The USB-C minefield

I have an Apple 12" Retina MacBook. It has exactly one port, a USB-C one. In theory, USB-C should work with just about anything. In practice, it’s something of a minefield. Here are some of the mines I’ve stepped on so far.

I set out on this journey trying to make sure that I could charge my Mac at home, at work and on the move. At home and in the office, I want to use an external USB keyboard (a Microsoft Sculpt ergonomic one, which is the best cure for RSI I’ve found so far). At home, I also want to use a 4K external monitor over HDMI. To do this, one needs an adapter.

Apple sells an adapter, the USB-C Digital AV MultiPort Adapter. It has USB-C in one end, HDMI + USB + USB-C charging in the other end, and costs an extortionate £60. There are lots of cheap and less cheap knock-offs of this on Amazon, and I’ve tried a few: From KiWiBiRD, EC-Tech and Anker, as well as Apple’s own. I’ve also tried this in combination with USB-C power bricks from Anker, Choetech and Apple, and the USB-C power cables that came with each of them. And I’ve had to try almost every combination of power brick, cable and adapter to see what works. In some combinations, nothing worked at all. In other combinations, some things worked and some things didn’t.

Some noticeable finds when trying to charge my Mac, type with the external (USB) keyboard, and use (only) an external HDMI monitor:

  • The Apple Adapter has smooth keyboard performance over USB and charges the device, but my monitor, a 4K Samsung LU28D590DS, flickers and drops out badly. I have a suspicion that the monitor is partly at fault here, because I have also tried to use this adapter with an LG 55" 4K TV at the same resolution, and that works perfectly. I’ve tried a number of HDMI cables, so I’m pretty sure that’s not the issue.
  • The EC-Tech one behaves similarly, although the monitor flickers a bit less. Still too much to be useful.
  • The KiWiBiRD actually worked OK for a while, but now doesn’t work at all. It’s quite dodgy, in that the USB-C plug doesn’t actually fit properly in the socket on the MacBook.
  • The Anker adapter charges and has rock-solid HDMI performance, but the keyboard intermittently lags, sometimes very slightly and sometimes really badly.

I’m not an expert, but in practice the problem seems to relate to the USB-C power spec, or rather the fact that the single USB-C port/cable is trying to carry both data and power, and there is some complex switching circuitry that makes sure things don’t get fried. I have a feeling lots of things are getting a little fried all the time.

Right now, I’m using the Anker adapter, with the Apple USB-C charge cable connected to an Anker USB-C power brick (which also usefully has other USB charging ports). Ttk keis lag…. damn, it hppp…. it’s hapenniin agagn. It’s APPENIIN …. tt keyboard knows that I am talking about it and refuses to let me type that it’s lagging. Oh look, here we go, intermittent lagging done.

Argh. I think I might need to buy a new monitor, possibly an LG-27UD88 which has direct USB-C input and a USB hub and only costs £500 and doesn’t need any adapter at all, or another one that works better with the Apple USB-C AV Multiport Adapter.

My friend Alex says he has good experiences with one called WASABI MANGO.



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