Now the ports have triumphed. It has been a while since Apple’s USB-C trials came to fruition, but with the launch of the new Mac Studio desktop, the concept of “being able to plug things into your computer without a confusing array of dongles and adapters” has finally won out.
Additionally, the new Mac Studio has a Thunderbolt 4 port on the $3,999 M1 Ultra model, as well as a Thunderbolt 4 port on the entry-level model, as well as two USB-A connections, an SD card slot, an HDMI port, an Ethernet port, and a headphone jack. Even the greatest Thunderbolt docks can’t keep up with an overabundance of ports (the current reigning champ, the CalDigit TS4, for example, only has three Thunderbolt ports, although it does win out with more USB-A ports).
When it comes to port selection, this is the kind of port selection that doesn’t necessitate a dongle. Apple’s Mac Mini and iMac desktops have had connections on the back for years, but the new Macbook Pro has connectors on the front, allowing you to plug in a hard drive without having to look around the back of the machine.
The return of ports to Apple’s products comes with a caveat: they’re only available on the most expensive models. The only way you can get HDMI or SD card ports on a new Apple computer is to pay as least $1,999 for either the cheapest Mac Studio or the entry-level MacBook Pro.
If you can’t afford an iMac for $1,299, a MacBook Air for $999, or an iPad Air for $699, you’re still living the dongle life. To get out of your port-less shackle, you’ll have to fork over a fee, either upfront or through docks and hubs.
While the victorious return to a wider range of I/O options is heartening, it’s impossible not to see Apple’s recent products as a harsh verdict on USB-C and the company’s years-long attempt to move to the standard.
While USB-C was originally integrated to the 2015 MacBook, significant fanfare was generated by Apple’s claim that it was pioneering a new hardware standard for the first time. Critics argued that Apple’s decision to ditch the floppy disc slot on the original Macintosh was the same as the company’s decision to ditch the CD drive on the Macintosh in favor of a CD-ROM drive.
Advocates for USB-C said, among other things, that Apple was merely skating to where the puck will be, rather than allowing the future to pass it by, and that the current pain points would vanish as ecosystems caught up with Apple.
An ethernet, power, video, and data all-in-one connector; cords that could charge your computer and connect it to a monitor with equal ease; and the fantasy of never having to carry more than a single charger for all of your gadgets ever again all make sense on paper.
In the end, the USB-C changeover has fallen short of the ideals it set out to achieve. In the USB-C ecosystem, charging speeds, data transfer rates and optional audio and display functions differ from cable to cable (which all appear physically identical, adding to the confusion). One USB-C cable on my desk charges my laptop and connects it to my monitor, while another offers merely a trickle of juice that’s better suited to a smartphone than a computer, although you wouldn’t know it from looking at it.
For example, “USB 3.2 Gen 2×2” could refer to either a USB-A or USB-C port, with whole different definitions for how quickly it can charge things. This has resulted in a patchwork quilt of standards.
Customers and producers alike, however, were unwilling to make the changeover because of this. Instead of starting from scratch, they found that purchasing a dongle or adaptor (typically from Apple, at least until the third-party market caught on) was easier and more convenient. Rather of completely overhauling their digital lives to accommodate the new port, users who bought new laptops with Apple’s USB-C adapter simply added an extra layer to their existing installations.
Apple appeared to have let down a significant portion of its core Mac audience by removing the connectors required to perform fundamental functions like transferring files from SD cards or attaching monitors. And it was a shift that appeared to be one that users would have to put up with for the foreseeable future. M1 Mac Mini and iMac had a poorer port selection than their Intel equivalents that they replaced, even if the M1 Macs were otherwise outstanding.
As a result, the new USB-C standard, which Apple has enthusiastically adopted on its laptops (and most of its iPads), has been unable to take advantage of many of the advantages of the new standard because it has been unable to support Apple’s iPhones and AirPods.
From the get-go, Apple could have made a strong case for using USB-C by launching a USB-C iPhone at the same time as its first USB-C laptops and unifying all of its devices under a single connectivity standard. Rather than abandoning its own product line, Apple opted to stick using Lightning instead (a schism that still exists today).
It’s still feasible that USB-C will succeed in changing the situation. In an attempt to get the standards mess under control, the USB4 specification has laid down some ground rules for physical connectors (for example, all USB4 plugs are now only compatible with the newer USB-C standard) and basic specifications (largely based on the Thunderbolt 3 standard), but it’s yet another transition that will take time.
As a workaround, we’ve brought ports back. Hopefully, this time it’s for the long haul.