unless you want to run iOS on a macbook, we can just forget about that.

    • Rich Davis (@RichDavis9) - 7 years ago

      I think if they have at least 3 or more of these ports, then i’m fine as long as a Thunderbolt device isn’t going to clog up a USB device at the same time.

  2. And this is why I can’t believe that the iPhone 7 will have a Lightning port (as reported in various articles these days) : it will have an USB-C port, like all Apple hardware will have in a not-so-distant future.

    • taoprophet420 - 7 years ago

      I would agree with you, but with all the new keyboards, mice, trackpads and TV remote getting lightning I don’t see it going away anytime soon

      I think Apple will fuck up and do lighting headphones instead of USB-c.

      • Greg Kaplan (@kaplag) - 7 years ago

        I don’t think much of this topic yet but with the new keyboards, mice, trackpads and TV remote I don’t think it matters. They can be updated to use the new connection or not since they are really just plugging into normal usb on the other end.

        What is a little harder to change is Apple pencil having a male connector that plugs directly into the ipad. That makes me think it might not change for ios devices for a while.

        I agree that usb-c seems like a nicer solution for headphones though. Who knows.

    • srgmac - 7 years ago

      You know, that would make sense to be honest — but I don’t see it happening.

    • Rich Davis (@RichDavis9) - 7 years ago

      Yeah, I completely agree with you. I think they should ditch Lightning and go USB-C. I think Apple has to do a complete overhaul of everything, and I mean EVERYTHING. I think they have a lot of aging products and Jony Ive has been too busy promoting the Apple Watch and not doing anything else. At least judging by the products they are releasing in the past couple of years. I think the Pencil is great, but has room for improvement.

    • yoitssenghy - 7 years ago

      Let me be the lone standout here. It actually doesn’t matter if they go with either, but it benefits Apple if they stay with lightning, here’s why:

      Lightning and USB Type-C are really nothing more than connector standards/specifications. Period. The connectors say nothing about the underlying architecture leveraging them. Just because you get a device with a usb type-c connector doesn’t mean you will reap all the boasted benefits. In fact many mobile devices that are out and utilizing a usb type-c port are restricted to usb 2.0 compatibility and transfer speeds. In fact, I only know of 1 device which even uses the usb 3.0 spec with their implementation of usb type-c (ZUK Z1).

      To everyone’s point about the headphones: usb 2.0 is PLENTY fast for listening to music, in fact there is no benefit from getting any faster unless you are involved in audio production and engineering and have 10s-100s of simultaneous audio streams being processed simultaneously. And even then, usb 2.0 has been fine for years (I’m an electrical and software engineer by day and music producer/audio engineer by night, and sometimes I just like drinking milk, but anyways..). I make this point because I feel some are implying here that they want to add thunderbolt 3 to phones, which is a terrible idea just because phones don’t at this point have enough power to live up to the spec nor technology to handle other usability issues (no phone is providing 100W of power to anything, and imagine holding your phone while powering two 4K displays, or rather imagine going to the hospital and dealing with the nth degree burns you get from holding that device, sheesh..).

      So here we have some constraints, what are users doing with their phones/tablets? Are the tasks demanding enough that they require usb 3 or even more burdening architecturally, thunderbolt 3? Or is the more energy efficient and easy to design usb 2 protocol a more fitting option for the task at hand? We want to play our audio through headphones and we want to charge or connect our devices to other peripherals, those are our requirements. Check. Can the usb 2 protocol satisfy this requirement: Yes. Check. Do we (Apple) want to make money off of hardware sales and the licensing of our proprietary accessories (industry disrupting, in house): Yes!

      That last one was the most important. Apple is a hardware company, so it is in it’s best interest to sell hardware, particularly hardware it, owns the IP rights to and has sole control over licensing.

      So yes, if they do decide to combine the lightning and 3.5mm jacks, it will stay a lightning connector. What’s good: to ALMOST all consumers of iPhones, it won’t matter spec-wise at all. Actually, the only thing I can think of that would make you want a usb 3.0 protocol to be implemented with the lightning connector (as with the iPad Pro) is for data backup to the comp. Or if you need to transfer a LOT of media to your iPhone all at once through iTunes.
      But those are niche cases, especially with iCloud and the likes in works.

      What is interesting here is that Apple will save some space internally with the iPhone by not including a headphone jack connector, nor the digital-to-analog converter it used. So the DAC will need to be built into the headphones, as I don’t believe lightning supports analog audio output.. Also, perhaps the headphones will have a lightning port of it’s own to support pass through for simultaneous charging/audio/data transfer… Though I think that interface is a bit clunky for Apple’s tastes..

      Anyways, if they do combine the two ports, expect the connector to be lightning. :)

  3. James Dempsey - 7 years ago

    So now you can watch your battery drain even faster as you run a 4k external monitor with the laptop that you can’t plug-in to power at the same time. I get this for consumers, but if they do this with ‘pro’ models, they’re in for a rough ride for a while.

    • Greg Kaplan (@kaplag) - 7 years ago

      Wouldn’t you just daisy chain the monitors and the laptop would draw power from one of them and they could have extra usb ports too? Isn’t that way better than needing to plug in multiple cables or having an ugly thinkpad-style dock always sitting on the desk?

      I get this as an awesome solution for consumers and pros. And since this isn’t an mostly-mac technology like thunderbolt, we could actually see broader adoption and this standard work it’s way into all new monitors. Hdmi will probably become the new vga though. I doubt it will die easy since actual tvs won’t care about the usb-c features.

  4. Simon T Bramley - 7 years ago

    I’m a bit behind here with this, so if someone can enlighten me: Does this mean that USB-C and Thunderbolt can work with the same connection? Is the port one that can accommodate both types of connector?

    • Ben Lovejoy - 7 years ago

      Yes, the USB-C port now carries Thunderbolt too. You’ll need an adapter for current devices, of course.

      • Simon T Bramley - 7 years ago

        Ok, thanks Ben. So I’d need an adaptor for anything I have with a Thunderbolt connection/cable if I wanted to plug it into a USB-C port, right?

      • Ben Lovejoy - 7 years ago

        Yep – but I’m sure there will be plenty of those once Apple adopts it.

      • Simon T Bramley - 7 years ago

        I’ve got the new Apple TV, which already has a USB-C port at the back, although there’s currently no consumer use for it at present apparently.

    • Jon Alfred Smith - 7 years ago

      USB-C is the port. On some Windows laptops the only protocol with USB-C supported is USB 3.0 (5 Gbps). On others (I believe most) the USB 3.1 protocol is used (10 Gbps). That’s for USB. With the Thunderbolt 3 chipset, all USB protocols in addition to TB 3 is supported: 20 Gbps with a passive and 40 Gbps with an active cable. Optical cables are supposed to be in the works.

  5. uniszuurmond - 7 years ago

    I guess it will never happen, but here’s hoping that Apple ditches the Lightning connector just introduced on their peripherals, and replace all connectors on all devices and peripherals with this one. I really do believe this is the future.

  6. srgmac - 7 years ago

    Wow — remember when it was Apple that was always the first to push new kick ass standards?

  7. Scott (@ScooterComputer) - 7 years ago

    I sent @benlovejoy a tweet on this too, but there is likely more to this than even is seen at first blush.

    The new iPad Pro Lightning receptacle is double-sided. That is a first. This will allow Apple to manufacture Lightning plugs that utilize all 16 pins (+shield), and that is “magic” because it will allow the connector to support USB 3 as well as Thunderbolt 2 (with Display Port) lanes. Lightning effectively becomes as capable as the Type-C connector on the MacBook is now (which is NOT USB 3.1 nor Thunderbolt 3, only USB 3.0 and ThunderBolt 2).

    When Phil Schiller –announced– Lightning, the slide above his head stated “All-digital, 8-signal design”. Most took that 8 to mean the 8-pins. But that isn’t accurate. Most of the pins are voltage and ground, and not “signal”. 16 pins gives 8 full “signals”, which amounts to 4 full “lanes” of communication (a lane being one direction of differential-voltage signals; Thunderbolt requires 2 lanes, send and receive).

    The rumor that the iPhone 7 will lose the 3.5mm headphone jack has actually been around for a while, with earlier models. It is coming. The entire ECOSYSTEM of Thunderbolt is about “adaptation”, as evidenced by the Lightning HDMI adapter “Apple engineer statement” to Panic back when it came out. The port is nearly 100% flexible, it relies on ‘intelligent signal adaptation’ on the far end. So the 3.5mm to Lightning “adapter” concept is just absolutely a given. [Personally, I’d like to see a Mag-Safe-style adapter that plugs onto the 3.5mm male, and a partner magnetic “base”, ala the iPad Pro mag-connector, that plugs into the Lightning port.] In short, you’re going to see a LOT of these 3.5mm–Lightning adapters around. I’d be surprised if Apple doesn’t ship them with the iPhone/iPad in the box.

    Putting all this all together, it makes it VERY LIKELY that the MacBook will ALSO lose the 3.5mm jack and GAIN Lightning! The Lightning connector is thinner, the 3.5mm adapters will be EVERYWHERE (affixed to your headphones already), and it will serve to “fix” one of the glaring deficiencies of the MacBook “One”. With a Type-C on one side, and a Lightning on the other, the MacBook would be able to act as both a Thunderbolt and USB 3 HiSpeed hub. It will also usher in a world of Lightning peripherals, using Lightning—Lightning (rather than inserting USB Type-A or Type-C into the mix), providing Apple with yet another way to maintain “lock in” to their peripheral ecosystem.

  8. Jon Alfred Smith - 7 years ago

    By no means the first laptop with USB-C/Thunderbolt 3. They will be coming in legions: Just to name a few: Leonovo ThinkPad P50/P70; HP ZBook Studio G3 and HP ZBook 15 G3 Mobile Workstations; HP Elite X2; Acer Aspire R13 R7-372T and others; MSI’s latest Skylake laptops have Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C. Then there are many more with USB-C 3.1 only. Right now, it’s Microsoft with its Surface line-up (ultimate laptop and so on) that sticks with USB 3.0.

  9. shareef777 - 7 years ago

    Give me a rMBP with at least a pair of TB3 ports on each side and I’m sold. I’ll gladly deal with adapters for about a year until USB-C devices become more mainstream. At this point I’m going to hold onto my 2012 rMBP until such a laptop is released.

  10. kpom1 - 7 years ago

    It’s good to see someone other than Apple embracing Thunderbolt. The more the merrier.

  11. Joseph Frye - 7 years ago

    Incorporating USB-C on all devices makes so much sense that Apple will include lightning connectors instead.

  12. Avieshek (@avieshek) - 7 years ago

    Just like micro-sim than nano-sim, similarly, USB-C than Lightning


Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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