Enough with Thunderbolt and USB 3.0: I'm ready for USB-C!

USB-C charger
USB-C charger (Image credit: iMore)

The Internet outrage machine has produced much sturm und drang over Apple's the new MacBook and its use of a USB-C connector instead of USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt, as is available on other Mac laptops. I have to say, though: I'm ready for a new peripheral interface.

Most of the anger directed at USB-C on the new MacBook isn't because of any inherent flaw in the technology; it's because of the MacBook's use of a singular connector to attach peripherals and power. The MacBook simply isn't designed to be an externally expandable machine, and if you're considering it as one, you're looking at the wrong computer in Apple's lineup.

USB-C will come to other Macs sooner, rather than later

USB-C will come to other Macs sooner, rather than later, but that doesn't mean Thunderbolt will suddenly vanish, either. Thunderbolt 2 is Apple's highest-speed peripheral interface, and it's particularly useful for pushing vast amounts of data very quickly: It's great if you're sending pixels to a 4K display, for example, or reading and writing data from a multi-drive RAID array; it's even useful in a pinch as a networking interface. Twice as fast as USB-C, too.

But I have a love-hate relationship with Thunderbolt. So versatile. But also very finicky.

I don't know what it is, but I have the worst luck with Thunderbolt cables. I never seem to be able to get ones that fit right. Doesn't matter what Mac I use or what Thunderbolt peripheral I'm using it with, whichever cables I have (and I've tried many different ones) never seem to sit right. If I move my Mac a few millimeters in any direction (it is a laptop, after all), it disconnects. Or on my Mac mini, if I so much as breathe funny on the cable, it stops working.

And I know it's not just me. Google "thunderbolt cable loose" and take a look at the search results. You'll find lots of people talking about it, including many from Apple's own support forums. Something about the design of these cables and ports confounds many of us: We pay a premium to get a premium interface, but it's seemingly hampered by a less-than-premium design.

USB-C's bandwidth maxes out at 10 gigabits per second — half the speed of Thunderbolt 2, but twice the speed of USB 3.0, the primary interface found on all other Macs besides the MacBook. But 10 Gbps is more than enough for most mainstream Mac users, at least right now, and it's the same speed as the original Thunderbolt. If you've ever depended on Thunderbolt in the past, you'll know that it's heaven-sent for moving lots of data: digital video editing, archiving high-res photographs and artwork, multi-track digital audio recording, and more.

Sure, Thunderbolt 2 is on its way out.

On top of that, USB-C connectors are tiny and reversible, just like Lightning connectors for the iPhone and iPad. They fit in your bag more easily, they're simpler to wrap up, and the connector works with older USB devices as well.

And Thunderbolt 2 is on its way out, regardless, because Thunderbolt 3 is phasing in once Apple releases a Mac based on Intel's forthcoming Skylake processor. When Macs appear with USB-C in place of USB 3.0, I'll be happy. I won't be sorry to see USB 3.0 go away in favor of USB-C. It's simply a better way to connect peripherals that will work for a lot more people.

Peter Cohen
  • i have a new macbook and i have zero complaints with USB-C. i have a mac mini as my home theater media center which is plugged directly into my airport time capsule. moving files between the mac mini and macbook over the 802.11ac wifi with a 300mbps pipe is a breeze. i only plug it in to charge it every few days, and the few peripherals i plug into the USB-C port are simply for charging (my fitbit) or maybe pulling in data from a thumb drive. yes i carry a USB-C to USB (female) adapter ($20) with me at all times, but honestly the $80 three port USB-C seems like a waste to me. Not much of a use case in my opinion, since the macbook is truly designed to be a wireless device. just my 2 cents
  • I dont want to have to buy ANY adapters or cable to get basic functionality out of a 2000+ machine. I dont care about a new port if is not backwards compatible with the device i use on a daily basis. 1st the argument to us was to calm down if you don't like just having one connecter get a different macbook.......cool. Now what is it going to be this time when they all follow the way of the macbook? I like change just as much as the next person but i don't like to be inconvenienced then "nickled and dimed" in the process.
  • Now what is it going to be this time when they all follow the way of the macbook?
    The bottom line is that it's not, so you're asking me to care about something that hasn't happened yet.
  • I completely agree on replacing USB 3 with USB-C. I'm guessing ALL the MacBooks (Air and Pros) and the desktop models will get the new USB. Goodbye USB 3. Thats a no brainer. My gripe is the lack of the Mag Safe. As for the single port, I keep thinking that the new Macbook just isn't for hooking up a ton of external devices. Its the so called iPad Pro. I wasn't aware of those problems with Thunderbolt though.
  • USB-C *IS* USB 3. The old USB connector that has been on all desktops and laptops is USB-A, and that is the connector we are losing
  • From the article:
    "USB-C's bandwidth maxes out at 10 gigabits per second — half the speed of Thunderbolt 2, but twice the speed of USB 3.0, the primary interface found on all other Macs besides the MacBook."
    I was referring to its bandwidth.
  • USB-C is just a connector/cable standard, it DOES NOT replace USB 3.0. It uses the same USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 data transfer standards for the data part of its cable. DisplayPort 1.2 is used for the video part and USB Power for the power lines. In fact, on Macbook Retina with USB-C, it uses USB 3.0 (or recently renamed, USB 3.1 Gen1) data transfer standard. It maxes out at 5Gbps, not 10Gbps that Peter wrote. On Google's Pixel laptop with USB-C, they're using USB 3.1 Gen2 data standard, which means it can transfer at 10Gbps.
  • There is no USB A or C or Q. It's USB 3 Type C
  • I agree that USB-C is the "one plug to rule them all" of USB, but it's so close to Thunderbolt (without actually being as good as Thunderbolt) that it seems likely we will be seeing a "USB-C Plus" of some kind soon from Apple, that will *truly* be possible of replacing Thunderbolt.
  • USB-C is a connector/cable standard, it has nothing to do with data transfer speed. It "currently" uses USB3.0/3.1 data transfer protocol for its data lines. If USB standard body comes up with USB 3.2/4.0/x.x data transfer standard that increases the speed to 20Gbps, Apple can upgrade their hardware to support USB 3.2/4.0/x.x on their side and the connector/interface/cable does not have to change. That's why USB-C is the standard for the next decade. Apple just needs to get the USB standard body to increase the speed to 20Gbps sooner, there is no need to come up with a different standard when the proper one is already here.
  • My only issue with that Macbook is the fact that it has only one port. When I saw the final design, I thought they should have put ports on both sides and have the head phone jack moved down a little, where it would have just barely fit on the side. But eh. I ain't a designer. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • Agree. I have no issues with USB-C, just don't want only one port. Make 2-3 ports and it will be fine. Not going to pay $80+ for an adapter for basic functionality.
  • I don't think your problem is with the cables, but with the sockets. In my experience about one out of every 8 or so Macs that I come across has the "wiggly cable" thing in the thunderbolt ports, but for the most part they still work fine. The one's that are wiggly enough to actually fail when the cable moves are much rarer than that however. Personally, I'm staying with Thunderbolt because it just makes sense to have as fast an interface to your desktop drives as is possible. What with the way Apple almost forces users to use external drives for their media because the internal ones on the iMacs so small, having that drive react with the same speed as the internal bus on the iMac is kind of essential IMO.
  • Add also, the fact that they void your warranty if you so much as dare to open your iMac, so forget about swapping the main drive with a larger, faster, cheaper option than what they offer. Sent from the iMore App
  • Indeed. Especially the small iMacs which you simply can't buy with any more than a TB of space. They want everyone to buy stuff from iTunes, yet their entry level computer is incapable of holding the average iTunes user library.
  • I hope that when I make my next planned Macbook Pro purchase in a couple of years I get a nice mix with a couple of USB-C, a couple of USB 3.0, and a single Thunderbolt 3. Probably just a pipe dream though. Apple will likely go all in at once on the change from USB 3.0 to USB-C.
  • Peter, in a few sentences in your article: you're intermixing two different standards (USB 3.0 data transfer standard /USB-C connector standard) as if one is designed to replace the other one. They're not. > USB-C's bandwidth maxes out at 10 gigabits per second > I won't be sorry to see USB 3.0 go away in favor of USB-C. USB-C is a connector/cable standard, it is not solely data transfer standard like USB 3.0. USB-C includes specs on how to transfer data, video, and power through its lines, it is not restricted to any specific versions of the specs. In fact, USB-C includes the USB 3.0/3.1 data transfer protocols for the data stream, DP1.2 for video and up to 100w for power delivery. That is what is so awesome about USB-C, if when USB 4.0 and DP2.0 comes out, you can still reuse USB-C cable to transfer USB 4/DP2 signals as long as the hardware behind the interfaces can support it and if not, it should downgrade to whatever is supported. No, USB-C's data stream speed does not max out at 10Gbps, it is variable. USB-C maxes out at whatever the three intermixing protocols are maxed out at. The data stream inside USB-C on Apple's Retina Macbook is limited to USB 3.0 speed or as they've renamed it to, USB 3.1 Gen1, which maxes out at 5Gbps. On Google's Pixel laptop, the data maxes out at USB 3.1 Gen2, 10Gbps. If and when USB 3.2 or whatever next USB data transfer standard comes out maxes out at 20Gbps, you can reuse the same interface/cable to transfer at 20Gbps. Same for DisplayPort 2.0 for the video lines.
  • Over the next year usb-c will be more common and the transition will be pretty smooth. Many devices and peripherals will come with it and adapters will be much cheaper. This is a good move by Apple. It would have been nice if Apple would have included a 2nd usb-c on the MacBook but I am sure the future MacBook Air and Pro models will have multiple usb-c ports in place of usb 3. Sent from the iMore App
  • I thought wireless was supposed to be the future? So why all the fuss over usb connectors?
  • Well...yeah. Perhaps you're just being the Devil's advocate but, if one is using a Mac with one USB-C port with the power connected...and they need to use an external drive? Ya got a problem. The first question that popped into my head when seeing the new single-ported MacBook was, "Does this mean that this new USB standard is (finally) daisychainable?" I haven't thought to check since but my gut says "no"...which makes ONE port kinda dumb.
  • 1. Even though USB C currently maxes out at 10 GB/s, it has unused pins and is designed to go higher in the future. 2. In the future, you will be able to have a single charger for all you devices (phone, tablet, laptop.) 3, bi-directionality (power/data/video in , power/data/video out) is a big deal.
    In the future, I envision 1-2 USB C for MacBooks, iPhones, iPads and same plus a thunderbolt for MacBook Pros and iMacs. I have the new MacBook and use a dual USB 3/C thumb drive rarely for data transfer. Google cables are much cheaper than Apple's but are in black (Apple engrained the white cable aesthetic in me!)
  • This is a good point that you make. And I see traditional USB, be it 1, 2 or 3, always standing in the way of better bus technologies. When ever something faster comes out, USB hurries up and tries to beat it or match it in speed, thus, perpetuating USB. Another way of saying this is, if Apple is trying to come up with one ubiquitous all encompassing, upgradable, port, then USB is already here trying desperately to be all things to all people. So, why not just make USB the one port for everything? Personally, in case it's not already clear, I would like to see USB go away so that better bus technologies can come along and be more universally excepted. Or at least, have USB stop trying to compete with every single new bus technology that comes out. USB can just be USB, it doesn't have to compete with thunderbolt and etc. It's good for keyboards, mice, thumb drives, but other than that it really needs to just stop trying.
  • I guess the nice way of saying this is, as long as they don't get rid of thunderbolt two on the high-end machines then I'm cool with this. Otherwise, a lot has been invested in thunderbolt two where I work and it better not disappear anytime soon.
    (Or else what? I don't know but I'll think of something.)
  • I would agree, except for two undeniable facts (or questions if you will): (1) how difficult would it have been to include TWO ports so you could easily charge and add data or other peripherals (that's almost criminal); and (2) why is their dongle limited to USB-C pass-through and HDMI? Display Port is the higher standard, and you can go backwards from it to HDMI or VGA, but no way to get high resolution external display from plain jane HDMI.
  • I have a new MacBook and my only complaint with USB-C is the lack of peripherals. Of course, this will change with time, and I'm super excited to see what's coming. I think USB-C is the best thing to happen to computer ports since the original USB connector. Being old enough to remember connecting my 300 baud modem to my TRS-80 with a DB-25 connector, I get excited easily over these things. :)
  • I'm currently using a 2011 Macbook Air and I need to change my computer to a newer one. Going for the new MacBook seems like the right option, the single USB-C port will settle in with me. I'm just skeptical about performance. I still would love an added USB-C port.
  • nah. i wouldn't get over it. If it doesn't fit my current peripherals, devices, or needs I'd just get something else. I have three hard drives, a mouse, a keyboard, a printer that all use usb and need to connect. So that trumps the dogma of having the latest greatest port. I'd rather have an Air personally.
  • Peter, you are the most reasonable person on iMore. We work in similar fields, and all too often I have clients wanting the most portable computer you can find, and then complain that it doesn't have the features of a desktop. That I why more often than not, I tell them to go with the 13" MacBook Pro w Retina - the best compromise between power and portability. I'm looking forward to the day when it also has USB-C.
  • It's called USB 3 Type-C.