We Are Connected to Our Connectors

As anyone using an Apple iPhone can attest, whenever Apple changes the connector (eg from the 30-pin to the Lightning) there is an uproar and lamenting about the need to purchase new cables and accessories for the new connector. Perhaps this is consequently driving the move to wireless — for data and power (charging) to avoid physical connectors altogether.

I am experiencing a similar lament now that Apple is standardizing on USB-C for power, video and data on the MacBook Pro models. I had resisted getting a new Apple MacBook Pro ever since the new MacBook came with only USB-C ports. At first, it was because the rest of the Apple Mac line would likely move to this new “All-in-One” connector for video, data and power — so I thought I might as well wait for the updated models. After the MacBook Pro updates, I hesitated because the video part of USB-C was very confusing — in most part due to Apple’s co-opting USB-C for Thunderbolt 3, and the potential incompatibility with most monitors on the market. In fact, Apple discontinued their Thunderbolt Display and began pushing a pair of 5K and 4K models from LG that would support USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 natively.

Adding to the confusion is the evolution of video output ports over the years from Apple products — I don’t think any other output connector has changed as frequently: VGA > ADC > Mini-DVI > micro-DVI > Mini DisplayPort > Thunderbolt 2 > USB-C/Thunderbolt 3. Hence the plethora of video adapters to convert from one video standard to another — and my accumulation of such adapters.

Changing less frequently than my computers are my external displays over the years, and since I typically invest in higher end monitors — the last being the Apple LED Cinema Display with a permanent mini DisplayPort connector that worked with the Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 ports in my MacBooks. I passed on the Apple Thunderbolt Display since my LED Cinema Display worked fine with my MacBook Air. However, I have gotten the LG 4K display promoted by Apple for my new MacBook Pro with Touch bar.

Despite Apple releasing a Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter, it would not work with the LED Cinema Display. I searched for a third-party solution — yet another video adapter — and found only a couple for USB-C to mini DisplayPort. Most fortunately, the first one I got works fine — but makes me wonder why Apple could not have made one themselves or simply included support in their Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter.

Further complicating the issue is the rapidly evolving USB standard itself— now at 3.1 Gen 2. So I have to read the fine print (if there is any) on whether a cable or adapter or hub supports USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 or not. And if I wanted Thunderbolt 3 support — which is Apple/Intel’s higher performing data & video standard that uses the same USB-C connector.

On top of all that, Thunderbolt 3 cable lengths can limit their data performance — cables 1.6 feet can support 40Gb/s transfers, while longer cables drop to 20Gb/s. USB-C cables don’t all support PowerDelivery (PD) — and some support only up to a certain current. In fact, only Apple’s USB-C Charging Cable can support the 87W charging that the latest MacBook Pro 15-inch models need.

Somewhere along the way, Apple has lost a lot of simplicity for it’s users despite desperately seeking it. Yes, they were criticized heavily for proprietary connectors and standards, but the trade-off for relying on more common connectors and standards means more complication and confusion for its users. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Apple isn’t the only manufacturer whose users are suffering from this complexity in the USB-C standard — all who have adopted USB-C are suffering based the numerous reviews on Amazon.com for USB-C and USB 3.0 products. Users are frustrated when a cable or device is not compatible, or does not perform as touted in specs or marketing messages, and have to read the fine print on exactly which version of the USB spec is supported — both in the product and their own computers and devices.

Its not the end of the world, of course. But the industry needs to address it better in product descriptions for existing products and in products under development — and find a way to make it simple again for the end user.