The new MacBook Pro is kind of great for hackers
A million hot takes have been posted about how the late-2016 MacBook Pro with USB-C is the undeniable proof that Apple doesn’t care about developers anymore. They took away all the ports! No Esc key! It’s just a more expensive MacBook Air!
But in some ways, the new MacBook Pro is the most techy and expandable laptop Apple has ever made. They are trusting their pro users to wade into murky USB-C waters in search of the holy grail of a universal, open standard for moving data and power between devices.
I’m not here to change your mind about the MacBook Pro. Yes, it’s probably too expensive and more RAM is better than less RAM. But everyone posting complaints without actually using a MBP for a few weeks is missing out on all the clever things you can do because it is built on USB-C. Over the past week or two with a new MacBook Pro (15in, 2.9ghz, TouchBar), I’ve been constantly surprised with how USB-C makes new things possible. It’s a kind of a hacker’s dream.
The new charging block that comes with the MBP looks exactly the same as any traditional MBP charger:
But this charger is totally different than old MacBook Pro chargers in a vital way — it’s just a generic usb charger. There’s nothing about it that makes it “special” for your Mac.
My current cell phone is a Google Nexus 6P. Guess what kind of charging port it uses?
Right, USB-C — just like lots of other recent phones and laptops. I can plug my phone into my MacBook Pro charger and it works perfectly. Now I only need to bring one power cable to the café instead of two and I can charge my computer or my phone interchangeably. This is so nice!
But this goes both ways. I can just as easily plug the MacBook Pro into the same USB car charger that I use for my phone. A car charger doesn’t put out a ton of power so you have to charge the MBP while it’s off, but it works fine.
And gone are the days where you have to spend $90 to buy an official MBP charger from Apple. You can buy any USB-C charger with enough power output and use it with your MBP.
You can even charge your MBP and phone together from one of those generic portable USB-C backup batteries:
A big complaint about the new MacBook Pro is that you have to carry around a bag of dongles in order to plug in your external devices. Want to plug in your cell phone? Dongle! Want to download pictures from your camera? Dongle! Want to use ethernet or an external monitor? Dongle! Apple was so overwhelmed with complaints that they had to slash prices on dongles to make good. It’s a bunch of hassle with no real benefits, right?
I think people are thinking of these dongles as a useless Apple tax they have to pay in order to use their devices with the latest Mac. But that’s not exactly the case. These “dongles” are generic USB-C devices. They work with any USB-C device.
This means you can take that same USB-C Ethernet adapter you have for your MBP and plug it right into your cell phone:
Yeah, it works perfectly! Who knew Android phones supported ethernet interfaces?
What about that SD card reader you had to buy to download your photos?
It works on your phone too! And notice that this isn’t some expensive Apple-branded SD card reader. Any USB-C SD card reader works fine because it’s an open standard.
You can even do silly stuff like plug your USB-C keyboard and mouse right into your cell phone:
Universal sharing of accessories between devices is a hacker’s dream. It’s the exact opposite opposite of vendor lock-in. You can just plug anything into anything and it (mostly) works.
More USB-C Nonsense
This is just the beginning of what you can do with USB-C. Here are some other fun tricks.
If you get any of the new USB-C compatible monitors (pretty much every vendor has at least one now), you only need to plug one single cable into your MBP:
You can then plug all your other devices into your monitor and everything flows over one USB-C to your laptop — power, video, data and even sound. Your monitor is now your docking station and breakout box!
USB-C on the MacBook Pro supports the new USB Power Delivery (UPD) spec. Beyond just basic wall charging, this spec lets you do fancy things like charge one USB-C device from another in either direction. You can plug your MacBook Pro into another USB-C laptop (like a Chromebook Pixel or a Lenovo Yoga) and one laptop can charge the other! And if you don’t want to do that, they can also use each other’s wall adapters interchangeably.
UPD also allows the MacBook Pro to power external devices with high power requirements over the data connection. For example, you can plug in an external USB-C hard drive and power it over USB-C without needing an external wall wart:
As USB-C continues to grow in popularity, you can easily imagine the next Raspberry Pi supporting it. This means you could power your RPi from your laptop while you are developing without any extra cables. You could even plug in all the same external devices to your MacBook and the RPi without any new adapters.
What about MagSafe?
MagSafe solved the problem of someone tripping over your power cable and knocking your computer on the ground. It was brilliant. It is a bummer that Apple killed MagSafe, but this cloud has a silver lining of sorts.
USB-C is an open standard. Anyone can make USB-C cables. So Griffin made a break-away USB-C cable that works like MagSafe:
You don’t have to use a weird off-brand power adapter to use this cable. It’s just a standard USB-C cable that plugs into your original Apple USB-C charger block. Simple.
And if you think this first design is a little clunky or if you wish this cable worked for data instead of just power, then you’re in luck! Anyone can make their unique take on a break-away USB-C cable. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until Amazon is flooded with cheap versions of this idea that tweak it just enough to avoid patent issues. I look forward to buying $3 breakaway USB-C cables in the future. That kind of competition could have never happened with the old proprietary MagSafe connector!
The Joy of Interoperability
I/O-wise, the new MacBook Pro is possibly the most open device Apple has ever built. There is literally not a single proprietary port on it. You get four universal high-speed ports that can each draw or supply power, send and receive data and transfer video and audio. It’s really pretty neat.
And yes, it’s annoying if you have a bunch of older devices that need adapters. But you don’t have to buy Apple’s over-sized and over-priced dongles. You can buy tiny little USB-C adapters like this by the handful on Amazon for cents:
In a year or two when we all have junk drawers packed full of extra generic USB-C cables that cost nearly nothing, we’re going to look back on this and wonder why everyone was so worked up.