USB Type-C: Charging Power, Display, & Data All in One

Another big first for an Apple product is the inclusion of a USB Type-C connector. The connector has been in development by the USB Implementers Forum for some time, and was finalized by the group in August of last year.

The Type-C connector is intended to serve multiple purposes for the USB-IF and device makers such as Apple. Functionally it is the next-generation connector for USB, designed to replace the various sizes of USB Type-A and Type-B connectors that have been with us for nearly 20 years. In updating their connector, the USB-IF has focused on correcting flaws (perceived or otherwise) in their existing connectors while laying down the groundwork for the next 20 years by adding pins and features such as USB Alternate Modes.

But before I get too far ahead of myself, we should probably start with the biggest reasons for Type-C, and it’s only fitting that for a thin & light device like the MacBook these are about going small. The Type-C connector is both smaller than USB 3.0 connectors (even Micro-B) and for the first time in a USB connector it’s symmetrical and reversible. With an end goal of developing an Apple Lightning-like connector (and as Apple likes to remind everyone, they serve on the USB-IF as well), the USB Type-C connector comes on to the market as the universal version of that connector, designed to drive data, power, and even displays.

In conjunction with defining the new connector and cable standards, Type-C also goes hand-in-hand with defining new features, the USB Power Delivery Specification and the USB Alternate Modes specification. Though to be clear these are optional specifications don’t apply to all Type-C devices (the Type-C can be used with even USB 2.0 devices), they do apply to the MacBook, where they drive additional functionality. The Power Delivery specification defines how much greater amounts of power – up to 100W – can be carried over a USB cable, allowing for USB cables to charge tablets, and yes, even laptops as in the case of the MacBook. Meanwhile the Alternate Modes specification defines how other protocols can be carried over the cable in place of some of its USB 3.0 “Superspeed” functionality, the most important of which is DisplayPort video.

All of these features are tapped for the MacBook, and as a result the Type-C port is the do-everything port for the MacBook. It’s through the Type-C port that the MacBook is charged, it’s through the Type-C port that USB devices such as flash drives and Ethernet adapters are attached, and it’s through the Type-C port that DisplayPort video is carried out of the MacBook to external displays.

USB Type-C will be the future of USB, and ultimately we would expect to see all devices replace their Type-A/B connectors with Type-C in the long run. But for the moment the MacBook is among the first devices that features Type-C, which means it’s on the bleeding edge for all the benefits and drawbacks. From a feature standpoint Type-C works well, but until it’s well established there will be confusion over the standard, particularly over the interaction between Type-C and USB 3.1.

USB Standards
Standard Max Speed Alt. Name
USB 2.0 480Mbps High Speed
USB 3.0 5Gbps Superspeed
USB 3.1 Gen 1 5Gbps SuperSpeed
USB 3.1 Gen 2 10Gbps SuperSpeed+

Case in point: as per the USB 3.1 standard, Apple officially classifies the MacBook as a USB 3.1 Gen 1 device. What is USB 3.1 Gen 1? The answer is that it’s really USB 3.0, with the USB 3.1 standard having adopted USB 3.0 and given it a new name. In this case Apple is using Core M’s built-in USB 3.0 controller to drive their Type-C port, and that means it has the same bandwidth capabilities as any other USB 3.0 port, meaning 5Gbps “Superspeed” capabilities. USB 10Gbps “Superspeed+” on the other hand, which is already commonly known as USB 3.1, is actually called USB 3.1 Gen 2, and is just now appearing on the market in other devices. At this time Gen 2 requires separate controllers – no chipset has built-in support – and given the design goals of the MacBook it comes as no surprise that Apple has minimized their use of separate controllers in order to save power and space.


Left-To-Right: USB 2.0 Micro-B, Lightning, USB Type-C, MiniDisplayPort, USB 2.0 Type-A

In any case, while the MacBook doesn’t support 10Gbps USB, it does support all of the other major features, and it is for the most part awesome. Jokes about USB Type-A superposition aside, the Type-C connector is a clear improvement over Type-A for anyone that has ever struggled with getting a device plugged in the first place. Either way is the right way, making it far, far easier to plug in new devices. Meanwhile the new connector is only marginally wider than Apple’s Lightning connector, so while we don’t have a ton of space-constrained devices with Type-C so far other than the MacBook, it’s similarly an improvement over USB 2.0 (and especially USB 3.0) Micro-B. In terms of mechanical design there’s really nothing bad I can say about USB Type-C; in the long run this is a much better connector than Type-A.


Apple's USB Type-C Male To Type-A Female Adapter

Short-term however there are definite teething issues. Primarily due to the fact that almost no peripherals support Type-C yet other than Apple’s included charger, for most anything else you will need to use a Type-A to Type-C adapter, which Apple sells for $20 but does not include with the laptop. The adapter will allow you to plug in typical USB peripherals and even supports USB 3.0/USB 3.1 Gen 1 speeds, but it’s a definite oversight/stinginess on Apple’s part right now to not include it given the lack of compatible peripherals. Longer term this won’t be a problem, SanDisk for example already has a Type-C flash drive on its way, but for the moment MacBook owners will want the adapter.


Sandisk's Forthcoming USB Type-C/Type-A Duo Drive

Moving on, using USB Type-C as the means to charge the MacBook is not unexpected given the standard’s new capabilities. Apple’s included 29W charger can deliver 2A @ 14.5V for devices that comply with the USB power delivery specification, and 2.4A @ 5.2V for older USB battery charging devices (phones, tablets, etc). Conceptually this means that Apple’s power adapters are no longer proprietary, and the MacBook should be able to accept other chargers that deliver the required amount of power while Apple’s charger can charge similar devices.

The catch is that this means Apple has given up their nifty MagSafe technology in the process. Apple’s magnetic connector has already gone through one shrink and would have needed to go through another shrink for the MacBook – and I’m not entirely sure whether Apple could pull it off – so instead we have the non-magnetic USB Type-C connector. Given the safety aspects of MagSafe I’m sad to see it go, as it has likely saved my MacBook Pro once before. Meanwhile in controlled testing I’m finding that the Type-C connector can take quite a force before coming free of the MacBook, which for a USB peripheral is undoubtedly a good thing, but it’s definitely going to be possible to drag a light laptop like the MacBook off of a cable via the Type-C connector. I don’t imagine Apple had too many other choices here, but MagSafe will be missed.

Along with power and data, the Type-C connector also carries video via the DisplayPort signaling standard, and I had a chance to try this out as well. Using one of Google’s USB Type-C to DisplayPort cables, I was able to connect the MacBook to my Sharp PN-K321 32” 4K display with mostly positive results. In Single Stream Transport (SST) mode, which for the Sharp allows up to 4K@30Hz, I had no problem driving the Sharp monitor at various resolutions up to its maximum for that mode. However when switching the monitor over to Multi-Stream Transport (MST) for 4K@60Hz, the MacBook flat out did not detect the monitor.

At this point I have not had a chance to try a 4K@60Hz SST monitor, so I’m unsure whether this is a specific MST incompatibility, cable incompatibility, or if the MacBook doesn’t support 4K@60Hz (Apple for their part does not specify). Given the lack of detection I’m wondering whether Apple only supports up to 2 lanes of DisplayPort (4 are needed for 4K@60Hz), but without further confirmation that’s just a guess. Regardless a low-power device like the MacBook is not a great candidate for driving a 4K@60Hz display, but for the moment we can only confirm the MacBook works with displays up to 4K@30Hz.

Last but certainly not least when it comes to the MacBook’s USB connectivity is the elephant in the room, which is the number of USB ports. As we mentioned in our look at the MacBook’s overall design, the laptop only ships with a single Type-C port, and that’s it. The only other port on the MacBook is a 3.5mm audio jack, which means the sole Type-C port is only the only port for power, for data, and for external displays.

The issue, quite simply put, is that without external adapters you cannot charge the MacBook and use USB peripherals or external display at the same time. Want to install Boot Camp? You’ll need to do so on battery power. An external display? Same story. Apple has slowly whittled down the number of connectors they feature over time – the MacBook Air 11” ships with just 2 USB ports, a Thunderbolt 2 port, and a MagSafe port – but the MacBook is alone in only featuring a single data/display/power port.

Well that isn’t entirely true. Apple does make one other device like that, and that’s their iOS devices. From a physical standpoint I question whether Apple would even be able to attach another Type-C port (likely not without reducing the curve or making the device thicker), but from a design standpoint I get the distinct impression that the use cases Apple is envisioning are very iPad-like, where a device is taken out for the day on battery power, any data connectivity is done over WiFi, and at the end of the day it is brought back home to charge overnight.

Apple has always aimed for the cutting edge in this respect, and while I get where they’re going here, it’s difficult to agree with their design decision. The MacBook is still first and foremost a laptop despite its crossover design, and laptops continue to be used with peripherals. Ethernet adapters, USB flash drives, and mobile devices such as phones and tablets are not going away any time soon, and all of these devices are things you may want to attach to the MacBook, and probably while charging said MacBook too.

The good news is that Apple does sell Type-C multiport adapters that serve as a breakout box for more ports – Type-C for power, USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-A for peripherals, and HDMI 1.4 for video out – but of course this is an additional $79 cost and is one more item to carry around.

Right now I’m of the opinion that Apple should have shipped the MacBook with 2 Type-C ports (and without replacing the 3.5mm audio jack), primarily to allow the device to be charged and used with a peripheral without requiring additional adapters. To be sure the MacBook is easy to get along with most of the time, and in most cases it’s not a problem to stop charging it for a bit to use a peripheral, but we’re not quite at the point where a single port is always going to be sufficient. In the meantime I will also fully admit that there are technical issues with multiple ports – how do you route power and video now that it can come in and out of multiple ports – but these are issues I’m confident Apple could resolve.

Force Touch Trackpad The MacBook’s Retina Display: Pro Quality
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  • lilmoe - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    "I’m going to start where I left off in our introduction, which was the concept of the laptop/tablet crossover. The idea of laptops and tablets crossing over is no longer merely an idea, but now it is reality"

    Yea. Back here, we call those "Netbooks". But "crossover" sounds cooler.
    Reply
  • darwinosx - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    You don't know what a netbook is. They were cheap devices with low quality screens and poor build quality. Try reading the review you are commenting on. Reply
  • lilmoe - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    OK, so it's a better quality netbook. Got it :P Reply
  • vFunct - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    Sorta like how a laptop is a higher quality netbook.

    Or, how a computer is a higher-quality calculator.
    Reply
  • PEJUman - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    Maybe in 2012 laptop is higher quality netbook. I am starting to feel that Anandtech is getting too 'careful' with the OEMs. M9 is bad, call it that. this Macbook fits squarely in the netbook term from functionality standpoint, despite the price premium for the fit and finish. No need to redefine a new 'crossover' term just to keep Apple marketing managers happy.

    Right now, chromebook and other ultraportables (such as this one) with the relatively slow core M are the de-facto sucessor to netbook. Single usb port also a netbook typical compromise. It not convertible nor it has a touchscreen, so.. NETBOOK.

    Tech evolves, therefore performance expectation should evolve with it. the core M is barely faster than a 2012 intel i3-3217U on geekbench. It is the lowest performance tier of Intel big core family.

    Anandtech used to be unbiased, I think they finally started the slow descent towards 'marketing for OEM'. I understand where this is coming from, and I am willing to pay for anandtech subscription if that what it takes to restore the one place a techie can get an unbiased, deep dive into new techs.

    Purch should differentiate Tom's & Anand by using Tom's for their mainstream, 'marketing compatible portal' while turning Anand into a subscription based portal, with reviews selection based on customer votes, each one completely unbiased, purely technical, pull-no-punches style.
    Reply
  • ws3 - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    Something like the transformer book is a modern day netbook: atom processor, $300 price, questionable build quality --- all the traits of a netbook. Reply
  • BittenRottenApple - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    Yet another fine addition to the long list of "Terrible Products Apple Makes to Gouge Money out of People".

    The new MacBook is a testament to Apple's collapsing technical acumen. They eliminate all ports except for one outdated USB port? This craven stupidity should send the last adherents running. But running to what? Windows isn't even a viable option anymore, since it now is the most widespread commercial NSA gathering tool available, closely followed by Android, iOS and OS X.

    It's a sad day for people who need real computers. Jony Ive is a pompous, clueless hack who should be fired for introducing crippling regressions like this one.

    Look at this POS: One USB port, which will require an adapter to do anything. So if you're going to require an adapter anyway, why not make that one port a modern one: Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt can carry USB, video, Ethernet, external storage... ALL AT ONCE. And it can be daisy-chained, which is hugely important when the computer has ONLY ONE PORT. So WTF is Apple doing making its sole port USB?

    And again, are you kidding me? One tiny USB connector? Now every sorry user of this pos has to find a thunderbolt to USB C, a USB C to USB to HDMI, a USB to USB 3.0 period, a USB C to USB connector for apple’s time machine and also manage to don't short circuit all that with the AC/DC to USB C connectors, seriously ? Worth 200$ new pile of hairy connectors for the brand new gold macbook air, and that is called a revolution nowadays? No ********** way, the Dell XPS 13 is way superior, period.

    By the way, they're perpetrating USB Type C connectors. Thunderbolt is a much-needed step to a modern I/O standard. USB is an outdated, abused standard that was designed for keyboards, mice, and modems. It's not suitable for external storage, video, or anything else requiring bulk data transfer with minimal CPU overhead. USB C is a regression, a major step BACKWARD.

    $1599.99----Less than $550.00 worth of hardware = ~$1000 premium to use OS X instead of windows. (Honestly the most expensive component of this computer is probably the screen.)
    Anyone with real work to do will not even be able to buy this thing. My friend’s last Air was neat in that it was small and lasted all day, but it was so under-powered, it was frustrating. I can only imagine how limited this machine will be.

    Who cares about price, weight and size, when this product is crippled by a hopelessly defective design? You can't hook up a power adapter and external storage at the same time. You can't hook up an external display and external storage. Hell, you can't even plug in a thumb drive!

    This product is the most asinine piece of shit Apple has produced, and that includes the (thankfully) short-lived Shuffle that could only be controlled by a gimped Morse code.

    $700 less gets you the new Dell XPS 13 which will eat the Mac's lunch.

    If you need to do a lot of processor intensive work, than you would not even go near this thing. It would be useless to you. If you need to crunch spreadsheets or are heavy in corporate analysis, this computer would also be useless to you.

    This is the kind of computer that Apple sells a lot of. This computer is largely useless for anything other than email and facebook. It cannot store many files, it cannot process much information, and it has one external port. There is nothing wrong with using this computer for casual tasks, but it is CERTAINLY not a productivity machine.

    It is what it is. A status symbol/statement. Or some other statement. A statement that you just bought a $400 netbook with a $900 case so you can show off in front of your hipster friends.

    I hate to stick to Apple only facts here, but Apple said that the Air is 24% thicker than this new Macbook. That does NOT mean that the new Macbook is 24% thinner than the Air, it means that it is ~20% thinner than the Air. They clearly phrased it that way to make it sound more impressive and hence dupe the consumer, aka stupid isheep.

    So, it's an iPad plus with a keyboard and an over expensive dongle so you can do everything a Dell can do, at twice the price while looking posh.
    And here I thought technology was about function over form. I get it, functional art; art I can do things my phone does, but in a space that anyone can see me doing it, stylishly. Crippled and non standard in-house branded "business" software does great, can't do anything really artistic on it except maybe GarageBand or stock filter photo edits to my innumerable selfies, but it's got that partially eaten fruit on the back that screams "money I'm too stupid to keep or invest wisely."

    Take my money!
    I wouldn't hold my breath.

    This is apple's marketing strategy: mind-numbing markup on dirt-cheap, mediocre laptops. They throw together a cheap little laptop, pretty it up with silver or gold paint, and ride the wave of ignorance, outrageous markup, and marketing that they've been using as a business model for many, many years now. The only thing Apple has ever made that's less worthless than all the other crap their conspirators like Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd excrete all day and night by taking advantage of child labour are iOS and OS X which, besides being notoriously crippled and constrained walled gardens, aren’t even worth the hassle unless you also dumped thousands of dollars into other apple products.

    Many apple owners I’ve encountered never stop trying to belittle and demean others because they don’t have a Macbook or an iPhone and then try to act like their overpriced apple products are overall better when they are certainly not, by any standard.

    Luxury cars, while still worthless crash grabs, usually offer some quality and features that are actually somewhat superior to cheaper competing brands and models.
    Macbooks such as this start already expensive as hell with little performance to warrant such outrageous costs. Apple isn’t the luxury car of anything. It’s the luxury car DESIGN with a 4-cylinder under the hood and a tape-deck in the sound system, all with the price tag of "luxury". They sell laptops made cheap in china, using child labour and the same hardware you can find in SO many other laptops, slap their OS on it, put it in a thin case, and then markup the price by 300% to 600%. These are the facts. This laptop in question is nowhere NEAR worth that kind of money. I mean, laptops in general are overpriced, but apple has made their entire business model out of extreme markups backed by clever marketing with little actual technological superiority of any kind. Every single apple product on the market can be outperformed in every way by comparable products. Apple computers can be outperformed by computers that are FAR FAR cheaper while relying on older tech. The only thing that apple has that nobody else does is OSX and iOS, their operating systems. These are mediocre operating systems, but they are literally designed to be limited on anything it determines to be "non-apple hardware". Other operating systems can be installed on just about any computer you can slap together, whereas OSX is specifically and deliberately designed to be non-functional on ANYTHING that isn’t made by apple. It’s nothing but a cash-grab.

    Apple is indeed playing run-of-the-mill capitalism, they try to capitalize on the ignorance of the average consumer with marketing campaigns designed to make you assume you're getting your money's worth.

    There are millions of consumers who are on the fence, who are actually interested in buying something that's worth the money they spend. Those people deserve factual information and do not deserve to be exploited for their ignorance on the topic. So excuse me if I have a problem with it. College students especially, who don’t have a lot to spend in the first place, are being taken advantage of in every area of their life. Buying a computer should be one less area of exploitation. This is why I have a problem with apple and with many other companies and services that attempt to capitalize on ignorance.

    Years down the road when the batteries in this model are dead and you have to keep it plugged in just to use then you'll have no way to plug in a flash drive or an external hard drive. I don't care how sexy it looks: sometimes and more often than not less means a serious lack of functionality.

    We can only hope that consumers send this piece of diabolic garbage to oblivion, as they did the idiotic iPod Shuffle that could only be controlled with Morse code over a proprietary headphone wire.
    Reply
  • Notwist - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    You literally just typed a small novel spewing a bunch of claims without citing anything to support your arguments, or outright fabricating stuff. It's the absolute definition of a poorly written, complete waste of time. Please take your rants elsewhere, Anandtech readers, last I checked, enjoy discussing tech, not spouting conspiracy theories and raving like lunatics. Reply
  • superflex - Thursday, April 16, 2015 - link

    I thought it was quite good.
    You sound like a butthurt iFanboi
    Reply
  • star-affinity - Friday, April 24, 2015 - link

    I thought it was bad and not nuanced at all. Things aren't that black and white. Reality comer in many shades.

    People have the right to have an *informed* opinion. The long post above is unfortunately based mostly on ignorance.
    Reply

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