Apple is challenging laptop users to adapt to fewer ports with the bold design of its new 12-inch MacBook, which has just one USB 3.1 port and a headphone jack. Apple laid out a similar challenge with its first MacBook Air in early 2008, which had just one USB 2.0 port to connect peripherals and a micro-DVI port to connect monitors.
But the faster USB 3.1 port is significant because it will also be used to recharge the MacBook, as well as to connect to a wider variety of peripherals such as monitors, external storage drives, printers and cameras. The MacBook is one of just a few devices to carry the new USB port.
USB 3.1 can technically transfer data between the host computers and peripherals at maximum speeds of up to 10Gbps (bits per second), which is two times faster than the current USB 3.0. The USB 3.1 port in the new MacBook will initially transfer data at 5Gbps, but expect that number to go up as the technology develops. There’s also excitement around the MacBook’s USB Type-C cable, which is the same on both ends so users can flip cables and not worry about plug orientation.
Apple incorporated one USB 3.1 port ostensibly for lack of space. The MacBook is just 13.1 millimeters thick and its base is dominated by batteries. Apple is clearly looking ahead with USB 3.1, which supports DisplayPort, VGA, HDMI and Ethernet protocols. Here are some things to know about the USB 3.1 port in the 12-inch MacBook, and where it may be headed in the future.
1) USB 3.1 is backward compatible: This means all devices running on USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 will be able to talk with the MacBook port. There are other cables besides Type-C for the MacBook to connect to older USB and micro-USB ports. The MacBook comes with a USB Type-C charging cable, and the others will need to be bought separately.
2) No USB 3.1 peripherals are available yet: USB 3.1 chipsets are still being developed and tested, and it could be months before peripherals start appearing. In tests, USB 3.1 connections aren’t reaching the full throughput of 10Gbps, but speeds will get faster as the controllers and chipsets are refined. For one, don’t expect USB 3.1 flash drives to go on sale in the next couple of years. The lack of peripherals is a problem also faced by Thunderbolt, a faster but more expensive connector technology used in other Macs.
3) Don’t say good-bye to Thunderbolt quite yet: A few years ago, Apple turned to Thunderbolt as its main high-speed connector in Macs, but the arrival of the USB 3.1 port doesn’t mean that protocol will disappear. At the recent Mobile World Congress, USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) officials said that it is possible to carry the Thunderbolt protocol on USB 3.1 copper and optical wires, and Intel hasn’t dismissed that idea either. But there would be a speed compromise, as Thunderbolt runs at 20Gbps.