The dongle game

Tech Life

What follows is an entirely speculative article, based on the assumption that the next generation of MacBook Pros will provide a completely revolutionised port configuration, featuring only four USB-C type ports. I usually wait for actual changes to products to appear before sharing my musings, because I don’t like to — what’s the technical expression? — talk out of my arse. But while I was writing it I thought: “I’m a prospective MacBook Pro buyer and am waiting for this update with trepidation. Maybe in my speculation I’m missing some important solution or alternative point of view.” So I ultimately decided to impose these 2,000 words of speculation on you, dear readers. Perhaps you’ll share my views, or perhaps you’ll offer a different perspective.

 


 

Purchased in 1999, decommissioned sometime in 2003 after it broke for the second time, the blueberry iMac G3 (slot loading) has been my last desktop Mac. Or rather, the last desktop Mac I’ve used as primary work machine. From 2003 on, I’ve switched to laptop Macs as primary workhorses. My first ‘road warrior’ has been a clamshell iBook G3/466 SE (FireWire), followed in mid-2004 by a 12-inch PowerBook G4, followed in mid-2009 by a 15-inch MacBook Pro.

When I went from desktop to laptop, I was mainly following a need: in late 2002 my work started requiring more mobility, so in addition to the iMac G3 I bought the iBook; the iMac remained the home office main machine, while the iBook was the mobile office. Any necessary syncing was carried out across the home network when I’d return in the evening after a day out. When, after the iMac died, I went laptop-only, I also realised the flexibility of such a setup. Yes, initially it was a bit hard going from the iMac’s 15-inch 1024×768 display to the iBook’s 12-inch 800×600 display, but when I upgraded to the 12-inch PowerBook G4 and got an external display, things really got better — desktop setup at home, with a full extended keyboard, a mouse and the external display; and a very compact, lightweight machine when it was time to hit the road.

For my needs, the iBook G3/466 before and the 12-inch PowerBook G4 later on, were excellent portable solutions, powerful enough not to make me miss a standalone desktop Mac. I didn’t expect the little PowerBook G4 to last five full years as my primary Mac, especially in the 2004–2009 period, if you consider the transition to Intel architecture that took place in 2006, quickly making PowerPC Macs less and less relevant. But the MacBook Pro has proven to be an even long-lasting beast, having just surpassed seven years of service.

All the Mac laptops I’ve owned have had an adequate number and variety of ports and connections. The three notable exceptions have been, chronologically, the PowerBook 150, the PowerBook Duo 280c, and the original clamshell iBook G3/300:

  • The PowerBook 150 (1994–1995) only had one serial port and one SCSI port, an audio-out jack and an internal connector for an optional modem card.
  • The PowerBook Duo 280c (1994–1996), like all the other models in the Duo line, only had one serial port, and a Dock connector. But at least the Duo MiniDock was a portable enough accessory, and provided the Duo with a lot of connections.
  • The original clamshell iBook (1999–2000) only had a modem port, an Ethernet port, an audio-out jack, and one USB 1.1 port. At least it could be equipped with an internal AirPort card for wireless capabilities.

The PowerBook 150 was introduced as a low-cost portable solution back then, and that was essentially the reason behind the paucity of ports.

The PowerBook Duo was a more professional machine, and its ingenious concept was to have an ultra-light portable solution when you were out and about, that could become a desktop system through a desktop DuoDock once you got back to your desk at home or at the office.

Macintosh Duo System

The subnotebook form factor of the Duo meant having only the most basic connections (one serial port and an optional modem port), but once the machine was docked, its DuoDock provided quite the assortment of ports (1 ADB port, 2 Serial ports, 1 SCSI port, Video out, Audio in/out, two NuBus slots, and an Ethernet connection on the later DuoDock Plus and DuoDock II models), plus a floppy drive and an additional hard drive.

The original iBook was very much a consumer machine: if you were a professional back then and needed more speed, more ports and more flexibility, the portable pro solution was the PowerBook G3 line, which has seen some of the most expandable Mac laptops ever.

Let’s fast forward a bit and consider what has happened to the available ports on the MacBook Pro, the current professional line of Mac laptops. A peak has perhaps been reached with the late-2011 17-inch MacBook Pro, which offered:

  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • Three USB 2.0 ports
  • One FireWire 800 port
  • One Thunderbolt port
  • Audio line in
  • Audio line out
  • Express/34 slot

After this model, the 17-inch MacBook Pro was discontinued. The remaining 13-inch and 15-inch models, after being redesigned, made thinner and equipped with retina displays, were reduced to these ports:

  • Two Thunderbolt ports
  • Two USB 3 ports
  • One HDMI port
  • Headphone port
  • An SDXC card slot

This port configuration has remained unchanged from 2012 up to now, with the only difference being that now the MacBook Pros have two faster Thunderbolt 2 ports. Do you want to connect the MacBook Pro to an Ethernet network or to FireWire 800 peripherals? You get dongles. You need to connect it to any display that doesn’t have a Thunderbolt or HDMI connector? You get a dongle. Well, technically they’re called adapters, but dongle is a better term to represent their quintessential annoyance as appendages.

Two USB 3 ports and two Thunderbolt 2 ports make for decent expandability, especially with the added bonus of a separate HDMI port for video (but even if you use one of the Thunderbolt ports to connect to an external display, you can still daisy-chain lots of other Thunderbolt peripherals, so you don’t lose anything), and the separate port for power — the MagSafe connector.

The time has come to upgrade my main Mac, and I look forward to the new, redesigned MacBook Pros which are purportedly coming as soon as next month. But I’m also worried by some of the rumoured changes. I can certainly live with the OLED mini-display replacing the Function Key row at the top of the keyboard. But for the sake of argument, let’s say the new MacBook Pros really come with just four USB-C ports — I’ll basically have to get dongles for everything:

  • One for connecting the MacBook Pro to my current external display, which has VGA and DVI connectors;
  • At least two for connecting all the USB 2 and USB 3 peripherals I currently own (external hard drives, CD/DVD burner, keyboards, my iPhones and iPods, several pendrives, CF Card reader, and I’ve surely left something out…);
  • One for connecting to Ethernet networks or other Macs via Ethernet cable;
  • Another one for connecting a couple of FireWire 400 and 800 drives I still have around;
  • Another one for reading SD cards.[1]

Of course I wouldn’t need to carry around all these dongles while I’m out and about, but even in desktop configuration it’s not really an elegant setup. But one dongle I would definitely have to take with me at all times is the USB-C to regular USB — there are simply too many devices that still use the ubiquitous USB 2 or USB 3 connection.

I understand Apple thinking forward, but wouldn’t a MacBook Pro with only 4 USB-C ports be a bit too abrupt a change? I’m certain this would be a major nudge to all companies manufacturing external drives and assorted peripherals to definitely jump on the USB-C bandwagon. But I’m also certain that, like me, there are many users out there who are going to be extremely inconvenienced by having to resort to all kinds of dongles to bear the cost of yet another transition. A transition which seems mostly dictated by design: the next MacBook Pros have to be thinner therefore they have to be equipped with thinner ports.

But why not leave all the thinning experiments to the consumer line of MacBooks, and keep the pro line a little thicker, so that MacBook Pros could have a bigger battery and more varied ports and connections?

I’m afraid that the answer is that the ‘Pro’ moniker is getting increasingly meaningless, and the line between consumer models and professional models increasingly blurred. MacBooks are getting the iPad treatment: a 9.7-inch iPad Pro has a few more features than a 9.7-inch iPad Air 2 and a faster CPU, but the distinction between the two devices isn’t all that marked.

Look, I’m not saying that Apple should keep all kinds of ports available until every associated technology is way past its performance and usefulness. I’m not saying that USB-C is a bad choice per se. It’s a fast and versatile connection. Having the same port on both sides of the machine means, for example, that you’re no longer forced to attach the power cable (or an external display) on the left of the Mac. But unless I also purchase a new display and new peripherals with the USB-C connector — and why should I, given that everything I have now still works just fine? — I’ll have to resort to dongles.

For the way I treat my Macs, I can mitigate the issue. Since I’m planning to keep my 2009 MacBook Pro around as a secondary machine anyway, I could turn it into a permanent desktop solution, and keep the new MacBook Pro in ‘pure’ portable configuration even at home, making space for it on another desk. I’d connect legacy peripherals to the older MacBook Pro, and use Wi-Fi for any data transfer between the two machines. But I guess I’d still have to get a USB-C to regular USB dongle whenever I want to directly access large amounts of data stored on one of my external drives (e.g. media files), or if I want to repurpose one of said drives as a Time Machine backup drive for the new MacBook Pro.

But when I put myself in the shoes of those users who get a new Mac and sell the old one, the port configuration of the new MacBook Pro will likely be a bit of a nuisance. I’m thinking of professionals with a varied range of peripherals, most with connections that are not USB-C — they’ll find themselves deep in the dongle game.[2] If the new MacBook Pros will lack a traditional Thunderbolt port too, these professionals will have to use a dongle even for that — and Thunderbolt is hardly an old or inadequate technology. But hey, they’ll have a thinner laptop, probably 50–80 grams lighter too. Because that’s what ultimately they care about, right?

Sigh.

Looking back at other key moments of ‘port transitions’ in portable pro machines, I’m reminded of smarter configurations like the one found in the PowerBook G3 Bronze Keyboard (‘Lombard’) in 1999: it featured the then-new USB connection along with the older SCSI that was being phased out. The subsequent PowerBook G3 model that came out a year later — the ‘Pismo’ — dropped SCSI in favour of the then-new (and newer than USB) FireWire 400 port.

Provided the rumours about the next MacBook Pro having only four USB-C ports are true, I think Apple is taking too drastic a decision, when probably a machine with, say, two USB-C ports and two regular USB ports would allow for a smoother transition. Unless they plan to throw a couple of dongles in the MacBook Pro box…

Anyway, for the first time in years I’m considering going back to a desktop Mac as my primary work machine.

 


  • 1. Admittedly, I could avoid this by getting a new CF/SD card reader with a USB-C port. ↩︎
  • 2. Not to mention those who use a pro desktop workstation at home, like a Mac Pro or a high-end iMac or even a fully maxed-out Mac mini (all with regular USB and Thunderbolt ports), use a MacBook Pro for working off site, and want to upgrade to the new MacBook Pro. Lots of dongles for them too if they want to share the same drives and peripherals between the two Macs. But I guess this is considered an endangered niche of users now. ↩︎

 

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