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USB-C vs. Thunderbolt 3
While all the ports on Apple’s current line of laptops look identical there are some differences.
Since USB-C is a design standard (think USB-A vs. USB-B), they will accept all the same plugs but will operate differently.
The current MacBook has a single USB-C port that uses the USB 3.1 (Gen1) protocol. It supports charging, video output for both VGA and HDMI and data transfer speeds up to 5Gbps.
The new MacBook Air and all the MacBook Pro models have Thunderbolt 3 ports. Thunderbolt 3 uses the same USB-C connector, so they look the same as the ports on the MacBook, but Thunderbolt 3 is a superset of the USB 3.1 standard and supports data transfer speeds up to 40 Gbps.
Cables and Dongles and Hubs – Oh My!
We know of several people who have opted for the older MacBook Air to avoid the transition to the new USB-C design. That decision will buy you some time, but it seems clear that USB-C will be the standard going forward and most computers sold today have at least one USB-C, so if you don’t have to deal with it now, you will in the future.
Of course, many people use their laptop purely as a laptop. If all you need is power to charge your laptop, no additional equipment is needed. And for all Apple laptops except the MacBook, you’ll still have at least one USB-C port available.
Apple sells a variety of dongles that can help you connect most of your peripherals, but we find them to be expensive for what they provide and, in some cases, won’t do what you want them to do. That said, the Apple connectors are one option and if you are a Mac loyalist and only want their products, it is certainly a choice. For those that use their laptop for both portable and desktop use, here are some suggestions to get you up and running.
A Sample Prior Set-up
For this discussion, we will consider transitioning to a 2017 13” MacBook Pro which has two (2) USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports. Most older Mac had a Mag-Safe connector for power, a dedicated Mini Display Port for the monitor and Two (2) USB-A ports, one of which might be used for an external hard drive for Time Machine and the other left open for other purposes. There is also an Ethernet port and a 3.5mm jack for headphones or external speakers.
Newer Macs usually had a Mag-Safe2 connection for power, two Thunderbolt 2 ports and one USB-A port but everything else was about the same.
Let’s Start with a Hub
Since we know we need to make several different types of connects, we’ll start by adding a dongle or a hub.
Once of the most common dongles is the Apple USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter.
Using a single USB-C port on your laptop, you can connect a USB-C cable to charge your Mac, connect an HDMI cable for an external monitor and have a USB-A port to connect an external hard drive or other USB device. But if you are using this on a current 12” MacBook, you have no other ports available and at $60.00 (from Amazon), we think it is a bit over-priced. In addition, the USB-C port only charges you laptop. When we tried to connect a small USB hub to connect a wired keyboard and mouse, they would not function. Connected individually to the Apple dongle, they worked fine.
Like a dongle, a hub offers adds multiple connection types but often have a greater variety of designs and functions. Hubs tend to fall into one of two major categories. They either have built in USB-C ports that mate directly to the side of your laptop, or they have a short cable with a USB-C plug that can plug into your laptop. Which style you pick is purely a matter of personal choice. We prefer the style with the cable and plug as then tend to be a little smaller so they are easier to transport, and they leave the extra USB-C port exposed when connected to the MacBook Pro. Also, depending on whether you select a hub with one or two USB-C plugs, you may not be able to connect it to another laptop based on its design. Think trying to connect a two-plug hub into a 12” MacBook with a single USB-C port.
Hubs come in an endless variety of styles with a wide variety of connections. Most of the hubs we looked at had slots for SD cards and Micro SD cards. We don’t use a digital camera and rarely need to transfer data to or from an SD card so that was not important to us. Our primary need was a way to charge the laptop, connect our monitor, continue to use our external hard drive for Time machine, which needs a USB-A style connection and have a couple of extra USB-A ports available.
After looking at many of them, we landed on the LENTION USB-C Multi-Port Hub.
This hub has four (4) USB 3.0 ports, a USB-C power delivery port and an HDMI port. In addition to charging the laptop, it powers the USB ports which would handle the mouse and keyboard issue. It connects to the USB-C port on the MacBook Pro from a short cable. It seemed to meet all our needs and at $39.99, was significantly cheaper than the Apple dongle. It’s also available in Silver or Space Gray to match your laptops finish.
With the hub connected we attached the USB-C cable from the Apple power supply and our external hard drive and those two connections were done.
So Much to See – Connecting a Monitor
If you have a newer external monitor, there is a good chance it has a built-in HDMI port. If so, you just need to connect an HDMI cable between your monitor and the HDMI port on the LENTION hub. Our external monitor uses a DVI-I cable as its primary connection so we needed a way to connect it to the HDMI port on the hub.
To convert a male DVI cable to a male HDMI cable we selected the Tripp-Lite 8-inch HDMI-M to DVI-D (F) Cable.
The DVI-I plug fits into a DVI-D socket so we it still fits our cable but can also be used on another monitor if they have the “D” style cable. We also know that Tripp-Lite is a well known brand and worth the few extra pennies compared to some of the other models available.
Another option would be to replace the cable completely with a DVI to HDMI cable.
But we already have more extra cables than we need so we opted for the adapter.
With the monitor connected we are up and running and still have open USB-A ports on the hub to connect other hard drives, a printer or anything else we may need.
Some monitors and projectors only have a VGA connection and use a VGA cable. Since VGA is an analog signal, it needs to be converted to a digital signal to work with an HDMI connection. There are many options available but a simple and inexpensive solution is the Honshen HDMI to VGA 1080P HDMI Male to VGA Female Video Converter.
If you travel a lot and often need to connect your Mac to monitors or projectors of others, it’s hard to know what type of connection they use. Given the reasonable prices, we think it’s a good idea to get both the VGA and DVI adapters and keep them in your travel bag so you are prepared for any type of connection.
Some Extra Items
But there are still some things to consider as you make the transition to the new USB-C technology.
You may recall we previously had some 2.5” HDDs and SSDs that we wanted to use as external drives and recommended the AUKEY USB 3.0 HDD Enclosure.
We love the clean design of the case and the no-tools installation. Thanks to the extra port on our hub, we can continue to use this drive and easily share it with others who may still have the older USB-A connections. But we also want to take advantage of the faster speed of the USB-C standard and fortunately, the folks at AUKEY have an answer with their AUKEY USB-C HDD Enclosure.
This HDD enclose looks identical to the USB 3.0 version but uses the faster USB-C connection style. It has the same no-tools installation. We like the fact that the cable is not integrated into the enclosure, so you can swap out a longer cable if you need it. But we also appreciate that AUKEY included a USB-C cable in the box.
We had an extra 2.5” HDD and SSD and have used the AUKEY USB-C enclosure for both.
In Case You Need to Share
It’s not unusual for us to travel with our laptop and an external hard drive. Depending on the size of the files and the availability of a strong Wi-Fi signal, you still sometimes need a way to manually move files between computers. That left us thinking about the different connections.
USB-C Flash Drives are becoming more popular but what if the other party doesn’t have USB-C? We could use our older USB-A style external drive and take our hub with us but we don’t really need it except for that drive connection. Fortunately, there is a simple and cost-effective solution.
The AUKEY USB-C to USB-A 3.0 cable solves the problem.
By adding this cable to our travel bag, we can take our USB-C external hard drive and just change the cable if we need to connect it to an older style computer. By switching the cables, we still get the benefit of the USB-C connection on our new MacBook Pro but can easily connect to any older style USB connection since USB 3.0 is backward compatible.
Having this cable also allows us to connect our USB-C external drive to our hub if needed.
One More Thing
We’ve taken care of just about everything but there is one more thing we should address.
Currently, Apple still uses USB-A to Lightning connector for iOS devices, which leaves us needing a way to connect our iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to our new laptop. Apple recently announced that it is offering the Lightning tip to third parties so it will be awhile until those become available. Until then, you would need to purchase the Apple OEM cable.
Of course, that leaves you with a cable that is good for only one thing. As an alternative, you can keep using your current USB-A to Lightning cable and use a USB-A to USB-C adapter.
There is certainly no shortage of these adapters available but we like these because they are narrow enough to allow you to use them both at the same time in one side of your laptop. Most of the ones available are too wide to do that.
At less than half the price of the Apple cable, you not only have it for your own Lightning cable but can also use it with many other applications.
The Bottom Line
We have heard from many people that they are concerned about the transition to the newer USB-C platform. As you can see, there are many options to allow you to repurpose your older technology without breaking the bank.
These suggestions do not cover every possible need but just as we have shown inexpensive solutions for some of the most common connection type, know that there are many other adapters, cables, dongles and hubs to meet almost any need.
We also know that some of our suggestions overlap and you may decide, for example, that a single adapter is all you need, instead of a cable. There is no right way to adjust. Do what works for you. The point is, USB-C is nothing to be concerned about as you upgrade to a newer Mac.
Have you made the change to USB-C? How did you manage your transition and what are your favorite connector types? Why not join the conversation and add a comment below.
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