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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  • xchaotic - Monday, April 20, 2015 - link

    They won't let you do that due to planned obscolesnce by both Apple and Intel. 16GB RAM and 1TB SSDs will be the max for quite some time. Reply
  • shompa - Friday, April 24, 2015 - link

    One point about Intel/ARM. Intel Core-M 82mm2 1,3 billion transistors. Cost about 280 dollars + you have to buy Intel motherboard chips. Apple A8X is 132mm2 3 billion transistors. It cost Apple about 20 dollar to manufacture that. (on the market 130mm2 ARM SoCs cost about 50 dollars unsubsidized). When will the techpress and IT experts point this out? How can something that cost Intel 50% less than A8X cost the customer 20times more?

    The Macbook have an insane price but Intel is at least 400 dollar of that problem.

    This is why we need to move away from X86 to ARM. (and Apple will move to ARM because they controll the OS/Hardware = they can add anything they want into the SoC. Huge parts of the A class SoCs are Apple specific stuff like Siris DSP, the visual processor, security enclave/TouchID and so on. About 30% of die area today. Imagine if Microsoft started to do custom ARMs/(or AMD X86) for their Windows. That would add value to the customer and make people buy MSFT hardware because they want to (not because they are forced to, like today with their OS)

    One of the main problem is "capitalism". A good (older) company have 10-12% profit on what they sell. Simple math: 10% on a 500dollar intel is more than 10% on a 25 dollar ARM.

    Intel is however a monopoly today. If I want a fast laptop: They are the only choice. But Intel is doing the same mistake as Sun, IBM, PA-RISC, PPC, DEC-Alpha, MIPS and all other fun CPUs have existed in history. (Because: let me tell you a secret: X86 have never had the fastest/best CPU in history. They had Windows + where cheap/good enough. Thats why Intel almost had no share in the server market. 2005/6 intel slashed Xeon prices to sub 300 dollar = why buy a RISC chip that is twice as fast for 4000 dollars? In under 3 years intel managed to get over 50% of server revenue. Today its about 80%. But its because Intel charges 4000 dollar for their xeons. History is repeating itself)
    Reply
  • ixproval - Monday, April 27, 2015 - link

    Anyone else notice that the article implies a comparison to the current 11" MBA (2015, Broadwell), there are no performance numbers for that model (or the 2015 13" MBA for that matter)? The latest comparisons on the majority of the performance graphs are the early 2014 13" MBA and the mid-2014 rMBP? At first I was wondering about release dates but they were announced at the same event. Did you guys just not have a 2015 11" MBA available for comparison? I apologize if I missed a reason for the omission in the article text. Reply
  • tipoo - Saturday, May 02, 2015 - link

    So the UX305 uses a lower end cheaper Core M, but since it throttles less it ends up performing better than the Macbook...That's a bit disappointing. If they gave it a bit better cooling it would have had the better performing chip all around. Reply
  • HooDude - Sunday, May 03, 2015 - link

    I bought one of these with the 1.1 ghz CPU. The fit and finish of the laptop is great, it's a beautiful device. However, it is terribly slow and the keyboard is awful. It lagged hard when I would try to scroll PDF files in preview, and typing on it was fatiguing to my hands and felt like I was typing on a table top instead of a keyboard. I ended up returning it because of these faults. Reply
  • Agrou - Tuesday, May 05, 2015 - link

    Any news/details about the MVNe controller ? Does anyone knows on what it is based ? I want to run natively a linux distro on my macook air but the SSD is not seen. I want to try to load the controller's driver apple used to integrate on the ship.
    Remark : they also put this controller on the 11 inch model with core i7 I do have APH0128 in OSX HW informations.
    Reply
  • Clorex - Monday, May 11, 2015 - link

    Regarding the display's white point:
    "The goal here is 6504; the MacBook hits 6828, reflecting the fact that it’s just a bit too red and just a bit too light on blue."

    I think it should be the other way round: the display should be bluish with a colour temperature of 6828 K.
    Reply
  • EOL - Monday, May 11, 2015 - link

    About the shallower keyboard: the keyboard MacBook Air (mid-2011, at least) does have a problem that the new butterfly keyboard might solve: key corners can quickly become imprinted onto the screen. This is a slightly annoying when watching videos, as the marks are quite visible, with a black background. Hopefully the new keyboard will prevent keys from damaging the screen, this time. Reply
  • birowsky - Tuesday, May 12, 2015 - link

    can i just buy a force touch trackpad somewhere? i wanna put this beauty in my 15" rMBP Reply
  • AnthLC - Saturday, June 13, 2015 - link

    I think it a great review and very helpful.

    I am planning on buying either this MacBook 12" or HP XPS 13". I do prefer Apple cause will work better together with my iPad and iPhone. Apple do make good solid devices and provide frequent updates. I need something similar in size to my iPad and light.

    My concerns with the MacBook relate to performance, first gen fanless, the one USB-C port and the keyboard. While with the HP by all reports the fan can be irritatingly noisy, lack of HP fixes, updates, device driver issues and priced $100 more then the MacBook.

    I primary use the IPad as my stock home computer and like a lot of people it is all I need. But I have hobby that require a PC application software. I don't have a real preference Mac or PC will do. But windows 8 is a turn off. Luckily for me the software works on both platforms.

    The review has help me realise the performance should be fine to run standard PC applications. The single USB-C port was a concern because the software I plan to use requires a USB dongle.

    But I haves learned there are solutions such as Infiniteusb which will actually overcome the single port problem. (http://getinfiniteusb.com) actually mean one port will probably be better.

    Some people say well you have to carry the dongle, but the thing is if you have the need to plug in accessories well you will be carrying more then just the laptop whether there is one or more ports. Which to my mind makes the whole point mute. The daisy chaining of USB-C is cool too.

    I like the idea of fanless. On the Internet and HP's own website user reviews suggest the HP XPS has some design fault, a noise that can be quiet annoying. I don't believe has been addressed.

    In Australia the base HP XPS is about $100 more then thie base MacBook 12".
    So I plan to get the MacBook 12".

    I was thinking maybe the MacBook Air 13" but when you add on the upgrade to 8gb and 256gb HD equivalent of the base MacBook 12", there only $100 difference. I would rather a a Retina display. I also looked at the old MacBook Pro 13" but same price and I prefer the smaller footprint of the MacBook 12".

    So I thought it may be interesting to post why I decide to buy the MacBook over the HP.

    For me and a lot of people we don't want a high powered laptop with all the bells and whistles. Apple have squarely filled the gap for users like me who primarily use a iPad but have a need for a portable PC.

    I did find it telling that I could buy a 15" laptop from Dell cheaper then their own HP XPS and 15" had better specs. It does suggest this is what people are buying and wanting. I mean a couple of years ago bigger laptops were the expensive ones.

    Lastly there is a premium in price for these small laptops which is to say a opportunity for other manufacturers to come along and deliver similar device at a cheaper price point.
    Reply

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